The elephant in the stadium: Spygate's cloud of innuendo still dogs Patriots

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Mike Tomlin calls it the sticky Lombardi because of all the handprints that stick to the trophy after the NFL commissioner awards it to the new Super Bowl champions.

Many believe the three Lombardi Trophies previously won by the New England Patriots remain sticky for other reasons and that perhaps Roger Goodell should have dusted them for fingerprints rather than destroy the evidence of wrongdoing that helped produce that cache.

Spygate, they called it. Coach Bill Belichick's Patriots were caught redhanded in 2007 secretly taping opponents' coaches' hand signals and, presumably, matching them with video cutups of plays in order for New England's defense to know which offensive play was coming.

That violated NFL policy, and Goodell fined Belichick the maximum of $500,000, fined the Patriots $250,000 and docked them a first-round draft choice in 2008. Then the commissioner destroyed the evidence, the tapes that prompted him to levy the punishment. One theory is that those tapes may have provided such clear evidence of cheating that to be made public would be to forever call in question New England's three Super Bowl victories. So Goodell pulled his Rosemary Woods and erased them.

"This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field," Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots explaining his disciplinary action.

The Patriots shrugged that off in 2007 and became the first team to go 16-0 and won two more in the playoffs but were upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

Both teams have returned here for a rematch in XLVI. It's a chance for the Patriots to cleanse themselves, to put a clean Lombardi next to the sticky ones in their trophy case.

The stigma of possibly winning those first three under a cloud of cheating remains. Belichick declined to answer questions about it here, but others have no problem doing so.

"They definitely cheated," said Hines Ward, who will be part of NBC's five-hour pregame show today.

Ward's opinions, like those of most Steelers involved in the 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games, are much stronger because they are convinced the Patriots won both of those games in Heinz Field because they cheated.

They are not the lone voices on the matter, though.

Amani Toomer, a longtime Giants receiver now retired, helped beat the Patriots four years ago in this game. He said this week he would place an asterisk next to the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories.

"I would, I definitely would without question," Toomer said on the "Jim Rome Show." "If you know what their adjustments are and what their signals are and you practice those signals, it's cheating.

"I feel very strongly about it because this game is as much about the level playing field of the NFL, and the league has built up so much goodwill to let everybody know that what you're watching is the real deal. The fact that the Spygate thing goes directly to the core that the NFL is, to me it is a big deal."

It makes this game even that much more important for the Patriots. If they can win one with this cast, essentially not as talented as those who won the other three, then they can at least show that perhaps had they not cheated, had they done things legitimately, they might still have won two or three Super Bowls.

"That's a good point," said linebacker Chad Brown, who joined the Patriots in 2007 when Spygate blew up. "As a former Patriot, I tend to gloss over that, and I don't understand how other fans and players view that. But it's a real thing."

Brown says a Patriots victory today "would remove any tarnish they put on what they had done in the past. This would clean it up and kind of move it out of the discussion, in my mind."

Ward also believes that a New England victory somehow will polish those three previous Lombardis in the Patriots trophy case.

"Yeah," he said after laughing at the question, "they would."

It's no laughing matter to Toomer, even though Spygate had no direct affect on him.

"Tom Brady hasn't won a Super Bowl since Spygate," Toomer told Rome.

"So if they don't win another Super Bowl with Brady, with Belichick, the three Super Bowls that they did win are going to be tainted. It's going to be like Barry Bonds, you're going to look at these three Super Bowls with an asterisk because of Spygate."

Brown said during his brief time with the Patriots, starting in that 2007 season, he did not sense any hanky-panky going on other than they mysterious workings of a mysterious man on the New England staff, Ernie Adams. Belichick and Adams have been friends since prep school, and Adams has been on staffs with Cleveland and New England, although not as a coach. The Patriots list him as director of research, and he is thought to have been a key element in Spygate.

"He plays a very interesting role within that organization," Chad Brown said. "He's not a coach, he doesn't really talk to players, but he talks to Bill after each practice. They walk off the field, and I guess he's able to act as a second mind, a second set of eyes for Bill.

"It's an amazing relationship. Certainly there are times during a game on the sideline, you hear Bill ask for Ernie upstairs: 'Ernie, what do you think?' He consults with him. Their relationship is shrouded in such secrecy. Even as a player on that team, you can't help but go, 'Huh! I wonder what did happen there?'"

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at . Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette .


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