Questions about New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's sense of fair play were raised well before the NFL started investigating whether the team underinflated footballs used in Sunday's AFC Championship game.
“Over the past decade, the Patriots have been fined for illegally filming their opponents in the infamous "Spygate" scandal and accused of faking injury reports and spying. Two weeks ago, former Miami coach Don Shula referred to his former rival by an unflattering nickname: Beli-cheat.
But is the criticism just a bunch of sore losers upset that they were outfoxed by Belichick's unorthodox, keep-'em'-guessing tactics?
“Is he a cheater? No. Is he a rule-skirter? Is he a loophole-seeker? Absolutely," said Tom Curran, who covers the Patriots for Comcast SportsNet New England.
Here's a look at some of the claims that have been lodged against Belichick through the years:
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The Patriots were caught illegally filming the signals of New York Jets coaches on sidelines of the 2007 season opener in an embarrassing episode that was dubbed Spygate. Belichick was hit with the NFL’s maximum fine -- $500,000 – and the Patriots had to fork over $250,000 and lost their first-round draft pick. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Belichick had been taping rival coaches since 2000 and thought it was legal since he didn’t use the stolen information during the same game. Goodell called it a “calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play.” Belichick said he “accepted full responsibility.”
Two ex-Patriots came forward in March with claims that the team puts out false injury reports. Brandon Spikes told a Buffalo television station that he was put on injury reserve with a supposed knee injury – reportedly because he’d shown up late for practice – even though he wasn’t hurt. And Aqib Talib said he was listed as having a hip injury when he actually had a quadriceps injury. “The Patriots have their way of reporting stuff,” he said.
Former Rams running back Marshall Faulk believes Belichick used espionage to win Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. A decade later, he claimed that the Pats were so well-prepared for brand-new plays the Rams were using that they must have been spying. “I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl,” Faulk said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh cried foul earlier this month, accusing Belichick of using sneaky tactics in forming his line of scrimmage with an ineligible receiver. “It was clearly deception,” Harbaugh said after the Jan. 10 game. The play wasn’t illegal, but it could be outlawed going forward. “"It's not something that anybody has ever done before," Harbaugh said. "The league will look at that type of thing, and I'm sure they'll make some adjustments and things like that."
A Sports Illustrated writer this week suggested — possibly stretching the imagination too far —that Belichick could be getting an edge from a giant TV screen set up in the parking lot, which can be seen from the Patriots’ sideline but not the opposing team’s. That, he wrote, makes it “easier for the Patriots to watch replays and decide whether to throw the challenge flag.”
Of course, the Patriots were accused of not playing fair even before Belichick came on board. A 1982 matchup against the Miami Dolphins lives in infamy, known to all as the "Snow Plow Game." New England won with an assist from the ground crew, which cleared a spot on the snow-covered field from which John Smith kicked the winning field goal. Snow plows were later banned.
Curran said complaints about cheating are largely rooted in the Patriots’ winning record — and the 2007 "Spygate" incident.
“They take on a lot more slings and arrows because of their success,” Curran said.
Other coaches are pushing the same envelopes, but Belichick draws more scrutiny and suspicions because he was caught breaking the rules once, Curran said.
“That’s why it's big deal,” he said of the ball-inflation controversy.
Tracy Connor is a senior writer for NBC News. She started this role in December, 2012. Connor is responsible for reporting and writing breaking news, features and enterprise stories for NBCNews.com. Connor joined NBC News from the New York Daily News, where she was a senior writer covering a broad range of news and supervising the health and immigration beats. Prior to that she was an assistant city editor who oversaw breaking news and the courts and entertainment beats.
Earlier, Connor was a staff writer at the New York Post, United Press International and Brooklyn Paper Publications.
Connor has won numerous awards from journalism organizations including the Deadline Club and the New York Press Club.