Mixed signals

The raising, or lowering, of expectations ahead of the news is an old political trick that is as right at home here as in the final days of the presidential primaries. It changes the way the facts are both presented and absorbed, a pre-spin spin.

Neither the NFL nor the New England Patriots had anything to do with a single anonymously sourced February story in the Boston Herald that claimed a former Patriots employee had a videotape of the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough on the eve of Super Bowl XXXVI six years ago.

In fact, the Patriots not only denied it but also bristled at the suggestion. But now the Pats and the NFL, both of which would love this all to go away, can thank that story as they whistle by the graveyard.

By Tuesday, after former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell meet face to face, expect the Spygate investigation to be closed. The focus will remain on, of all things, the Patriots being cleared of a wild, flimsy allegation that probably never was true in the first place.

The walkthrough story may lack believability – Walsh turned over no such tape and his attorney told the New York Times he wasn't the Herald's source. It may make little sense – why would someone tape a walkthrough, where the action is so slow even a lowly video guy could decipher the play?

But it certainly packed spin on what otherwise would have been a bleak day for the franchise and the league.

Walsh sent eight tapes to Goodell on Thursday that showed both defensive and offensive signals of opposing coaches in six games from 2000 to 2002. The Patriots had not publicly admitted to recording offensive signals.

Rather than everyone focusing on the physical evidence that confirms the Patriots systematically, purposely and in violation of league rules taped signals – which calls into question the validity of three Super Bowls – the talk was how there wasn't anything about the supposed walk through.

Whether you love or loathe the Patriots, this clearly was a fortuitous event.

Spygate fatigue long ago set in among fans. Thursday's revelations may only confirm what Pats coach Bill Belichick previously admitted to Goodell about recording defensive signals – news that didn't become public until after the season – and what most fans have suspected.

But Thursday's news still was a smoking gun, one that eliminates both the Patriots' plausible deniability and the ability to confuse that owner Robert Kraft clung to at this February's Super Bowl.

The truth is the Patriots enjoyed a strategic, if stolen, advantage as they built an improbable dynasty, and their once-fired coach was reinvented as a football genius. Belichick and his players, unquestionably, were great. But would they have been that great without the video?

It's difficult to comprehend a bigger or more explosive story, no matter how expected, hitting the NFL.

The tapes show the filming of coaches' signals and either the actual ensuing play or the clock (to allow for a match later) for regular-season games in 2000, 2001 and 2002 against Miami, Buffalo, Cleveland and San Diego, plus the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that preceded the Super Bowl against the Rams.

Belichick didn't tape the signals for his health. If he had them, he used them. And they must have provided some kind of an advantage – either during the game or for future ones – or he wouldn't have kept doing it.

One of those games the Patriots taped could include a Nov. 11, 2001, contest against St. Louis, which would have given the Patriots a significant advantage in the Super Bowl three months later. Forget the walkthrough. If it knew the signals, New England wouldn't really need to record the walkthrough.

Coaches often say the game comes down to just five or six of its slightly more than 100 plays. The difference between victory and defeat is so minute that there are no small advantages in the NFL, just advantages. Having an idea of what might be coming for a key play certainly would qualify.

It's why the NFL came down so significantly on the Patriots last September, with major fines and the loss of a first-round draft pick. And that was when the league thought New England was taping only defensive signals, which isn't the case on the tapes.

While "win at all costs" generally is the accepted philosophy in the NFL, and New England surely isn't the only team practicing some kind of subterfuge, the old "everyone else is doing it" defense isn't much of a defense.

Certainly not for an organization run by Kraft, who long has basked in the idea that he does things the right way and all but dared Walsh to present his evidence.

"I'm looking forward to having him speak and hopefully clear this up and completely exonerating us," Kraft said in March.

Forget exoneration. Historically, Thursday will be looked on as the day the nails slammed into the Patriots' public perception coffin, fairly or not, leaving all three Super Bowl victories under a cloud of doubt.

But in the present, there was little talk of that and even less questioning of the NFL for its earlier decision to destroy evidence provided by the Patriots. Instead, the team and league were able to bask in the positive spin of what wasn't proven, not what was.