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Tony Dungy refutes claim that Colts cheated by stealing signals

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, in an attempt to defend Tom Brady’s legacy, NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders accused the Indianapolis Colts of cheating by stealing signals during the Peyton Manning era.

“Those same critics, did they say anything about the wins that the Indianapolis Colts had?” Sanders said. “You want to talk about that too? Because they were getting everybody’s signals. Come on, you don’t walk up to the line and look over here and the man on the sideline giving you the defense that they’ve stolen the plays of. We all knew. L.T. knew. Everybody in the NFL knew. We just didn’t let the fans know. That was real and that was happening in Indy.”

So today on PFT Live, former Colts head coach was asked about those allegations, and he didn’t deny them - he just explained that it’s not actually cheating. Dungy offered a long explanation about how teams have been stealing signals for years and how, if you signal something in, people are going to be able to decipher it and know.

Dungy went back to the 1800s when people were stealing signals in baseball, and then to the beginnings of football when the quarterbacks and linebackers called the plays. When the coaches started calling plays, they had to signal it in - and people were watching. Dungy explained that Chuck Noll was once a messenger guard for Paul Brown in the 50s because Brown didn’t want people stealing the signals. Dungy also explained that in 1991, one of the Chiefs’ players had spent time with the 49ers and knew all their signals for the game (though the Chiefs still lost). He also explained that every scouting report Deion Sanders would have received would have included information about who the live signal-caller was to look to on the sideline to see what plays were coming in. Dungy explained that all of this is the reason colleges have gone to multiple guys pretending to signal things in, as well as the reason the NFL has gone to playcalling on the coach-to-QB (or coach-to-MLB) headset.

“When I was a defensive coordinator we went to wristbands because people steal signals,” Dungy continued, according to Pro Football Talk. “So you have a wristband that says No. 1 is this defense, No. 2 is this defense, you change it and everybody has done that for years and years and years. In our Super Bowl, we scored a touchdown to Reggie Wayne on a blown coverage because one of the Chicago players read the wristband wrong trying to get ahead of us. I’ll give you the opposite side of the coin. We’re playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m the coach of the Indianapolis Colts on a Monday night. Peyton Manning came to me before the game and said, ‘Bruce Arians used to be with us, is now coaching there, I know he’s told them our hand signals. I’m going to get them because I’m going to give a fake run signal and I know they’re going to bite because Bruce has told them our signals.’ And on the first play of the game, he gave a signal to Marvin Harrison, Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh’s corner, thought it was a run play, and it was an 82-yard touchdown.

“That’s all part of the game, but doing it legally and illegally, that’s the difference. I hope Deion is not saying we did something illegally. Of course we got signals when we had an opportunity to do that, and so did Deion.”

It was a very thorough and convincing answer from Dungy, but the question remains: what was different between that and Spygate? The difference was simple: teams had been specifically instructed not to videotape the other team’s signals during the game.

“It wasn’t getting signals, it was the process of videotaping and using electronic equipment during the game,” Dungy explained.

Dungy’s response was far better than Sanders’ initial accusation, because he admitted to stealing signals but explained why that’s no big deal and why that’s not cheating. And he’s absolutely right: the process that both Sanders and Dungy described is definitely not cheating, and it’s something that in fact is very common. Teams are always going to be trying to figure out ways to decipher signals, and those Colts teams are no different. Dungy also had some pretty awesome stories as examples, as both the touchdown against the Bears and touchdown against the Steelers are memorable in their own right, but even more so now with what Dungy said about them.

Maybe there’s something more that Sanders meant, but he sure didn’t clarify that. What he accused the Colts of doing is common and is not cheating. To be honest, it felt just like an attempt to rationalize away the Spygate argument against Brady, so he threw that dart out about the Colts knowing that some people would buy it (because some people will, especially since Patriots fans love believing the idea that the NFL hates them and loves every other team). But unless Sanders is meaning something more than what he initially said, it’s basically a non-story.

Dungy did a pretty good job of refuting it, so now we’ll wait to see when (not if) Sanders decides to try to defend himself. Unless he’s got something more to add to his accusations of the Colts cheating, however, it’s best to assume that he was just referring to this perfectly legal process.