WASHINGTON — Congratulations; you’ve fallen for it. You’ve been duped. The NFL got you again.
With two full weeks to try to keep you entertained before the Super Bowl, the powers that be have manufactured the non-story of the New England Patriots allegedly deflating game balls during the AFC Championship Game to stay at the top of the sports-headline heap. With rampant speculation abounding and new information coming to light every few hours, who even needs the Pro Bowl anymore?
Let me state an important caveat before we go any further — I am not a Patriots fan. I don’t care what happens to them next weekend in Phoenix, and I only had a casual interest in seeing them advance past the Colts. As a Cal football fan, I root for Golden Bears in the NFL and generally against former Stanford players (hey, college rivalries die hard). With Shane Vereen in the New England backfield and Andrew Luck behind center for the Indianapolis Colts, my decision last Sunday was easy, but that’s as far as I was invested.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, do me a favor and ask yourself a few questions: Do you believe that under-inflated footballs are the reason that the New England Patriots have gone to six of the past 14 Super Bowls? Do you believe that under-inflated footballs were the difference in their 45-7 disemboweling of the Colts last Sunday, in which LeGarrette Blount ran the ball 30 times for 148 yards and three scores?
If the balls were discovered to be under-inflated at halftime, why wasn’t the issue rectified then? Oh wait; it was. And after only outscoring Indianapolis 17-7 in the first half, the Pats steamrolled the Colts 28-0 after the break with the up-to-code replacements. As such, why is there even an investigation? While we’re at it, why is this left in the hands of teams in the first place?
“It’s stupid that each team supplies their own balls,” says Dr. Corinne Farnetti, professor of sports management at Mount St. Mary’s University. “I don’t know why the NFL doesn’t supply their own balls for each game. It’s just giving them an opportunity to cheat.”
Do you mean to tell me the NFL might lack institutional control over its codes of conduct and punishments for breaking said codes? You don’t say.
Back to the issue at hand, though — whether or not it really makes a difference, do you believe that none of the other 31 NFL teams inflate or deflate footballs to their preference?
“There’s a precedent for this, because there is a standard and rules for this,” explains Steve Dressner, a producer at NFL Network who has covered the league for 24 years. “My answer when I first heard the story break is that I wouldn’t be surprised that this has been going on for a very long time.”
As voice of reason Jason La Canfora explains, most of the quarterbacks he has spoken to adjust the ball to their liking one way or another, the same way pitchers do in baseball.
To that last end, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms casually shared on the air just a few weeks ago that Aaron Rodgers prefers a more heavily inflated football. The Tampa Bay Times reported Wednesday that former Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson illegally paid someone $7,500 to make sure the Super Bowl XXXVII footballs were scuffed up so he could get a better grip (the Bucs won that game, by the way). And hey — never mind that Tom Brady was one of the men who spearheaded the 2006 rule change that allowed visiting quarterbacks to break in their own footballs, where it had previously been done by the home signal-caller, removing a piece of home field advantage.
Beyond that, if the under-inflation was so dramatic, how did it go unnoticed by the officials in charge of spotting the ball, the same officials put in charge of maintaining quality control in the first place? The Patriots ran a total of 75 offensive plays, and at least one official touched the ball on each and every one.
Oh, and there’s the whole science aspect. Exposed to a 60-degree difference, air pressure in a football reduced from 13.5 PSI to 11 PSI. Under the 20-or-so degree difference between a roughly 70-degree interior and the 49-degree temperature at kickoff, especially with a giant low-pressure front moving in, that would account for at least some of the difference.
This case is so thin it would never even get an indictment in an actual court of law, much less earn a conviction. But hey, it makes for great fodder, right?
“Everyone searches for that very juicy story going into the Super Bowl,” says Dressner. “Well, here you go.”
And yet, some people are calling for the NFL to force the Patriots to forfeit the game. Mind you, even if the NFL decides the balls were intentionally deflated, the stated punishment in the league rule book includes, but is “not limited to, a fine of $25,000.” It seems that the next stage would be a larger fine or the loss of a draft pick or two, but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for those out for blood, calling on Belichick to be suspended for the Super Bowl, or even (gasp) fired.
Why wouldn’t a loss of draft picks be good enough punishment? Because the Patriots find ways to win without them anyway, finding gems in later rounds and off the scrap heap? So now we’re punishing them further for being better at operating within the rule structure? Really, think about that argument for a second.
Of course, when you have a reputation, people will take their shots. The Patriots were caught in “Spygate,” a videotaping scandal, and fined back in 2007. That painted them with the scarlet “C” as cheats. But even when you don’t have a history, when you stand on the pedestal, people will look for any excuse to try to knock you off of it.
“Are people like Tom Brady and Bill Belichik put under a microscope? Absolutely,” says Dressner. “Are they targeted? Maybe … When it comes to the rule book, it’s no secret that Bill Belichick knows how to toe that line. But any coach will tell you that’s the sign of a good coach.”
You probably didn’t even know that the inflation level of the ball made any difference before this week. And despite what any of us may have researched in the past 72 hours, we should stop to ask ourselves whether any of it makes any real difference.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing,” says Farnetti. “It’s great for the league that they’re talking about this.”
So cancel your outrage and open your sports-watching eyes. There’s a ton of great college basketball to watch, with UVA ranked #2, Maryland in the Top 10, VCU in the top 20 and Georgetown in good shape to crack the Top 25 next week. The Wizards are flying high as a legitimate threat to make the NBA Finals. The Caps have risen into contention for a playoff spot.
And there’s a great Super Bowl matchup between the top two seeds in the game coming up. Save your energy for something that deserves it.