The NFL Doesn’t Want to Know How Deflate-gate Happened

by Andrew C. McCarthy

As Brendan’s post reports, at this afternoon’s press conference, Tom Brady flatly denied altering the footballs “in any way,” which I presume includes causing anyone else associated with the Patriots to alter them. Let me add a few points.

The major takeaway of the press conference is that, according to Brady, no one from the NFL has interviewed him. This is simply mind-boggling. Because of the way footballs are handled pregame, the quarterback would be the most essential source of information in the event irregularities occur. Brady is thus the first person the NFL should have spoken with if the league really wanted to get to the bottom of what happened.

One now has to be suspicious that the league would rather not know at this point. Why? Because we are just ten days from the Super Bowl and there is very strong evidence of cheating. If the league quickly learns who is responsible, it would have to suspend the cheater(s) from the big game or be mercilessly ridiculed for turning a blind eye. The NFL obviously does not want to suspend star players or coaches from its showcase event.

But now, the league will be mercilessly ridiculed anyway. There are very few people who handle the balls or might influence how they are handled between the time they are chosen and the time they are used in a game: the starting QB, the equipment manager, the ball boy(s), the referees, and the coaches. That means a competent investigation to get to the bottom of this growing controversy could be completed in a few hours – meaning, it should have been done by now. Plus, if you need to talk to the QB, you do it before he has to start ramping up his prep for the Super Bowl – meaning, between Monday and Wednesday of this week. You don’t wait until now, when he is turning his focus to the game.

If the NFL wanted to interview Tom Brady, it would have been done already. Football turns out to be a lot like politics: Officials avoid information because if they learn something bad has been done, they are expected to do something about it.

This is an extraordinarily foolish way to handle things. The NFL has run out of feet to shoot itself in this year, and this controversy is worse because it actually affects the integrity of the game. Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick claim they simply don’t know what happened, but almost everyone who knows football says that is impossible. Either way, because no explanation has been forthcoming from the Pats, there is a media feeding frenzy at the worst time: when over 5,000 international media figures are descending to cover the Super Bowl, which is as much a cultural phenomenon as a sporting event. Deflate-gate will now surely overwhelm coverage of the game, and the league’s incompetent (at best) handling of the investigation will invite endless reminders of its earlier black eyes this season.

A lot of this seems so unnecessary. Before we rehearse the really damaging facts, let’s cover one that is not well understood and that should have undercut the significance of the ball deflation.

Everyone agrees that, after the Colts raised concerns about the balls just before halftime, the balls were reexamined at halftime, and new balls were substituted for the under-inflated ones. That is, the second half was unquestionably played on the up and up . . . and in it the Patriots outscored the Colts 35-0 28-0. So whatever happened with the balls did not affect the outcome of the game – the right team made it to the Super Bowl.

Other than that, though, the story is bad. The refs examined the balls before the game – 12 from the Pats and 12 from the Colts – and found them to fit the specifications, weighing between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds [of air per square inch].

Right before halftime, a member of the Colts intercepted a Brady pass and noticed the ball was soft – something the Colts already had suspicions about based on (a) a prior game with the Pats in which they intercepted a couple of passes and detected under-inflated balls, and (b) similar suspicions about the Pats harbored by the Baltimore Ravens, who apparently shared those suspicions with the Colts after losing a tight playoff game to the Pats two weeks ago.

After the interception before halftime, the Colts’ sideline informed their general manager, who informed league officials. Based on the complaint, the refs re-examined all 24 balls at halftime. The Colts’ balls were all still within the specs, but 11 of the 12 Pats’ balls were under-inflated by up to two pounds per square inch – i.e., about 10.5 pounds. It was unseasonably mild for Foxboro, Mass., in January – about 51 degrees. Between that and the fact that the Colts’ footballs were unchanged, there seems to be no weather-related explanation for a drop in air pressure in the Pats’ footballs.

There are thus only two apparent possibilities, neither of which is good for the Pats: Either (a) the Pats supplied under-inflated balls and the refs did not competently examine them prior to the game; or (b) the Pats, who had control of their chosen footballs after the pregame examination by the refs, deflated the balls before or during the first-half.

Because the league has not done much of an investigation or released much information, we do not know how thorough the refs’ examination process is. I am also not in a position to say how noticeable the difference between 10.5 and 12.5 pounds is. The refs – football lifers – handle the balls on every play, and they obviously did not notice during the first-half. I saw Hall of Fame QB Dan Marino interviewed on Fox News earlier this week, and upon being presented with two footballs, one fully and one under-inflated, he indicated it was hard to tell the difference. But he also said, after squeezing and throwing them a few times, that the under-inflated one was somewhat easier to grip.

I still think the best case scenario for the Pats is that, based on years of experience, the equipment managers know Brady prefers a ball at the very bottom of the 12.5 to 13.5 pound range (as he said today at his press conference). It would not surprise me if, without there needing to be any discussion, the process is for equipment managers to bring Brady only balls that are at or slightly under 12.5 pounds. Those balls no doubt deflate a bit in the four or five days he breaks them in at practice, so by the time he selects a dozen for the game, they are likely to be under 12.5 pounds – perhaps markedly under, but maybe not enough that you could tell unless you examined very closely.

I’m sure Brady and the equipment manager do not measure the air pressure at that point; Brady just picks the ones he wants. Then, as he said at the press conference, he is done with the process and doesn’t deal with the balls again until game-time. That’s what allows him to say both that he doesn’t know what happened after he chose game balls and that he did not deflate those balls.

The equipment manager brings the balls to the refs for pregame inspection a couple of hours before game-time. So it would be important to know how thorough the refs’ inspection is. If the balls were not up to spec because of the Pats’ routine manner of handling them, and then the refs failed to do a careful enough examination to make sure they were up to spec, that could explain why they were under-inflated when checked at halftime. That is, it is not necessarily true that someone deflated them after the refs’ examination.

Of course, if the refs did do a competent pregame examination, then someone on the Pats has to have deflated the footballs.

One more interesting tidbit that could be relevant. Turns out that it is largely because of Tom Brady that the NFL changed its protocols in order to allow each team to supply game balls for its own use. It used to be that the home teams were responsible for supplying all the game balls. But nine years ago, Brady and Broncos star QB Peyton Manning successfully petitioned the competition committee to change the rules. The rationale was that every QB likes the ball to be broken in differently, and since there is some leeway in the rules about inflation (i.e., the 12.5 to 13.5 range), the league should accommodate the slightly different size and contour preferences of different QBs.

Personally, I would have thought the range allowing a pound of difference simply reflected that air pressure can change depending on climate conditions and how the ball is handled – just like it does with your car’s tires. I seriously doubt the rule was written with the thought that players on opposing teams would not be using the same ball. That would be inconceivable in, say, baseball, in which players for both teams pitch and hit balls that are exactly the same.

Tom Brady indicated at today’s press conference that he did not think the balls used made much difference – he did not, he said, notice any difference between the first-half balls that were under-inflated and the second-half balls that were inflated to league specifications. Maybe . . . but sounds remarkably blasé coming from a guy who previously pushed the league to change its rules so he could always have footballs that conformed to his unique preferences.

The Corner

The one and only.