Every NFL team has cheated or been home to cheaters at some point in their history, whether it’s something common like a performance enhancing drug violation, or premeditated, like stealing another team’s signals.
Even going back to the formation of the league, the Green Bay Packers had their charter revoked after just one year in 1921. Why? Chicago owner (and league founder) George Halas complained the Packers founder Curly Lambeau had illegally recruited Notre Dame college football players mid-season to come play for the Packers. At the time, college football was much more serious and tended to have better players than the professional league. This was because football wasn’t considered a desirable career choice for anyone post-college.
Never mind Chicago used college football players, too. Chicago complained, and Green Bay was punished. Thus started the oldest rivalry in the league.
Rumors also abounded about Halas’s own habits – according to the NFL-produced DVD Chicago Bears: The Complete History, Halas was perhaps the most endearing cheater in the league. He put itching powder on the visiting team’s bars of soap, bugged the visitor’s locker room, and trained a dog to run onto the field and stop the game once he’d run out of timeouts. If Halas didn’t like the calls a referee had made, he would make the ref “pick their game salary off the ground a dollar at a time.” Good thing the league goes with direct deposit nowadays.
This is how the two oldest teams in the league began play: by cheating. Perhaps it’s even why they survived while dozens of teams around them – like the Toledo Maroons, the Dayton Triangles, and the Columbus Panhandles – simply became historical footnotes.
There’s just too much that went undocumented before the first Super Bowl in 1967, so let’s stick to the biggest cheating scandals in the Super Bowl era. No, you won’t find Deflategate here. There are simply bigger NFL cheating scandals to highlight, but neither will the Patriots be ignored below. Let’s start counting down.
Not exactly the NFL’s best player ambassador, Lawrence Taylor was declared a sex offender in 2011 after having sex with an underage teen runaway working as a prostitute. While reprehensible, this was after his retirement. In 2003, Taylor revealed a number of illegal tricks he employed during his playing career in the ’80s and ’90s. Taylor hired escorts and sent them to opposing teams’ hotels. Their mission was to tire out the visiting team’s running back. Taylor also admitted he was high on crack cocaine during games, and borrowed urine from teammates in order to pass drug tests. Had he been caught on any of those drug tests, he would have faced serious suspensions. Instead, he stayed on the field, contributed to two Super Bowl wins by the Giants, and retired as one of the most accomplished players in league history. The rest, as they say, is court records. Here’s an NFL highlight reel celebrating him:
A thundering home crowd can create issues in the rhythm of a visiting offense. Split wide, receivers can’t hear the quarterback audible to new plays and linemen can misinterpret the snap count. The wrong routes will be run and players will earn false start penalties.
Those crowds sometimes get an assist, especially in indoor stadiums where the sound can’t escape. In a 2007 Patriots-Colts game, the Indianapolis Colts crowd reverberated and skipped like a malfunctioning PA system when the Patriots were on offense. The Colts refused to explicitly deny an accusation of artificial noise, and one security guard even told reporter Bryan Foley the team regularly piped in crowd noise. Despite several other visiting teams having complained about artificial noise in Indianapolis, CBS claimed the noise-skipping issue was an audio issue on their broadcast – which doesn’t explain the testimony of fans, reporters, and players who heard it live at the game.
Jeremy Green admitted his father, Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, piped crowd noise in when he was coach of the Vikings from 1992-2001. The only team to be punished for it so far is the Atlanta Falcons, who were fined $350,000 and stripped of a fifth-round draft pick for artificial noise in 2013-14. Falcons team president Rich McKay was suspended from the NFL’s competition committee…for three months.
In 2014, retired defensive end Renaldo Wynn recounted to SportsRadio 610 in New Jersey a story about how the Tennessee Titans had beaten the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1999 AFC Championship. The Titans coordinator that year was Gregg Williams, who later coordinated for Washington while Wynn was there. Wynn claimed Williams bragged to him about stealing the Jaguars playbook. The Titans beat the Jaguars 33-14, winning a trip to the Super Bowl.
In 2006, Miami Dolphins players told the Palm Beach Post about a tape they had purchased of New England Patriots audibles and offensive line calls. The league ruled Miami had done nothing wrong a year before the Patriots’ infamous Spygate scandal. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady even defended the Dolphins’ actions. If only they knew how differently the league would address their own Spygate in a year’s time. In 2007, the Patriots would be fined $250,000, Belichick would be fined $500,000, and the team would lose a first-round draft pick for filming an opposing team’s game signals from the sideline instead of the upper half of the stadium, which is legal.
The most egregious Spygate actually occurred in 2010, courtesy of the Denver Broncos, who videotaped a San Francisco 49ers walkthrough. Unlike the more famous Patriots Spygate, where a game was recorded from the wrong section of a stadium, any recording of an opposing team’s practice is strictly forbidden. Don’t worry, if you hate the Patriots, please continue: the guilty parties included Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and director of video operations Steve Scarnecchia. McDaniels’ previous job was as a Patriots offensive coordinator and Steve Scarnecchia was the son of Patriots offensive assistant Dante Scarnecchia.
This wasn’t the first Broncos Spygate, however. Then coach Mike Shanahan admitted in 2002 he had hired a lip reader, supplied him with binoculars, and “with any luck, we have their defensive signals figured out by halftime.” Since watching signals is legal, this was just seen as bad form, and not anything strictly illegal.
Stealing plays and signals isn’t anything new, of course. Even in 1956, the Giants won a game by listening in on Cleveland Browns radio signals as Cleveland coach Paul Brown called plays to QB George Ratterman.
Who do you blame for this? The Chargers famously introduced steroids into the game in 1963, when strength coach Alvin Roy began giving his players Dianabol. Roy would go on to work for the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Raiders, spreading steroids throughout the league.
The 1970s Steelers, who won four Super Bowls, may have done the most to popularize steroids in the league. QB Terry Bradshaw admitted in 2008 he and his Steelers teams relied upon steroids for quicker healing.
When the league began testing for steroids in the late 1980s, the Buffalo Bills had more players suspended than any team. This also preceded a four year stretch where the team made it to four straight Super Bowls, losing each of them.
While the Seattle Seahawks are criticized as the modern harbinger of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) like Human Growth Hormone, they’ve seen seven suspensions (one successfully appealed) in four seasons. The Denver Broncos have led the league with seven suspensions in three seasons.
In 2010, Jets strength coach Sal Alosi tripped Dolphins gunner Nolan Carroll on a punt play. Jets players who were not part of the play formed a tripping wall on the sidelines with Alosi. Kicking plays already injure players at a higher rate than any other type of play, but what makes Alosi’s actions so reprehensible is tripping walls are formed with the deliberate intent of injuring an opposing player. Most cheating is designed to win a game without causing extra physical injury.
Alosi was suspended for 3 games without pay, fined $25,000, and the Jets were fined $100,000 for the incident.
In 2013, on a nationally televised Thanksgiving night game, Baltimore Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones had an open seam up the sideline. It was then Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wandered off the sideline and put a foot in the field of play, almost directly impeding Jones’ path. Jones would return the kick 73 yards before being tackled. The Ravens would end the drive with a field goal. Whether Jones made any adjustments because of Tomlin or was kept from scoring a touchdown on the return is arguable. The Ravens won the game regardless.
Tomlin was fined $100,000 but was not suspended for any games. Had the incident impacted the 2013 playoff race, the Steelers could have been docked 2014 draft picks. The Jets incident with Sal Alosi was premeditated, but Tomlin’s a head coach and held to a higher standard. Which incident was worse, or more dangerous, is up for debate, but neither should have happened.
Don Shula is widely regarded as the greatest coach in NFL history, appearing in six Super Bowls, winning two of them, and coaching the only team to finish an entire season undefeated. Dolphins owner Joe Robbie couldn’t get him from the Colts (then in Baltimore) without tampering. Shula was still the coach of the Colts at the time, and for their act of tampering, the Dolphins had to give the Colts their 1971 first round draft pick. This probably didn’t make the Colts feel any better when the Dolphins finished an undefeated season with a Super Bowl win in 1972.
Teams tamper with other teams’ players all the time, to the point the league now has a one-week “legal” tampering period for free agents. Tampering with another team’s currently contracted head coach is almost unheard of, but the Dolphins got away with it for less than the cost of video-taping a game. The result changed the course of NFL history.
If Jets and Steelers coaches are here for trying to injure other players, then the dirtiest player in decades has to be on here for successfully doing so. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is one of the league’s best players, but he’s been fined or suspended five times for attempting to injure opposing players.
In 2011, he was suspended two games for stomping on Packers guard Evan Dietrick-Smith. In 2012, he kicked Texans QB Matt Schaub in the groin. In 2013, he was fined twice – for a roughing the passer call and a potentially injurious low block. In 2014, he stepped on the injured leg of QB Aaron Rodgers and was suspended a game. The league would retract that suspension on a quickly heard appeal in time for the Lions first playoff game in years.
In 1981, the NFL banned a substance known as Stickum. Wide receivers applied it to their gloves so footballs would stick to their hands. Jerry Rice was drafted by the 49ers in 1985. His 20 year career would be the stuff of legends as Rice set nearly insurmountable receiving records across the board.
In 2015, Rice admitted to using stickum on his gloves. Here’s the video. “I know this might be a little illegal, guys,” he said, “but you put a little spray, a little stickum on them, to make sure that texture is a little sticky.” Despite this, it seems like Rice’s position as the best WR to ever play the game is safe.
During their Super Bowl runs in 1997 and 1998, the Denver Broncos cheated the NFL’s salary cap so badly they were penalized on two separate occasions. QB John Elway and RB Terrell Davis took minuscule cap hits compared to what they were actually paid. To achieve this, they were paid very low salaries during the season, and then compensated off the books after the season concluded. The discrepancy, which the Broncos claimed was an accounting error related to the building of their new stadium, amounted to $29 million.
The league would judge it as a scam that ran 1996-98, but either way, it worked beautifully; the Broncos won two Super Bowls. The league would fine them twice, in 2001 and again in 2004, to the tune of $1.918 million. The Broncos also lost two third round draft picks, one apiece in the 2002 and 2005 drafts.
The 49ers would cheat the cap in 2000 to a less egregious degree, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well. The team went 6-10 that year. $900,000 in fines was levied against the team and front office personnel, and the team lost third- and fifth-round draft picks. Additionally, agents who were party to these deals were required to contribute $350,000 to charity.
Because of these violations, the NFL has expanded potential fines for salary cap violations to $3.5 million, a one-year suspension, and the loss of two first-round draft choices.
Less of an offense, Washington and Dallas violated the spirit of the salary cap during an uncapped year in 2010. Washington was penalized $36 million in cap space, and the Cowboys were penalized $10 million. This cap space was then split up among the league’s 30 other teams over the 2012-13 seasons. Since there’s no exciting video of salary cap discussion, enjoy this highlight reel of the ‘inexpensive’ Terrell Davis.
What does this all mean? Simply the history of the league is built on cheating. Sometimes it’s egregious, and sometimes it’s harmless. Everyone will disagree on what incidents fall into which category. Given franchises are worth billions of dollars and a good season can be the difference of tens of millions in profit, it shouldn’t be surprising cheating is so widespread, especially when it might only cost a few hundred thousand dollars in fines when discovered.