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Hating the Patriots isn't what it used to be

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ESPN's recent Spygate bombshell sparked debate and opened old wounds fresh. It was necessary and did no one any good.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Among ESPN's accusations that the Patriots went to further lengths to steal sideline signals than previously known, bitter opponents lamented that the Pats' cheating potentially cost them important games. Hines Ward explicitly said so at the time Spygate was still the scandal du jour, of course, but former Eagles, Panthers and Rams chimed in to revive the matter, mad at the Pats' suspicious clairvoyance during their Super Bowl losses.

Fans began having the same arguments they had eight years ago. Here's 376 comments worth of bickering (potentially more now) from one of our comment sections. Most of the discussion centers on whether what the Patriots did constitutes cheating.

Little of it concerned the franchises that were allegedly cheated. The 2002, 2004 and 2005 Super Bowls were all decided by three points. The 2002 AFC Championship game against the Steelers, the game Ward was most upset about, was a one-touchdown margin.

The substance of the Spygate debate is still "what" -- did the Patriots do what they are accused of doing, what did the NFL know and what exactly separates cheating from simple gamesmanship. Still lingering is the more substantial question: Why did it matter?

The report gave fans of those allegedly cheated franchises -- the Steelers, Rams, Panthers and Eagles -- a chance to revisit those disappointments on football's biggest stages, and reflect on how the intervening years and the context of Spygate have shaped their perspective. The hurt still lingers.

* * *

"Watching that game, it's like, 'well, who is this Tom Brady kid?'" Mason Noland says. "Then Bill Belichick is the nobody who was cast off -- he didn't even make the cut in Cleveland -- so why would this team be any good? And now look at them."

Noland is a Steelers fan now living in Raleigh. He remembers the 2002 AFC Championship game well. That Steelers team was as well-rounded as any in the NFL that year, ranked seventh in points scored and third in points allowed during the regular season. The Patriots ranked sixth in both categories -- certainly no slouches, but they also rode most of the game with Drew Bledsoe in place of an injured Brady.

"We were going to win that game," Noland says. "There was no doubt in our minds. ... I think we got cocky as fans, like, 'yeah, we're going to win this game, it's going to be great' and they end up laying a giant egg."

Paul Ackermann's Rams had to face the Patriots two weeks later in the Super Bowl. St. Louis had a juggernaut offense. It was the third year of the Greatest Show on Turf, and to that point the Rams had the fifth-most productive and eighth-highest scoring offense in NFL history. Against the Pats, Mike Martz's vaunted scheme was snuffed out. The Rams made just one trip inside the red zone, though they outgained the Pats 427 to 267, and they only scored 17 points after averaging 31.4 per game in the regular season.

"I expected them to win," Ackermann says. "Oh yeah, I was frustrated when they lost. It was frustrating watching them go through, and then Vinatieri's kick was just a killer ... The three points at the end, it killed you."

Both Ackermann and Noland are convinced that the Patriots would have lost if they hadn't been able to scout their opponents illegally -- among the documents reportedly destroyed in the NFL's investigations were hand-drawn diagrams of the Steelers' signals, and the Patriots allegedly taped the Rams' walk-through ahead of Super Bowl XXXVI.

Throw in the 2004 AFC Championship against the Steelers too, according to Noland, and one can feasibly argue that the Patriots' legacy shouldn't be nearly what it is -- that instead of becoming the NFL's evil empire, they should have been one of several "good" teams that have managed to keep their heads above parity since the turn of the century.

Conversely, one would be within his right to call that sour grapes. The Patriots still had to execute, as Noland points out. A Panthers fan who goes by "Fish" said that he believes the Patriots would have still won Super Bowl XXXVIII even if their practices hadn't been taped, as the ESPN report suggests.

"From the sounds of it, [offensive coordinator Dan] Henning was smart enough to change the playcalls making it easy for the offense to do their job," Fish says. "But [head coach John] Fox being the stubborn ass he was, not to mention [defensive coordinator Jack] Del Rio, who we would later learn isn't the coach everybody thought he was, never changed the playcalls of the defense therefore making it super easy for the Patriots to do their job."

As for the Pats' legacy in an alternate universe where everyone played by the rules, Fish couldn't care much less. He'd likely hate New England in any reality. Only the Yankees rank higher on his list of despised sports teams.

"Fuck New York, Fuck Boston," he says. "This isn't some southern thing, it's a 'fuck those dickless assholes' thing."

The Patriots are Ackermann's most hated team too, and though he won't speak for all Rams fans, he can't think of any who actually like New England -- "It was a very uninspiring Super Bowl between the Seahawks and the Patriots, we'll just say that."

Noland was more generous, slotting the Pats behind the Ravens and roughly even with the Bengals along his spectrum. The reason they hate the Patriots is in part because the Pats win, and in part because they believe New England pushed gamesmanship beyond the point of basic fairness.

"Everybody cheats to some extent," Fish says. "It's like the old NASCAR line, 'Rubbin' is Racing,' where you're doing everything you can for that little bit of an advantage. This is where I draw the line with the Patriots though, because what they did was blatant and were caught."

"[I] would lend myself to believe either everybody does it and they're just really bad at it, or they do it more than everybody else," Ackermann says. "I'm not naive to think that every organization doesn't participate in some kind of competitive advantage, it's just I think the Patriots take it too far."

"It's like the tiny things that gain an edge here and there that make a huge difference it seems like," Noland says. "I don't if it's just [Belichick] being a genius that he can do the small things you don't get caught for 15 years, or he's just a dirt bag."

* * *

Belichick and the Patriots haven't done much to engender goodwill across the league, but again, what's the consequence? The ESPN report was necessary if the additional allegations are true, but the league isn't likely to do anything retroactively, especially if it was complicit in hiding the full body of evidence against the Pats.

It's a mountain of information about a bygone era that's now ... there, inert. The only action it inspires is stale conversation. It's tiresome.

"It seems like Indifference at this point, like, 'yeah, we know they probably cheated, but what can we do about it,'" Noland says. "We can't go back, it's not like we can rewind the DVD and make the ending change."

The Patriots' history of cheating is at best fodder for writers and television folk to toy with, according to Noland. [Author's note: sorry, sorry, sorry]. Patrick Wall at SB Nation's Bleeding Green Nation, put the rebirth of Spygate in sadder terms.

"You know when [your] really old relative with Alzheimer’s asks you how it’s going with that nice girl you’re dating? You know, when you have to say, 'Meemaw, she dumped me three years ago.' It’s kind of like that."

The good news is that, just as there's a blurry line between gamesmanship and cheating, sweet often bleeds into bitter.

"What's done was done and we're many years removed now," Fish says. "I only look back now with fondness at some of the players we had at the time."

Time doesn't necessarily heal wounds. Often we just forget about them for a while.

"The ESPN report said that some players felt -- and still feel -- like they were cheated out of a ring," Wall says. "Andy Reid and Eagles chairman Jeffery Lurie, on the other hand, said they accepted the results of the game.

"In the end, I found it hard to do anything other than shrug and say, 'Yeah, that sounds about right.'"