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Friday, May 16, 2008
Super Bowl atmosphere not conducive to walk-through

By Chris Mortensen
ESPN

The Spygate controversy has many tentacles to dissect, but, for the purposes of this body of work and opinion, let's address just one: the walk-through.

Did the New England Patriots have anything to gain by watching the St. Louis Rams conduct a walk-through at the Superdome the day before Super Bowl XXXVI?

Former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh has said he was present when the Rams conducted their walk-through. He said he was standing on the sideline, in his Patriots shirt with his Patriots credentials, along with three or four other team employees.

Based on evidence presented to the NFL, the findings are that the Patriots did not videotape the Rams' walk-through, but former St. Louis coach Mike Martz said Thursday that in his opinion, Walsh's presence was a breach of security.

"I was stunned at Matt Walsh's allegation that he was on the sideline in New England Patriots apparel during our walk-through," Martz said. "I find that insulting, disturbing and a slap in the face to both our team security and NFL security, who both do outstanding jobs. I promise you that if he was on the sideline, he was not in New England Patriots apparel, because he would have been identified."

Well, that's interesting, even though Martz did take the high road in saying that the incident had nothing to do with his heavily favored team's 20-17 loss to the Patriots on Feb. 3, 2002.

Mike Martz
Mike Martz's Rams lost to the Patriots 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI.

It's interesting for a few reasons. For one, if Martz intended to have a meaningful walk-through, he should have had his team's security do a thorough check of the field's surroundings. If Rams security had asked Walsh and his Patriots cronies to depart, they would have departed.

Yet, believe it or not, Walsh's presence didn't violate any rules, even if the Patriots' gang had been asked to leave the building. The league made that point Thursday after conducting a second interview with Brian Daboll, a former Patriots assistant coach who basically denied he had any discussions with Walsh about observations Walsh made during the Rams' walk-through at the Superdome.

Daboll's denial is interesting, too, inasmuch as Sen. Arlen Specter's statement Thursday noted that, "Walsh was asked and told assistant coach Brian Daboll about the walk-through," and Daboll allegedly drew "diagrams of the formations Walsh described."

Daboll could have personal motive to lie, one could suppose, just to protect his own hide and future career in the NFL. Then again, the culpability would have fallen on Bill Belichick, not Daboll, who, by the way, now is a New York Jets quarterback coach. The Jets-Patriots rivarly is not a friendly one, agreed?

Note that this was not the first time Daboll had been interviewed. Commissioner Roger Goodell's staff interviewed more than 50 people during the course of its investigation. Even before this week, the league was aware Walsh was present at the Superdome because, according to a high-ranking league official, "one of the other Patriot employees we interviewed said Walsh made a crack about wishing he had had his camera battery pack," which would have enabled him to videotape the walk-through.

And if you speak with various coaches and executives around the league, if Martz had his Rams do anything significant on that Super Bowl eve in the Superdome, he did so foolishly and at the team's risk.

"Nobody I know that goes on the road has a meaningful walk-through practice in the stadium they're playing in the next day," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's competition committee. "People are working at the stadium, getting ready for the next day, and you expect that those people include members of the video department from both teams. You govern yourself accordingly."

McKay noted that when he was general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl championship team in 2002, Bucs coach Jon Gruden "did not do a walk-through at [San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium]. We went back to the ballroom and had it."

Former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms remembered coach Bill Parcells skipping the Rose Bowl for a walk-through before the Giants beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.

"He wasn't about to do that (conduct a walk-through)," Simms said. "He hated walk-throughs anyway."

Similar sentiments were echoed by others, including Indianapolis Colts president and GM Bill Polian, who has been to four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills and the Colts.

"Anybody who has played in the Super Bowl knows that the atmosphere at the stadium the day before the game is not conducive to a real walk-through," Polian said. "It's such a circus there, so many people milling around, from entertainers, to groundskeepers, to league and even opposing team personnel. It seems like there are 3,000 kids, and they have chaperones.

"The alternative is to do it at your hotel or your secured practice facility. We control who's there, and it's a great time when we invite all the families, who can't be credentialed to get into the stadium the day before the game. So we'll have the families sit in the stands while we do the walk-through. Mom and Dad, Uncle Joe and Aunt Pat, nephews and nieces -- they can all come down to the field when we're done and take pictures. It's a lot of fun, and it's something you couldn't do if you went to the stadium."

Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who won back-to-back Super Bowls, admitted to being paranoid about who was watching his team practice during Super Bowl weeks.

"We hired so many security people in San Diego and Miami [the Super Bowl sites], it completely eliminated any thought I had that someone might be watching practice," he said.

Shanahan is among those who believe the Rams, having played in the Super Bowl against the Tennessee Titans two years before they played the Patriots, should have understood the environment. It's a redundant theme.

"We would never do any real walk-through, nothing to do with the game, because there were too many people at the Super Bowl sites," Shanahan said. "I can't believe there's a coach that would go there on a Saturday with all the people in the stadium and run through their first 15 scripted plays or their defensive calls or whatever. We went to the stadium to get the guys out of the hotel, walk around, jog a little on the playing surface, take a few snaps and do some take-offs as a team, but nothing that had anything to do with the game the next day."

Shanahan said videotaping anyone's practice would be a serious violation of rules and ethics, but he laughed at the idea that a young video assistant such as Walsh could pass along anything useful by simple observation.

"My inclination would be to say that Walsh and others like him would have no idea what they were looking at, even if they attended a full practice," Shanahan said. "If they were filming a practice, that would be one thing. But there isn't a thing they could tell a coach that I would trust or consider useful."

While Specter's involvement has produced some fruit, there are some arguably naive findings in his report, such as Walsh observing that Marshall Faulk lined up as a kick returner in the walk-through and "running backs lining up in the flat." Specter tied that to the late renowned author David Halberstam's very good book, "The Education of a Coach", which "documents the way Belichick spent the week before the Super Bowl obsessing about where the Rams would line up Faulk."

Duh. Who didn't obsess about Faulk's versatility when they played the Rams during those seasons? Martz was brilliant in his use of Faulk, who was equally brilliant in executing all assigned tasks. Belichick's strategy of "chipping" Faulk whenever he exited the backfield from any formation was a technique taught during the week.

The greater outrage was how Martz took Faulk out of the game by limiting his touches and carries.

Now, if you want to debate the certainty that the Patriots videotaped the Rams' defensive signals during their regular-season meeting and how it helped their offense with a young Tom Brady at quarterback in Super Bowl XXXVI, that's another story. Yes, another story.

Chris Mortensen covers the NFL for ESPN.