If Goodell asks tough questions, Spygate could finally die

In the days since former New England Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh emerged from his Maui hideaway and surrendered eight tapes to the NFL, there has been a hasty conclusion that the whole sordid Spygate affair is finally finished -- a judgment reached by some of the media before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has had the chance to depose Walsh by asking some tough, pointed questions.

That's a bad idea. The world of pro football has waited since February for Walsh to step before Goodell -- and hopefully this time the commissioner won't be in a rush to dismiss the possible implications.

Instead, on Tuesday in New York, Goodell should grill Walsh and sort out some still unresolved issues regarding Bill Belichick's now-documented system of cheating, which is clear from Walsh's tapes that go back seven years.

As far as we know, Walsh is the first person currently with no ties to the Patriots organization with direct knowledge of Belichick's videotaping shenanigans who will be answering the commissioner's questions, and Walsh can provide some much-needed context, background and intent.

Intent is critical. Why? Well, when Belichick was first punished by Goodell in September 2007 for illegally taping the defensive signals of the New York Jets at the Meadowlands, the Patriots' head coach said he had no idea he was doing anything illicit.

So, Goodell should pursue a very simple line of questioning to test Belichick's original contention that he was ignorant of the league rules: When Walsh was taping the opponents' sidelines, how much was he told to conceal his activities? What measures were taken to conceal his taping? How concerned were his superiors that what Walsh was doing would be uncovered by a member of the opposing team? Was Walsh worried about getting caught? Why?

What kind of instruction did Walsh get in how to tape the opposition's sideline? Who gave Walsh those instructions? Whom did he report to?

What happened to the tapes? Where did they go? Who analyzed the tapes of the defensive signals? Were there written reports based on the tapes? Who wrote those reports? And, more important, who saw the reports or was told what was in them? Did Tom Brady? Or Charlie Weis, when he was offensive coordinator during the Patriots' run of Super Bowl titles?

What was Walsh told about why this widespread practice of taping the opponents' defensive signals was vital to how the Patriots prepared for an opponent?

These will be difficult questions for Goodell to ask. Why? Because the commissioner has already said publicly many times, dating to September, that he believed the Patriots derived "minimal" benefit from their secret, illegal taping system. Questioning Walsh along those lines may reveal information that contradicts Goodell's earlier conclusions. Nevertheless, Goodell should have the courage to ask them.

Who knows what kind of credibility Walsh will exhibit when he speaks with Goodell -- after all, Walsh was fired by the Patriots for, according to the team, secretly taping telephone conversations.

But Walsh has already provided some valuable context. In September, the Patriots handed over what Goodell described as "six tapes …
from the preseason in 2007 and the rest were primarily late in the 2006 season." Goodell said this at the Super Bowl in Arizona, on Feb. 1, 2008, answering a direct question about how far back the illegal taping went.

Now, it's clear from Walsh's tapes that the illegal taping went back to 2000. When Goodell punished Belichick and the Patriots, did he know the illegal taping went back to 2000? If not, would the punishment have been more severe?

The league clearly wants Walsh's appearance on Tuesday to end the Spygate nightmare. The Patriots certainly do.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick have already apologized both publicly and to their colleagues -- the latter happening at the NFL owners meeting in Florida in March. The affected teams -- the Jets and the Steelers, in particular -- have all moved on, perhaps because there is a well-worn tradition of skirting the rules in pro football.

Goodell has already announced that he will hold a press briefing after his meeting with Walsh. A room at a swanky midtown Manhattan hotel has already been booked. Clearly, the commissioner wants to put a nice, neat bow on the affair after Walsh leaves town.

Walsh's videotapes did not include the so-called smoking gun, proof that the Patriots taped the St. Louis Rams' walk-through the night before the Super Bowl in 2002. Last week, Michael N. Levy, Walsh's attorney, said Walsh never claimed to have such a tape, never was a source of speculation that a tape existed, and was not the source of the Boston Herald story on Feb. 2, 2008 that said the Patriots taped the Rams walk-through.

So, here's another question the commissioner should ask Walsh: Why didn't he come forward weeks and weeks ago and say that he did not have a tape of the Rams' walk-through?

Why did Walsh let his former employer twist in the wind so long?

We probably know the answer to that question.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.