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Patriots started Spygate against the Buccaneers, but couldn't win

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With Deflategate still going on, Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham of ESPN just published a long article on the New England Patriots' history of cheating under Bill Belichick, focusing primarily on the Spygate days. Turns out: the origins of Spygate lie in Tampa, as Belichick starting taping coaches' signals as the Patriots' head coach with a 2000 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Days before the Tampa Bay game, in Belichick's office, Friesz was told that the Patriots had a tape of the Bucs' signals. He was instructed to memorize them, and during the game, to watch Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and tell Weis the defensive play, which Weis would relay over the radio headset system to quarterback Drew Bledsoe. That Sunday against the Bucs, Walsh later told investigators, the Patriots played more no-huddle than usual, forcing Kiffin to signal in plays quickly, allowing Weis sufficient time to relay the information. Years later, some Patriots coaches would point to the score -- a 21-16 Bucs win -- as evidence of Spygate's ineffectiveness. But as Walsh later told investigators, Friesz, who did not respond to messages to comment for this story, told Walsh after the game that the Patriots knew 75 percent of the Bucs' defenses before the snap.

Basically, the Patriots gained a lot of advantages from their taping the Bucs' signals. The Patriots' offense that season was pitiful, ranking 25th in points scored, and yet they didn't particularly struggle against Tampa Bay's dominant defense. Drew Bledsoe didn't throw an interception, and their only turnover came on a Kevin Faulk fumble. Meanwhile, of the 16 points the Patriots scored only three came off a turnover. That's a fairly impressive performance given the quality of Tampa Bay's defense.

Still, the Bucs won that game, so the damage wasn't that bad. A win is a win is a win -- the standings don't care about how close it was or how you came about it. But the context the story places this is in is fascinating: it wasn't just the start of Belichick's cheating, but also the start of the league consistently ignoring it -- something Van Natta and Wickersham imply influenced Roger Goodell's overzealous prosecution of Deflategate. Their reporting once again calls into question every Patriots win prior to 2008.