Spying in Football

The New England Patriots, one of the two or three best teams in the last five years, have been accused of stealing signals from the other team.

The “Game Operations Manual” states 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.” The manual states that “all video shooting locations must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead.” NFL security officials confiscated a camera and videotape from a New England video assistant on the Patriots’ sideline when it was suspected he was recording the Jets’ defensive signals. Taping any signals is prohibited. The toughest part usually is finding evidence to support an allegation.

I remember when the NFL changed the rules to allow a radio link from the quarterback’s helmet to the sidelines. A smart team could not only eavesdrop on the other team, but selectively jam the signal when it would be most critical. The rules said that if one team’s radio link didn’t work, the other team had to turn its off, but that’s a minor consideration if you know it’s coming.

Funny parody.

EDITED TO ADD (9/15): The team and coach both have been fined.

And this is a really good conversation on the topic.

EDITED TO ADD (9/18): Ed Felten comments.

Posted on September 13, 2007 at 7:10 AM45 Comments


Nick September 13, 2007 8:29 AM

I’m actually shocked the Patriots were so bad at spying on opponents. I think it is safe to assume that the other NFL teams doing this do it the logical way with a person sitting in the stands with an effective zoom lens.

Clearly football teams need to devise a way of communicating securely, as hand signals and pieces of plastic covering their mouths isn’t keeping up with video surveillance.

gsmooth89 September 13, 2007 8:45 AM

The rumblings among football folk is Bellick has been doing this since his days in Cleveland. So he must have been doing a good job previous to this incident . Several players say teams designate a person to specifically spy, from the sidelines, on the other coaches. Doesnt it seem weird that I as a player can stand on the sidelines and do the same thing(minus camera). But recording it is wrong? Shouldnt the emphasis be on the other team not to be so open in their signals. You wont need to ban camera if you are not being in the open with your signals.

matt a September 13, 2007 8:57 AM

What’s even dumber is that they were caught filming defensive hand signals. Defense by its nature is reactionary. You can predict what defenses are going to be used based on what formation you decide to use on offense.

There was a story back on 60 mins or 20/20 that showed that all the teams now have the ability to see EVERY play of EVERY game by a team and do analysis on it to determine probabilities. If its 3rd and 8+ yards, defenses do this. 4th and 1, defenses does that.

The risk/reward doesn’t seem very high given you are only assured of playing them 1 more time that year (maybe in the playoffs) and even then if you are able to “decipher” their defensive play calls, you still have to execute your offense to take advantage of it (i.e. players have to catch balls, not fumble, make blocks, etc) and of course, it provides NO advantage to stopping their offense. Compare that against losing your top draft picks for the next couple of seasons and it seems very silly to attempt…

Carlo Graziani September 13, 2007 9:18 AM

Rules regulating videotaping of coaching signals? Regulating the usage of radio links?

How large is the American Football rule book, anyway? It seems one would have to go to law school for three years before daring to play the game with some assurance of not accidentally infringing on some rule.

I suppose that would make it the perfect game for this obsessively legalistic society.

Rich Wilson September 13, 2007 9:24 AM

Are there any similar rules for baseball? It would seem like those hand signals between pitcher and catcher would be ripe for the picking. How long before all member of the same team have helmet radios with encrypted links?

Baron Dave Romm September 13, 2007 9:31 AM

As King Kaufman on salon.com has pointed out, the signals being “stolen” were out in the open. By NFL rules, what the Patriots did would have been perfectly legal if they had bought a seat in the stands and videotaped the Jets bench (and maybe gotten a better view). The Pats broke the rules so need to be slapped on the wrist, but as written the rule doesn’t make much sense from a security standpoint.

greg September 13, 2007 10:01 AM

@Carlo Graziani

Its all part of Great US legal systems “the One lawyer per player” program.

Copyright and patent law is part of the “one lawyer per programmer” program.

Because no matter who losses, lawyers always win.

CGomez September 13, 2007 10:12 AM

Teams have long since abandoned sending in a guard with the play… but it seems to be a good solution.

The NFL, however is a business worth billions of dollars. The owners would rather just complain and sanction someone than worry about security. Heck, if head coaches were really concerned, they’d send in a guard or DB with every play.

But they’re not. They would rather use “technology” (although the rules are peculiar from a security standpoint. The offense can use technology but the defense can’t… chalk that up to owners not wanting to spend the money on it) then a reliable messenger. Let them.

Since football is just a game, I’m not too concerned with the security implications of it. It has very little impact on important parts of life, and I say that as a rabid sports fan.

Paul S September 13, 2007 10:13 AM

OK, I am speaking as someone who is fairly ignorant about football, so correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the signals also “encrypted”?

I seem to remember reading somewhere that in professional baseball when the coach makes hand signals to the batter, he usually makes 4 or 5 different motions, but only one of them is the actual signal, the rest are just to make it harder for the opponent to figure out the signal. And that some hand motions even mean “do the opposite of the sign I did 2 moves prior”.

Is the same thing true in football? I’d love to think that on the coaching staff is a cryptographer who spends as much time trying to decode signals as the other staff spend working on passing, running and conditioning.

PittCaleb September 13, 2007 10:25 AM

Isn’t the simple fact that sports use SIGNALS to communicate reason enough to permit people to try to ‘break’ the code? In baseball teams are claimed to be “stealing signs” – hey, they’re signs. Come up with a new go signal! Use better signals and code and this wouldn’t be a problem.

I have no problem with this in any sport. This is why when coaches talk into their headsets, they often cover their mouths with a piece of paper, so others can neither lip read or use parabolic mics to hear what they’re saying.

To me, it’s all a part of the game. And no, not a Pats fan whatsoever.

MarvinK September 13, 2007 10:25 AM

I don’t really see what is stupid about the rule. I imagine most corporate security policies include language forbidding certain types of activities without approval (port scanning, sniffing, etc.). It doesn’t mean you don’t encrypt sensitive data and close down unused ports and services…

Petréa Mitchell September 13, 2007 10:52 AM

I have a great deal of respect for the NFL, but I have to side with the Patriots on this. If it’s legal to look at the signals with your own eyes and try to work it all out in your head (which it is), it’s silly to say you can’t look at them with a camera.

Mailman September 13, 2007 11:08 AM

The reason why teams use coded signals in the first place is to prevent the opponent team from understanding their meaning. I don’t see what is wrong with trying to figure out the opponent’s signals.
If a team uses a good enough code, spending resources on trying to figure out their code will be too expensive to be worth it.

MarvinK September 13, 2007 11:11 AM

How can you possibly side witht he Patriot!? I can see siding with the idea that you should better disguise (or encrypt) your plays–add additional layers of security. I can see siding with the idea that it is easy to defeat their policy without getting caught (ie: recording from the stands).

I can’t see siding with the Patriots and their careless disregard for existing policy and lack of effort to avoid being caught. They broke the rules–and they did it sloppily.

Harry September 13, 2007 11:54 AM

“all video shooting locations must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead.”

So taping is legit in a dome but not in a stadium?

On the other side of the fence, Gallaudet, the deaf college responsible for the creation of the huddle, doesn’t huddle any more on the (proven reasonable) assumption that other teams won’t bother to get a sign reader to interpret their signals.

I, too, remember when radio signals were allowed. I didn’t think it was a good idea then and I don’t think it is now. It adds another level of complexity and takes sponteneity away from play. And what happens when the radio goes out?

jeff September 13, 2007 11:56 AM

Ponder Point: Was this really about “stealing” signals and fair play or is the rule in place due the the NFL’s draconian “no unauthorized recordings of any part of our games, even our “don’t copy this” notices, ever, or we sue your gonads six ways from Sunday”?

guvn'r September 13, 2007 12:08 PM

@CGomez, “The offense can use technology but the defense can’t… chalk that up to owners not wanting to spend the money on it” No, chalk it up to wanting more scoring rather than less. Fans are excited by touchdowns. They fine-tune the rules to keep the fan experience as marketable as possible.

@Petréa Mitchell, “If it’s legal to look at the signals with your own eyes and try to work it all out in your head (which it is), it’s silly to say you can’t look at them with a camera.” No, that’s like saying if it’s legal to use the leverage of your arm extension to throw the ball with more velocity it’s silly to say you can’t use a slingshot to add even more velocity. The game is contested by human players, banning the use of technology to enhance abilities is not silly at all. A human watching the signals could misperceive them, adding the camera gives a replay capability that reduces human fallibility which is key to competition.

@MarvinK, “and they did it sloppily” Right! And that’s the biggest thing about this, they didn’t even need to do it at all, they really didn’t gain any significant advantage and already had superiority.

Most striking thing about this whole incident is the human factors, the emotions at play in both motivation and reaction. The Pats managed to shoot themself in the groin (too painful to be just the foot) because they couldn’t keep from seeking an illusory advantage. Reading reactions is even more striking, some ESPN chatters sound like Satan himself would provoke less intense antipathy.

In terms of security issues I think it illustrates the magnitude of irrationality of which people are capable – both those responsible and those in the audience.

Chris September 13, 2007 12:15 PM

I wonder if there is a black market for signal tapes? It seams reasonable to me that an individual player who’s career and pay is based on there on field performance would try to gain an edge in any way possible. They already use performance enhancement drugs so why not purchasing team signal video? As a fan going to a game, you are limited to the type of recording equipment, but as an employee of an team, some small camera guy could possess equipment that would allow quality video. That guy sells on a black market of sorts to players of other teams.

Not sure I believe this is the case here, but it is a plausible scenario.

Joseph Adler September 13, 2007 12:22 PM

It is not at all surprising that football teams used a set of signals to communicate, nor that opposing teams tried to read their signals.

There is a long history of sign stealing in baseball. There are several good books on this subject, including “The Hidden Language of Baseball” by Paul Dickson (ISBN 0802777198).

Quercus September 13, 2007 12:23 PM

It’s hard for me to understand what’s wrong about this — a guy writing down the signals is more useful real-time than videotaping (perhaps by carefully reviewing tapes after the game, you could discover signals that weren’t noticed at the time, but comments seem to be about using the info during the game).

I wondered whether the real problem was not the recording but the lenses (similar to a baseball team stealing a catcher’s signals using a guy in the bleachers with binoculars), but it seems that a signal from a football sideline to the middle of the field could be easily seen unaided on the other sideline, so I’m confused.

McGavin September 13, 2007 12:43 PM

These two teams are scheduled to play again this year, so the tape was for preparation for the next game.

Remember that each NFL win is worth millions of dollars to a franchise, so the incentive is there for both the team and the coach to steal signs. Every team does it; the Pats just got caught.

McGavin September 13, 2007 12:50 PM

I played baseball in college, so here is my perspective from that level at least:

I was a catcher, so I was on both ends of sign stealing.

I had to hide my signs to the pitcher from the opposing team. Without runners on base, we used standard signs (1 for fastball, 2 for curve, etc.). This was sufficient for the level I played at. With runners on (especially second), I had to change the signs because the runner on second would ALWAYS try to relay the pitch to the batter.

Now, it was also in my best interest to try and steal the signs from the third base coach so I could know if the runner was stealing or the batter was bunting. I didn’t do this for the team, I did it for my own performance as a catcher. Was I successful? Well, I WAS studying cryptanalysis in college :).

Jojo September 13, 2007 12:59 PM

Isn’t this just simply gathering BUSINESS INTELLIGENCE? Understanding the competition? It’s something every good business does.

nfb September 13, 2007 1:44 PM

For those of you who don’t understand the usefulness of this, here goes. The theory that I have heard by former NFL players is that the video is taken and analyzed offline during the game. Allowing for halftime adjustments for the offense in the second half. Apparently this could be very useful in determining what plays to call in the second half and also would give the QB an advantage when calling an audible at the line of scrimmage.

There isn’t a whole lot of time between plays in the NFL and the halftime break isn’t very long either so they must do whatever they do very fast.

The recordings would be virtually useless for any future games since it is standard procedure to change the signs between games with the same opponent.

Amused September 13, 2007 2:31 PM

Oh, the irony! This community is always rabid about the evil of government snooping on unprotected signals (phone calls, email, etc…). And people here would never blame the victim of unauthorized surveillance in those cases–especially when that surveillance is explicitly forbidden by the applicable laws.

But when it is the NE Patriots, people blame the other team for not protecting their communications; and reject the existing rules as unreasonable. “It’s part of the game.”


bmcmahon September 13, 2007 2:35 PM

Instead of hand signals, the teams ought to use something electronic — say, an array of LEDs — with some trivial level of obfuscation. Then they can nail the opposing team for violating the DMCA when they defeat or circumvent the “safeguard”.

Welcome to Bizarro World.

guvn'r September 13, 2007 3:33 PM

@Joseph Adler, thanks for that link. LMAO at the mix of comments in it, on the one hand Dr Z starts out ripping the Pats, then later he pretty much concedes the biggest result may’ve been fueling paranoia and reaction by the opponents.

The quote from Detroit GM and response from another NFL source seem a pretty good summary of this: “‘You have to wonder how much all this really would help,’ Millen says.”
“‘What it does,’ said our ex-Patriots source, ‘is give the other team extra work, and as I said, that creates a playing field that’s not level for both teams.'”

In other words, hiding the signals creates extra work for the opponent but stealing them doesn’t create any for the Patriots.

Seems like they might’ve hired Bobby Fischer as a consultant…

Hieronymus September 13, 2007 5:16 PM

The criminalization of any sort of eavesdropping is ludicrous. Security is the responsibility of the person who believes they own secure information, not the rest of the world who is expected to subscribe to some sort of nebulous moral code.

What if each second string player were assigned to remember and/or analyze a single signal? That’s like parallel processing and is far more dangerous than video taping for offline analysis.

Matt D. September 13, 2007 6:13 PM

@Amused: The difference in attitude is that I don’t recall being in competition with my government. You’ll notice that when people comment about the exploits of Bletchley Park, they don’t cry foul on the Germans’ behalf.

al-one September 13, 2007 8:16 PM

Why don’t they just use text messages by phone? As far as the cheating goes I assume
there is some advantage in it but it’s not
immediately apparent to me what.

Henning Makholm September 13, 2007 8:19 PM

I’m confused. This is about major matches in one of the USA’s highest-profiled sports, right? Aren’t those things commonly, like, broadcast on television? Live? Even if a coach is banned from having his own camera, what’s to stop him from just tivoing the commercial broadcast instead? Or having a group of loyal supporters doing analysis in the comfort of their couches at home and feeding results to the coach using cellphones?

Lollardfish September 13, 2007 8:55 PM


The idea here is that somehow the cameraman uses the video, analyzes it quickly at halftime, and allows the team to cheat for the second half of the game by knowing what the defense is about to do. If you know whether a blitz is coming or what kind of coverage is being run, it really would be a huge advantage.

Rob Mayfield September 14, 2007 3:41 AM

point of order – “foot”ball? please! compared to the real football (soccer) or aussie rules/afl (footy) or the myriad of other football games where the players actually put their foot on the ball more than a handful of times a game, American “football” is hardly “foot”ball. Even rugby players (no doubt what American football players hope to grow up to be – real men who laugh at padding and helmets) have the decency to call their game “rugby”, even though they actually get foot to ball more often than the average American footballer … 😉

David September 14, 2007 4:15 AM

@Rob… finally someone gets it!! Most of the rugby-derived sports could be called “hand-and-foot ball” Gridiron doesn’t even come close! About the only person actually applying toe to ball is the kicker, and a bunch of those are Aussie ex-AFL palyers anyway!!

CGomez September 14, 2007 7:16 AM

The NFL is a sport… a meaningless business that puts a gme up as a facade to rake in billions of dollars. Their choice to have real security or not has very little impact on any part of life that could be considered important.

Therefore, the NFL has the right to ban anything it wants. And if it can’t enforce it’s own bans, then who cares… it’s just a silly game.

This comes from someone who tunes in most every Sunday… but keeps it in perspective.

Roxanne September 14, 2007 3:29 PM

The tempest seems to stem from the fact that an assistant coach was doing the videotaping from the sidelines. The obvious solution seems to be moving the camera into the stands; you’d probably get a better view from there, anyway. But then we have to eliminate cameras from the stands, and there are lots of guys with expensive season tickets who want to bring their video camera. What’s a league supposed to do?

Sign-stealing is as old as the game. You’re supposed to do it. The other team is supposed to obfuscate their play calling. I don’t know why recording it is any worse than just watching.

What they’re saying happened – and may have affected a Super Bowl or two – is that the assistant coach learned the defensive call for a blitz, which was relayed to Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage, and he then called an audible for a screen pass. I don’t think this is that much different from Payton Manning identifying the defensive scheme from where the players are standing, and doing the same thing. In all cases, you’re going to need a quarterback who can call and execute audibles, and a team that can execute them as well. I suspect that say the Kansas City Chiefs could steal signs all day, and it wouldn’t make any difference, because their personnel couldn’t react in time.

I expect that any day now, we’ll find out that Team X is taking lessons in Navajo, so as to have verbal signals the other team doesn’t understand. 🙂

AC September 16, 2007 4:40 PM


The people who relay defensive signals to the players on the field are rarely, if ever shown on the commercial broadcast.

@OT people

Some historians believe the term ‘football’ is derived from the fact that the sport is played on foot (rather than on horseback).

Jon Sowden September 18, 2007 8:50 PM

oops try again :rolleyes:

” Even rugby players … have the decency to call their game “rugby”

Ahem Point of ordah, m’lud. That should read “rugby union football”

bristar September 20, 2007 4:21 AM

I feel the entire situation is ludicrous and nothing but a set up. I’m a Seahawks fan but feel that New England has always been a dominant team and there are alot of people out there who don’t like that fact and are looking for ways to bring them down. Spying? Perhaps. Cheating?? No.
They completely dominated the Chargers on Sunday night. What were they using then? Satellite photography?

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