Cheating Patriots don't deserve the benefit of the doubt

New England's cheating dates back to 1982 and the "Snowplow game."

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Even with the big game over and the NFL season at an end, it's hard to let go of the idea that the Patriots deflated their way to a Super Bowl championship. 

When I was coming up with ideas for my Super Bowl cartoon, my mind ran through the most notorious cheaters in sports history to include. Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong were no brainers, as was Tonya Harding, who plotted with a husband named Gillooly to knock an ice skating rival off the ice. 

But now that I think about it, I missed the cheater most analogous to the Patriots: Ben Johnson.

Johnson of course was the famous Canadian sprinter who broke his own world record in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Summer Olympics, only to have his gold medal and world records striped away after he was caught doping. 

After admitting he lied about using performance-enhancing drugs, Johnson was allowed to return to racing in 1991. He was caught cheating for a second time in 1993, and then again in 1999. Once a cheater, always a cheater, I guess. 

Which brings me to the Patriots. 

It would be one thing if "Deflategate" was the first time Bill Belichick and his cohorts ran afoul of NFL rules, but unfortunately allegations about the Patriots cheating ways have been around a long time. 

I remember back in 2004, when many cried "sour grapes" after Eagles players claimed the Patriots seemed to know the exact plays the team was calling. Those claims lingered from a year earlier, when frustrated Panthers players thought the Patriots taped their practice during Super Bowl week in Houston. 

“There isn’t a day that goes by since 2003 that I haven’t questioned … that there were some things done that might have been beyond the rules that may have given them a three-point advantage,” Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney said on his ESPN 730 radio show in Charlotte.

“This isn’t about deflating balls. . . . It’s an issue of if there is a culture of cheating at the organization that most people look at as the gold standard in this league. Is there a culture of cheating and breaking the rules?"

Fast forward to 2007, when the Patriots were caught with their hands in the "Spygate" cookie jar after being caught videotaping the defensive coaches' signals from the New York Jets. Belichick was fined $500,000, while the team lost $250,000 and its first round draft pick.

In fact, former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh turned over eight tapes of alleged filming, covering six games (including the 2002 AFC Championship Game) going back 20 September 2000. I say “alleged” because Goodell destroyed those tapes, so we’ll never really know what they showed. 

It’s not as if the Patriots cheating ends with “Deflategate” and “Spygate.” What about “Rostergate” (which I just made up), when the Patriots were outed by multiple former players after the 2013 season about how Belichick and the team reports injuries?

There’s also “Illegal-Formationgate," which happened just a week before “Deflategate.” During the 2015 AFC divisional playoff game against the Ravens, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh called out Belichick for the use of plays and formations that fooled the refs and helped the Patriots overcome a 14-point deficit to win. They weren't illegal, but they did go against the spirit of the substitution rule.

“It was clearly deception. That’s why I had to take the penalty, to get their attention so they would understand what was going on because [the Ravens’ defense] didn’t understand what was going on," Harbaugh said.

“That’s why guys were open, because we didn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure that they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

Patriots cheating even predates Belichick, going all the way back to 1982, when head coach Ron Meyer order a snowplow operator to clear off a spot to kick a game-winning field goal. Despite Don Shula’s furious protests, the Patriots snuck out of the "Snowplow Game" with a 3-0 win against the Dolphins. 

I don't know if "Deflategate" will end up living up to the hype. Sunday morning brought conflicting reports about how many of the 11 footballs were significantly deflated (NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reports just one football was two pounds per square inch under, while ESPN's Chris Mortenson reports 11 were). 

Still, when I hear Patriots fans telling me I should give their team the benefit of the doubt and complain the team is innocent until proven guilty, forgive me if my one-word response is, “Why?”