Has Spygate tainted previous Patriots titles?

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The New England Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets' sideline – a violation of NFL rules – in the first half of the first quarter of the first game in this perfect season.

NFL security immediately confiscated the tape of the Jets' defensive signals. The Patriots never viewed, never studied and never benefited from it. While they were strongly punished for the action – a couple of big fines and the loss of a first-round draft pick – one thing Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week about the lasting impact of the scandal is true.

"We all know it had no impact on any game this season," Kraft said Tuesday.

Presuming the Patriots didn't continue to spy – and there is no indication they did – then all talk about asterisks or tainted titles should they defeat the New York Giants on Sunday in Super Bowl XLII is off-base.

It might be a stroke of good luck to their legacy that they were caught early in the season (if it was in October, it would be different), but it's a fact. Logic dictates that all 18 victories this season are clean.

But what Kraft was uninterested in addressing or applying the same standard of logic to was all those victories from prior seasons, including the three Super Bowl titles of the Bill Belichick era.

Unless you're naïve enough to believe the first time Belichick tried this stunt was the one he got caught (not to mention ignore multiple specific charges), the sanctity of past glory has to come into doubt.

"We're here this week celebrating," Kraft said, offering a non-answer to the questions about the previous seasons. "I try to talk about something I know something about."

Here's what we do know about the past: After New England was caught in September, stories emerged of at least four previous spying incidents from seasons past being brought to the league's attention. That likely played a part in commissioner Roger Goddell sending out a summer memo specifically reminding teams of the filming rule.

Included was a reported charge that the Patriots filmed the sideline of the Detroit Lions during a regular-season game in 2006. That begs the common sense question: If Belichick would employ such tactics to beat a pathetic Lions team that finished the season 3-13, then why wouldn't he use it in a Super Bowl?

The Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX and Eagles players have now expressed questions about how that game played out. Cornerback Sheldon Brown specifically wondered if it was just a coincidence that every time the Eagles blitzed Tom Brady on the decisive fourth-quarter drive, New England called the perfect antidote, a screen pass. Or did the Patriots, indeed, know the Eagles' defensive signals?

"I was like, 'Man, I never saw that many screens,' " Brown told the Associated Press. "Something's not right about that."

Said safety Brian Dawkins, "Now there's always going to be questions about the situation; was it great adjustments at halftime or what?"

Pittsburgh's Hines Ward brought up questions about the Patriots' two AFC championship game victories over the Steelers this decade. Others have complained about other games.

The Patriots' players have always insisted that they knew nothing about the filming and that is certainly believable. If Belichick was doing it, there would be no reason for him to have told them.

Understandably, the players resent the implication that any of their Super Bowls are tainted and considering there is no NFL investigation, not to mention the near impossibility of proving a negative, they can only shrug their shoulders in frustration.

One man that would know, Belichick, has said little to nothing about previous seasons.

"That's all been discussed," he said this week, even if it hasn't.

Kraft casually mentioned a New England talking point that there was more to the story than has been reported – the unspecified, muddy-the-water assertion that suggests it was really just the result of a rule misinterpretation not malicious intent.

"I'm not sure all the facts are out on that," Kraft said without giving them.

But if New England isn't willing – or able under NFL authority – to get "all the facts" out, then what are fans operating in the court of public opinion supposed to do? They can only go with what we know.

Besides, are people really to believe New England was willing to accept such a harsh penalty from the league – not to mention the shot at its legacy – if there are facts that somehow support its innocence?

Retroactive questions about unspecified charges are, almost by definition, unfair. Maybe New England did, coincidentally, call the right plays against the Eagles. Maybe this was just a misunderstanding. One thing this season has proven is the Patriots don't need to resort to nefarious means to be historically great.

But the reason the debate has been raised is because of what Belichick did in September. This situation is his creation.

While in New England there is near lock-step, group-think rejecting the notion that anything is amiss, for many fans across the country the debate (and hate) remain.

This is the bed the Patriots made for themselves, these are the doubts, fair or unfair, that will always linger.

Win Sunday and New England should be considered the undisputed, just and worthy Super Bowl champion; for some fans, though, it will be for the first time.