Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 - the maximum allowed by NFL rules - and the Patriots penalized $250,000, plus the loss of at least one draft pick, for illegally filming the signals of New York Jets coaches in the season opener, the league announced last night.
"This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field," commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots.
Goodell considered a suspension for Belichick but said the fine and loss of draft choices would have a longer-lasting impact on the franchise.
The Patriots will lose their first-round pick in the 2008 draft if the team makes the playoffs. If the team, which is considered by many the favorite to win the Super Bowl, doesn't make the playoffs, it will forfeit its second- and third-round picks in the 2008 draft.
The NFL has never taken away a first-round pick from a team.
"I accept full responsibility for the actions that led to tonight's ruling," Belichick said in a statement released by the team's public relations department.
"Once again, I apologize to the Kraft family and every person directly or indirectly associated with the New England Patriots for the embarrassment, distraction, and penalty my mistake caused. I also apologize to Patriots fans and would like to thank them for their support during the past few days and throughout my career."
The fine for Belichick is the maximum allowed under the league's constitution.
The details of Belichick's contract and salary are not known, but top coaches in the league are paid in the $5 million-$6 million range.
During the first quarter of the Patriots' 38-14 season-opening victory over the Jets Sunday, Patriots video assistant Matt Estrella was stopped by an NFL security official while filming on the sidelines. NFL security, which was tipped off by the Jets and coach Eric Mangini - a former Patriots assistant - sent the video equipment to league headquarters for inspection.
As part of the league's investigation, Goodell determined the filming of Jets coaches had no impact on the outcome of the game. Goodell also ruled that Robert Kraft and Patriots ownership were unaware of the filming, but determined that penalties should be imposed on the club because "Coach Belichick not only serves as the head coach but also has substantial control over all aspects of New England's football operations. His actions and decisions are properly attributed to the club."
The NFL's rules state that "no video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game" and that all video shooting locations for coaching purposes "must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead."
In a memo to NFL head coaches and general managers on Sept. 6, 2006, NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson wrote: "Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game."
Goodell told the Patriots the league would closely review and monitor the team's coaching video program, effective immediately.
"I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick," Goodell wrote. "I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice, or multiple draft choices, is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension."
As part of trades made in the 2007 draft, the Patriots acquired extra first- and third-round draft choices for 2008. The team, which has built a perennial Super Bowl contender in part through shrewd draft choices, has its own full complement of picks in Rounds 1-7. First-round draft choices are considered one of the most valuable commodities in the NFL.
"We support the commissioner and his findings," a statement from the Jets said last night. "The focus of our organization remains on the upcoming game against Baltimore."
While an NFL team has never been disciplined for violating videotaping procedures, clubs have had to forfeit draft choices in recent years for other transgressions.
In 2001, the Denver Broncos lost a third-round choice and were fined nearly $1 million for violating guidelines under the league's deferred compensation fund over a two-year period, 1998-99. The Pittsburgh Steelers also lost a third-round choice in a similar 2001 ruling, while the San Francisco 49ers surrendered a 2001 fifth-round pick and 2002 third-rounder after it was discovered the team circumvented the salary cap.
"As the commissioner acknowledged, our use of sideline video had no impact on the outcome of last week's game," Belichick's statement continued. "We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress.
"Part of my job as head coach is to ensure that our football operations are conducted in compliance of the league rules and all accepted interpretations of them. My interpretation of a rule in the constitution and bylaws was incorrect.
"With tonight's resolution, I will not be offering any further comments on this matter. We are moving on with our preparations for Sunday's game."
The rule to which he was referring reads: "Any use by any club at any time, from the start to the finish of any game in which such club is a participant, of any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited, including without limitation videotape machines, telephone tapping, or bugging devices, or any other form of electronic devices that might aid a team during the playing of a game." The investigation drew strong reaction across the NFL, with some of the league's stars questioning how long the Patriots might have been illegally filming opponents' signals. Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said there was "a code of honor, a code of ethics in the league; you want to win and you want to do things the right way."
The NFL's rule is in place to prevent teams from gaining a competitive advantage by learning an opponent's signals. One example would be if a videotape of an assistant coach's hand signs were matched with overhead photos of each play that are available to teams during a game, the quarterback might know exactly what to expect from a defense.
In the Patriots' locker room earlier yesterday, players stood behind Belichick. At the same time, they said they wouldn't use the investigation as motivation for Sunday's home opener against the Chargers.
"I love my head coach," fullback Heath Evans said. "Of course, it's kind of like if someone says something about your wife, it's going to tick you off.
"This is a family in this locker room. But that's not the motivation behind it. From my standpoint, if you get focused on details like that, you get sloppy on the details that matter."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.