PHOENIX – Commissioner Roger Goodell continued his role as the NFL's great communicator and great innovator on Friday. But the issue left lingering from his second State of the NFL address – a 46-minute talk with the media (not including another 30 minutes he spent beforehand with members of the Pro Football Writers of America) – is whether he will someday be forced back into a role as the great investigator.
Two days before the kickoff to Super Bowl XLII, Goodell was peppered with continuing questions about Spygate, the infamous moment when the football-loving world found out that the New England Patriots had cheated by videotaping opponents giving defensive signal in the season opener against the New York Jets.
That issue overwhelmed other interesting topics, such as Goodell's discussion about possibly changing the playoff seeding structure (wild-card teams with better records than division winners could host playoff games so that late-season contests would remain meaningful) or pushing for HGH testing. Of 22 questions Goodell answered, seven had some direct relationship to "Spygate" with an eighth referencing it.
It all left New England owner Bob Kraft, who attended the press conference, a little uncomfortable.
"I have no comment about any of that," Kraft said.
Even though the incident was discovered before the Patriots had even won a game en route to an 18-0 marking heading in the Super Bowl and the fact that Goodell said he doesn't think Spygate will taint what the Patriots have accomplished, the issue will not die. On Friday, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter told the New York Times that he wanted to speak with Goodell about why evidence from the investigation of the Patriots was destroyed.
While Specter's banter might be discounted as political grandstanding with no resolution in store (the tapes are gone, after all), there was potentially more ominous information implied by The Times article. The newspaper spoke with Matt Walsh, a former Patriots employee who worked in the video department. Walsh, an employee of the team until at least January 2002, suggested that he knew damaging information about New England.
"After speaking to my lawyers and whatnot, I can't really talk to you about anything," Walsh told The Times upon being contacted in Hawaii, where he lives and works. "And I can't show you anything. If someone wanted me to talk and tell them things, I would craft an agreement where they would agree from now until the end of my existence to pay for any legal fees that came up in regards to this, whether I'm sued by the Patriots, the [NFL], anybody else.
"If I ever got brought in for a deposition or something, then I would just face the whole gauntlet of questions. There would be things I'd be forced to answer that some people haven't taken responsibility for," Walsh said.
While those statements say nothing of substance, they may be the kind of thing that Goodell and the league need to check out, particularly given Spector's strong interest and fan concern about the integrity of the game.
In short, the debate about whether the Patriots are cheaters will not go away. In part, because the tapes were destroyed (an unfortunate reaction to the Jets-Patriots tape being shown by FOX and Kraft getting angry because of that). Now, with Walsh's innuendo hanging out there, one wonders how Goodell and the league might react. Walsh told the Times that he had been contacted by two other media organizations before he spoke with them.
Essentially, Goodell is in a place precariously similar to what Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig faced as the steroid era exploded into national prominence. Selig chose a painful course by having George Mitchell, a former senator, do an investigation. The Mitchell Report has caused all sorts of negative headlines, although Selig has been resolute in saying it was necessary to clean up the game long term.
For Goodell, the question is whether it's worth the potential pain to find out if one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the game is on the up and up. In the 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers were found guilty of circumventing the salary cap, although that controversy left only a blemish on the five-time champion. However, the situation with the Patriots is because it revolves around events on the field.
In addition to the incident with the Jets, the league confiscated tapes in which the Patriots had recorded opponents late in the 2006 season and extending through the 2007 preseason. There was further evidence of more taping being done and Goodell said Friday that the practice was so well-known around the league that in one instance, an opposing coach who was giving signals sarcastically waved at the camera that was videotaping him.
All of that begs the question about why defensive signals aren't sent into the huddle by some device similar to the coach-to-quarterback radio system.
Of greater significance, the suspicions of cheating extend beyond videotaping. There are those who believe that the Patriots have interfered with the coach-to-quarterback radio of opposing teams and have manipulated their own radio system to give quarterback Tom Brady more information.
As the steward of America's biggest game, lots of people are expecting Goodell to find out. Through his year-and-a-half service in office, Goodell has shown great courage in quickly taking on player conduct to clean up the image of the league. He has also made other innovative moves (the first NFL regular season game in Europe was played in October) to help spur growth of the league.
In many ways, he has already carved out a stronger profile than predecessor Paul Tagliabue, whose failure to deal with player conduct allowed the issue to fester until it became a huge problem.
Now, Goodell faces the lingering questions about the Patriots. How he chooses to move forward will be fascinating.
Sadly, that will be the case regardless of what happens on Sunday.