More Spygate Revelations

Without a doubt, the most popular and controversial article here at NFL Stats was one from last fall titled "Belichick Cheating Evidence?" Since then, there have been more revelations of rule-breaking, including the most recent allegations that the Patriots have been illegally taping signals since the 2000 season. Count me as one guy who is not surprised.

Back on September 15th, shortly after the League blew the whistle on the Patriots' signal taping, I wrote:

If Belichick's Patriots exploited unfair advantages in stealing signs from opposing sidelines we would expect to see some sort of evidence that they won games "beyond their means." By means I am referring to the Patriots' passing and running performance on offense and defense.

By successfully exploiting stolen signs, we might expect the Patriots to choose to use that advantage on critical plays--3rd downs in the 4th quarter for example. These critical plays would heavily "leverage" performance on the field to be converted into wins. In other words, the Patriots would win more games than their on field stats would indicate.

This is exactly what we see in the data. Year-in and year-out, Belichick's Patriots have won about 2 more games than expected given their offensive and defensive efficiencies, including turnovers and penalties. No other modern team has even come close to the Patriots in consistently winning more games than their stats indicate.
My research was based on an explanatory regression model of team wins that considers offensive and defensive passing and running efficiencies, turnovers, and penalties. It was actually conducted before the first revelation of taping at the Jets game, so I was not looking for evidence of cheating.

The model estimated how many wins a team would be expected to have each year based on its on-field abilities. The Patriots had won about 2 more games per year, every year, from 2002-2006 than their on-field performance would statistically indicate. In other words, other teams with similar performance stats win 2 fewer games in a season than Belichick's Patriots did. The graph below illustrates this trend.

I don't claim that the statistical model is perfect, but the odds that one team would over-perform so consistently and so strongly are astronomical. No other team had a pattern remotely like New England's.

My hunch is that not all of the over-performance is due to advantages gained from rule-breaking. I think the Patriots are focused intently on every last detail. Their scouting and research efforts are probably second to none. A team like that would squeeze every last advantage they could from every situation, and the taping was probably part of that larger effort which was partly legal and partly illegal.

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