Tuesday April 1st, 2008

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Wearing a fashionable Hawaiian shirt rather than his trademark gray hoodie with the cut-off sleeves, a relaxed and fairly expansive Bill Belichick met with us here for more than an hour Tuesday morning at the AFC head coaches media breakfast.

Now I know it's April Fools' Day.

Touching on all the hot topics that surround him, from Matt Walsh and Spygate to the lingering sting of the Patriots' stunning Super Bowl upset at the hands of the Giants, Belichick was in truly rare form. He even went to the length of breaking a little news in revealing that the NFL's Spygate investigation included him being questioned a second time by league officials -- in this case, in Foxboro after New England's Super Bowl loss to New York, when the topic was the allegation that the Patriots videotaped the Rams' walk-through practice the day before beating St. Louis in the February 2002 Super Bowl.

"I think [the NFL has] addressed everything they could possibly address,'' said Belichick, on the second day of the NFL's annual meeting at The Breakers hotel. "I don't know how the league could have done any more than what they did. I've answered so many questions, so many times, in so many different ways, with so many different people, I don't know what more they could possibly do.''

Belichick was at times lighthearted -- discussing his erratic golf game as "doing the Army march, left, right, left, right'' -- somewhat contrite, admitting he should have called the league for clarification of the videotaping rules in 2006, and only occasionally defiant, dismissing any potential allegation by Walsh as "not true.''

Clearly prepared to be barraged by all those questions that he has largely dodged successfully for months, Belichick was far more willing than ever to reflect on his team's tumultuous and historic 2007 season. The good, the bad, and its still-shocking denouement, that 17-14 last-minute loss to the underdog Giants in Glendale, Ariz.

"It was pretty special to be 18-0, but it was a disappointing finish in Arizona,'' Belichick said. "I think we recognize the positives and appreciate them, but we should have won one more game. That's football. Give the Giants credit. We've been on both sides of it, and it's a lot better being on the other side of it. But they were better than us on that night.''

Belichick's efforts to open up a bit probably struck some as a calculated move on his part, designed to incur some sympathy for the defensive crouch that he and his Patriots organization have been in to some extent ever since the Spygate drama began last September. I'm sure there were some good public relations work at the heart of his rare display of candid conversation, but I also think he had a few things he wanted to get off his chest.

Like the notion that Spygate has tainted either of his team's previous Super Bowl wins.

"I know what the truth is, so everybody's entitled to their opinion,'' Belichick said, some of the familiar glint returning to his eyes. "I can't control what everyone thinks. I'm not going to try and do that. I'm going to just try and do what I've done since September of last year, which is do the best I can to coach our football team.''

When a reporter asked if Belichick's legacy was now somehow bizarrely tied to a golf pro in Hawaii (Walsh), the coach who likes to dismiss unwelcome questions with his pithy "it is what it is'' line was a bit more descriptive.

"Again, I can't control what other people think, [but] I personally don't think it is,'' he said. "But everybody's got their own opinion.''

Belichick also made it clear that whatever Walsh, the former Patriots video assistant, has to show or tell, he's unafraid of the revelations.

"I don't really know what he does have to say,'' Belichick said. "He made allegations a couple months ago, and nothing really has materialized since then. Whatever the allegations are, I'm confident that's not true. Again, nothing's really happened. The allegations were made before the Super Bowl, and I don't think there's any new information since then. Not really anything I'm aware of, so we're moving on.''

As he did in an interview with the Boston Globe a couple weeks after the Super Bowl, Belichick reiterated Tuesday that he had very little contact with Walsh before the video assistant left the organization in 2002. He said the allegations that the Patriots filmed the Rams' Super Bowl walk-through "totally came out of right field'' at this year's Super Bowl.

"I've never seen a tape of another team's practice, ever,'' Belichick said. "As I've said, my personal involvement with Matt Walsh when he was there and I was there was very minimal. I had almost no interaction with him.''

I asked Belichick if it was almost put-up-or-shut-up time for Walsh, given the length of time he and the league have been in negotiations, and whether or not he found it personally frustrating to not be able to move past the story one way or another until Walsh talks?

"There isn't anything else,'' he said. "I've said what I've had to say. There isn't any new information, at least none that I've heard. Look, I'm not going to not coach or prepare the team for this season because of whatever Matt Walsh did or didn't say, or allege, or whatever it was.''

Belichick said his second round of questioning before league officials, the one that took place after the Super Bowl and concerned the Rams' Super Bowl walk-through allegations, was as exhaustive as the investigation the NFL undertook after catching New England taping the Jets' defensive signals in Week 1.

"The league has been through investigations, and asked questions the week after the [Jets] game, and again at the end of the season,'' he said. "I hate to say [the questioning was] more thorough, because the first one was pretty extensive too, but I think they've handled it.

"We've been forthright and true. I've answered every question twice that they've come to us with, made everybody in our organization accessible that they wanted to talk to. We've complied with everything they've asked of us.''

But to an extent he never has before, Belichick on Tuesday acknowledged that he should have heeded the NFL's memo/warning on videotaping in September 2006, rather than just assume he was still interpreting league rules correctly.

"The way the rule is written, I interpreted it that you couldn't use [the results of the videotape] during the game, that current game,'' he said. "I've never done that, never used any information from the game in that particular game. What was used was for the future. Then the rule was re-stated and clarified by [NFL executive vice president of football operations] Ray Anderson in September. 2006.

"What I should have done was I should have called the league and asked for a clarification of it. But even with that rule, and I still interpreted it obviously incorrectly, I thought as long as it wasn't used in that game that it was OK. I paid a price for that mistake. It was my mistake.''

Somewhat tellingly, Belichick refused to discuss whether he felt such videotaping was common practice in the NFL, adding, "I don't think that's for me to comment on.'' But he did make the case that his team's taping practices were not instrumental to its success, and he pointed to the 2007 season as proof.

"Relative to what the penalty was for it, [they were] not very helpful,'' he said. "I think you can take a look at the 2007 season and see what happened Week 1, and whether what happened previously had anything to do with this year. Obviously it didn't. We had a decent year.''

That might be the understatement of the decade thus far. A decent year, followed by a disappointing loss. That's kind of how Belichick summed up New England's rather unique 2007 season.

I made a point of asking Belichick if he has gotten around to watching the Super Bowl loss to the Giants yet, and I thought I saw a look of what appeared to be slight pain cross his face at the question.

"I've watched different segments of it,'' he said. "I'm sure everyone we play will look at that game. That I'm sure of. On both sides of the ball. The things that the Giants did well, I'm sure some of those things will be schemed and teams will try to execute against us going forward.''

Belichick refused to lay the blame for the Patriots loss on quarterback Tom Brady's ankle injury, which by the end of the week didn't even warrant him being listed on the injury report. But many who watched felt Brady's lessened mobility was a big factor in the success of the Giants' pass rush.

"I don't know,'' Belichick said. "I thought he had a good week of practice. I thought he ran well in practice and did some extra running. They have a good pass-rushing team. They did a good job. We could have done a better job. A better job of coaching, a better job of blocking, a better job in the passing game. I'll give them credit. They played well, and held us to 14 points.''

At several points, Belichick even attempted to identify a silver lining in the whole Spygate saga, saying it has made the Patriots organization "more efficient and more streamlined'' in how it operates. "We've taken some steps to make sure anything approaching this never even comes close to happening again,'' he said. "It's made us do a better job of making sure everybody knows what's expected and what isn't allowed.''

So that was Bill Belichick at breakfast on Tuesday, ready to talk and sounding newly mindful of the rules.

Yep, it's April Fools' Day all right.

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