By Ron Borges
After nearly four months of speculation about the videotaping practices of the New England Patriots, former team videographer Matt Walsh came to New York Tuesday and told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell what he already knew.
Goodell said the eight tapes Walsh supplied him and his more than three hours spent answering questions from Goodell convinced him what he believed last September remains the case. The Patriots cheated but not in Super Bowl XXXVI, which was a possibility neither Goodell nor anyone who loves pro football wanted to believe could be true.
Sporting events, unlike politics and big business, are supposed to be on the up and up. Those of us who pay them any attention do so in part because we believe it’s the one place in society where the playing field really is level. It’s a place where the best man or woman wins and so does the best team most of the time (although not in this year’s Super Bowl). So when allegations like those made in the Boston Herald last February that claimed the Patriots had taped a walkthrough before their first Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams were particularly alarming.
Much more so, frankly, than their proven penchant for re-interpreting a very clear ban on filming opposing coaches’ offensive and defensive signals, although in my opinion that was bad enough because it so clearly violated both the letter and the spirit of the ban on such actions. Goodell reiterated after meeting with Walsh in his office in Manhattan that the Patriots were not only guilty of doing that for all of Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England but that they were also guilty of prevaricating when caught.
Following his meeting with Walsh, Goodell met with the media at the Intercontinental Hotel and told them Walsh had told him the Patriots knew the taping of signals was wrong, which contradicts Belichick’s head scratching contention that he’d misinterpreted the rules and believed he wasn’t breaking them as long as he didn’t use the footage during the game in which it as collected.
Surprisingly, Goodell was clear about his thoughts on that when he said, “It was very clearly known, at least by Matt — he believed and stated — that he had to be careful that no one discovered what he was doing. He was cautious about when and how. There were certain places where he didn’t get access, because (opposing teams) weren’t going to let another camera up there.
“They were well aware of the fact that this was something that shouldn’t be done…I think I’m pretty well on the record that I didn’t accept Bill Belichick’s explanation for what happened, and I still don’t to this day.”
Having said that, the larger issue, which the Patriots have always denied, was proven false when Walsh declared to Goodell that he’d never videotaped the Rams’ walkthrough the day before Super Bowl XXXVI and had no knowledge of the existence of such a tape. Had he stopped there it would have been a sweeping victory for the NFL but this story never quite seems to end the way you’d like it to.
As Goodell was getting into his limo for the drive back to his office he remembered a small detail he thought it best for the league to get out before Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, with whom Walsh was scheduled to meet later in the day in Washington, did. He sent back league attorney Gregg Levy to inform the media of what they did not know, which was that Walsh was not only at the Rams’ walkthrough in Patriot gear but later talked to former New England wide receiver coach Brian Daboll about what he saw.
“Walsh was asked during the interview today whether after the walkthrough, anyone asked him about what he had seen,’’ Levy said. “He said, ‘Yes.’ He saw Brian Daboll, who I understand was an assistant coach for the Patriots…and Daboll asked him what he saw. Walsh said two things – one, he had seen Marshall Faulk in a formation to receive a kickoff or a punt, and he had been asked about offensive formations, particularly about the use of the right end.
“My understanding is that it not consistent with what we had learned prior to the interview, during the course of the investigation. At this point, it’s uncorroborated, but it is something the league is going to look into.’’
Why? If the Rams were stupid enough to let a Patriots employee wearing Patriots gear walk around their sidelines during a practice, even a walkthrough, then that’s their problem. No wonder Martz never won a Super Bowl despite having arguably the best offense in football at his disposal for several years after they did win it with Dick Vermeil as head coach and Martz as offensive coordinator.
Any chance Vermeil would have allowed Walsh to walk along the sidelines in Patriot gear while his team was practicing the day before the Super Bowl? Not unless there was no breath left in his body.
If Walsh’s story is true, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise, the league should be investigating whether or not Mike Martz is insane rather than whether or not Walsh did what anybody else working for an opponent would have done in that circumstance – which was tell his team what he saw.
These guys ban media members from everything but stretching for fear secrets will leak out. They send security people into hotel rooms that might overlook a foreign practice field. Then they allow an employee of their opponent to walk the sidelines during a walkthrough the day before the biggest game of the year? Not only does that confirm for me the Patriots’ elaborate taping practices were not widespread, it establishes for me that some of these guys running a football team couldn’t run out for lunch.
Goodell was questioned on his opinion of how wide-spread videotape espionage like the Patriots’ operation was around the league. This was an interesting question because it has been widely argued among Patriot fans that “everybody’s doing it.’’ Not in Goodell’s opinion.
“I think it’s very limited in its practice,’’ Goodell said flatly.
Gladly it was apparently so limited it was non-existent the day before Super Bowl XXXVI.
Let us hope we can now all get back to the real games. The ones we grew up loving. The reason we watch and care, which are the games played not in video rooms and in back offices late at night by the likes of the mysterious Ernie Adams but the ones between the white lines.
The only ones, thankfully, that still count.