NFL's tough position in Spygate 2.0 probe: How can it hit Robert Kraft without triggering a war?

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·NFL columnist
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The NFL has the tape. It has the New England Patriots’ admission of guilt. And it now has a week of deliberate investigation into how deep the latest filming fiasco did or didn’t reach in the franchise.

What it doesn’t have is the one thing that would have made all of this much simpler.

A completely harmless piece of video to set team owner Robert Kraft free.

Instead, what Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer showcased on Sunday’s leaked footage is crystal clear: someone on the Patriots’ payroll filmed the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline as deliberately as possible. The footage pans left to right. It trails player groupings and substitutions. It settles on a wide-angle shot of the sideline, with the Bengals’ coaching staff in full frame.

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Aside from the angle, the footage appears similar to the snippet of clips we saw from the first iteration of Spygate in 2007. That’s a terrible look for New England and Kraft, regardless of the circumstances. Even if it doesn’t bleed nefariously into the coaching or executive branch, there’s no escaping that someone working for the team did the one thing that seemed like it couldn’t happen again with New England.

They taped an NFL team. The team didn’t have knowledge. They got confronted and were eagerly offering to delete the footage.

After seeing the video snippet Sunday, it’s clear the NFL had enough to render punishment days ago. But what has happened since in this investigation is surely figuring out two issues.

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2017, file photo, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, right, talks with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft before the Patriots face the Oakland Raiders in an NFL football game in Mexico City. Pending the completion of police investigations in Florida, and likely a league probe as well, Goodell could punish Kraft for being charged with two counts of soliciting a prostitute. The 77-year-old Kraft was twice videotaped in a sex act at a shopping-center massage parlor in Florida, police said Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL are investigating a videotaping incident involving Robert Kraft's Patriots. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

The NFL’s perils of taking on Patriots and Robert Kraft

The first is the easiest: Precisely how stupid is this infraction?

Is it low-level stupid, with some videographers and producers who didn’t know their boundaries? Or is it high-level stupid, with involvement of the coaching, administrative or executive staff?

The second issue at hand is monumentally more difficult for the league: How hard can the NFL hit Robert Kraft to make a point, but avoid triggering another fistfight with the Patriots?

Many fans and even a swath of people across the NFL hardly care about that second consideration. They want the Patriots hammered because this is the second time this has happened, another example of New England brazenly cheating. The thirst for New England’s demise is real, and long-anticipated by those who have never gotten past the first Spygate incident and every scandal that has occurred since.

But the league office? Well, the continued wrangling with the Patriots makes all of this more complicated. That much became apparent during last week’s owners meetings, when a league source told Yahoo Sports that part of the labored and deliberate nature of the investigation was because it involved Kraft’s team. Again.

The inference by the league source was simple. The NFL has been at odds with Kraft so many times, that anyone can’t levy any kind of findings against his franchise without a boatload of evidence. Between Spygate, Deflategate and Kraft’s recent legal issues, no owner in history has been caught up in the middle of so many things while simultaneously building the greatest dynasty in NFL history. In turn, few team owners have done more to help advance the business success and infrastructure in the league, either.

If you assume that muddles the judicial process, it’s because it likely does. Not to mention the punishment phase. There’s a tightrope the league has to walk here with Kraft because he absolutely will hit back if necessary. Just like he did in Deflategate, when I believe his outward anger with Goodell’s decisions ended up emboldening Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones several years later, when Jones briefly mounted an attack on Goodell’s contract extension in the wake of a spate of negative PR for the NFL.

If the takeaway from Deflategate taught us anything, it was that undermining Kraft’s confidence in the league office is a dangerous proposition. He’s a powerful ally for almost anything Goodell is trying to accomplish, but his mood toward the league office can also be a bellwether for other power brokers like Jones. It’s why whenever there is a deal at hand — whether it’s moving a franchise, passing sweeping rule changes or negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement — Kraft is always one of the three or four franchise owners who others call to start building their consensus.

Now imagine slapping that hand.

What type of punishment will the NFL hand the Patriots?

That’s at least part of why this investigation is entering its second week. The NFL knows it has to do something to the Patriots, but also knows it can’t merely do anything to the Patriots’ owner. Given that there’s at least some chance this was just an idiotic mistake, I could have seen this being a result similar to what happened to the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, when the team was fined $350,000 and lost a fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft for illegally pumping in crowd noise during home games.

By any definition, that was cheating. It was creating an unfair advantage for the Falcons at home games and the league saw it as such. In the history of the NFL, the result was a stiff penalty, largely because it was an orchestrated effort of multiple individuals to create an edge. But applied to this latest Patriots situation, what if the evidence points to New England’s latest taping fiasco being isolated? Then there’s little to justify New England getting a penalty that’s even in the same zip code as what the Falcons incurred. Particularly if the league office is treating the incident as a one-off problem and not an aggregate continuance of the first Spygate case.

That’s where I think the NFL is going to thread the needle here with Kraft. And that’s also why Goodell made it a point to say that he’s considering only this incident’s set of facts, without any weight given to past incidents. It gives the NFL the latitude to pull back on the hammer by boxing the Bengals taping as something compartmentalized. By saying one has nothing to do with the other, even if it’s the same team with the same coach and the same owner, dealing with a tape that shows a lot of the same hallmarks of what got the franchise in trouble 12 years ago.

If Goodell is looking for an out, that’s the play here. Particularly if the investigation can’t produce anything showing this was driven by someone of strategic consequence. From what we’ve seen from the video, this is bad enough that Kraft and the Patriots can’t walk away unscathed. But it’s also limited enough to give the NFL wiggle room, provided the investigation doesn’t turn up some kind of wild scheme.

After Sunday’s tape leak, it’s obvious to almost anyone that isn’t a Patriots fan that some kind of retribution has to take place. Measuring that blow perfectly takes time. And that’s precisely why we’re still waiting.

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