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Tony Dungy on stealing signals: It’s been done legally for years

Tony Dungy shares his opinion on Deion Sanders' accusation of the Colts stealing signals during the time of Spygate.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy says he’s baffled that Deion Sanders would suggest the Colts were doing something wrong by stealing signals during Dungy’s tenure as coach and Peyton Manning’s tenure as quarterback, because Dungy says all 32 teams steal each other’s signals.

Dungy said this morning on PFT Live that stealing signals is a legal and smart tactic in the NFL, and Sanders is wrong to conflate it with Spygate, in which the Patriots broke NFL rules by videotaping opposing teams’ signals from the sideline.

In a long explanation of the history of signal stealing, Dungy said it happens all the time and has for most of NFL history.

“I think we have to go back to what is cheating,” Dungy said. “People accusing us of cheating? I don’t think that’s the case. Stealing signals? You can go back to the 1800s in baseball, you can go anywhere there were signals done, and people were looking and watching and trying to get signals. Back in the early days of football the quarterbacks called the plays and the middle linebackers called the defenses and there was no signaling. When coaches decided they wanted to call plays you had to find ways to get the information in and there were people watching. My coach, Chuck Noll, was a messenger guard for Paul Brown in the ‘50s because Paul Brown didn’t want to have to signal because people are going to watch them. So that’s what happens and it’s been done legally for years.

“I remember in 1991, I was an assistant coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. Steve DeBerg was our quarterback. He had played seven or eight years earlier for the 49ers. We were playing the 49ers and they hadn’t changed their signals at all. Steve DeBerg called every play for us on the defensive sideline because Joe Montana and Bill Walsh hadn’t changed the signals since they’d been there. They beat us 28-14. We knew every play and they beat us. So that’s been part of football.

“Deion, I’m sure on every scouting report that he ever got, the first thing that’s on there on the defensive scouting reports, who is the live signal caller, who signals the personnel groups in. And that’s what happened. And you looked over there because you wanted to know as a defensive player: Is it going to be three wide receivers? Is it going to be two tight ends? Who’s in the game? There’s a person over there signaling and Deion Sanders and every other defensive player would look at the offensive sideline to get that signal. So that is football. And I’m not sure what Deion is referring to, really.”

Dungy pointed out that the NFL now allows the quarterback and a defensive player to wear a headset in their helmets to hear from the coaches, which has changed -- but not eliminated -- signal stealing.

“That’s why you see these college teams now with four and five people signaling, with the posters and the pictures and all these different things because they don’t want people to have their signals. In the NFL, they’ve gotten away from that with the coach to quarterback and coach to middle linebacker communication. But, yes, if you signal, there are going to be people who watch your signals and know what’s going to happen.

“When I was a defensive coordinator we went to wristbands because people steal signals. 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.”

What was different with Spygate is that teams had specifically been instructed not to videotape opposing teams’ signals on the sideline during the game, and the Patriots did it anyway.

“It wasn’t getting signals, it was the process of videotaping and using electronic equipment during the game,” Dungy said of the difference between the Patriots and other teams.

What’s still unclear is why Sanders chose to single out the Colts for blame when, as Dungy says, the Colts did the same thing as everyone else. We’d like to hear Sanders clarify that.