The Corner

Does Deflate-gate Explain the Pats’ Super Low Fumble Rate?

This is a fascinating study of NFL fumble stats, by Warren Sharp of the Sharp Football Analysis blog: The Patriots’ stats are off the charts, relative to all other teams, and have been for a prolonged period. Over the last five seasons, the average NFL team fumble-to-play ratio is 1 in every 50. The Patriots record is 1 in every 73.

Why such a disparity? The obvious argument: Under-inflated balls are much easier for running backs to protect, and therefore less likely to be fumbled. Makes sense. There may be other valid explanations for why the Patriots are so exceptional. If there are, I’d love to hear them.

There’s something oddly appealing in baseball about the pitcher trying to nick a ball or touch it up with Vaseline. Maybe that has to do with the legacy of spitball pitchers, once permitted and then banned in 1920 — although formally grandfathering 17 (baseball’s last legal spitball was thrown by Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes against the Dodgers on September 20, 1934). Today, it’s cheating, but still considered a part of baseball, even if on the dark side. It’s against the law, but not against the lore.

But cheating just doesn’t seem to have the same . . . affection? . . . in football. Maybe that’s why evidence that there has been a prolonged history of that in New England, and how such might have made a profound difference in the fortunes of one team, especially a team that has proven relentlessly successful, is dispiriting (deflating!).

No, this controversy isn’t akin to the Islamic State, the economy, nor a lot of things, but football is, like it or not, the national pastime, the fixation for millions, who believe it is played fairly, who have been educated over the last decade by mind-numbing instant replays, from numerous angles, with subjective interpretation, about the tiniest distinctions, the verdict being the difference often between victory or defeat. There’s no room for wink-wink cheating in that dynamic.

If Sharp’s study is true (and why wouldn’t it be?), and if the likely explanation for the Patriots’ exceptional, odds-defying stats are true, then the NFL has just fumbled. A dark period for this sport may be upon us. Sundays may not be the same!

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