T he 24-hour news cycle has an insatiable appetite.
The phenomenon was no more apparent in the slow week between the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Just as media everywhere braced for the silence, a miracle happened. D’Qwell Jackson, a linebacker for the Colts, intercepted a football.
This wasn’t any ordinary football. You see, it had less air in it than usual. To the Colts, that seemed to be a big deal. The guy who unintentionally tossed him the rock is kind of a big deal, too. If you haven’t been living in a bunker with no Wi-Fi, a mile under an enormous rock this week, you know the rest of the story. But is this really just a convenient scoop, gift-wrapped for the media to stretch into an epic saga when they needed it most, or is this a legacy-altering scandal for Brady, Belichick and the Patriots?
Don’t get me wrong, Deflategate is the perfect storm of media and sports hype. It’s entertaining. It’s an equal opportunity touchdown of a story, accessible to the most well-versed football analysts and your favorite cable news “personalities” alike. It isn’t about unbalanced sets or the read option or Cover 2. It’s about air in a football. Air. Everyone knows a bit about that. Cue the experts!
Speaking of entertainment, we saw it all this week: morning show hosts clutching deflated pigskins, scientists theorizing on ESPN, and even government officials weighing in on the firmness of our nation’s footballs. The icing on the cake for me was seeing advertisers rushing to cash in on the chaos with their own best shot at a clever commercial. Krispy Kreme was one of the most notable. I even saw Maker’s Mark take an awkward shot at it. (Just another reason I prefer Jack Daniels.) And of course, it’s not a scandal until you throw a “-gate” on the end of it. Oh, and it rhymes. Bingo. Deflategate.
As an NFL player, watching Deflategate unfold (maybe explode is the better word?) has been all the more surreal. I should have all the answers about how a football is supposed to look and feel. As a defensive end, however, when it comes to possessing the football, I’m just a fan with really good seats. I’ve probably handled the pigskin in a game about five times in seven years. The ball could turn into a small house pet in my hands and I wouldn’t notice. When I’m lucky enough to get the ball, I’m one of those kid-on-Christmas-morning defensive players who’s just trying not to pull a Leon Lett.
You want to know who handles the football more than anyone on the field? The refs. I’m not only talking about the pre-game inspection process. I’m talking about throughout the game, in between every play. Now, I’m not saying that an NFL referee should be a human psi (pounds per square inch) reading machine. (Silicon Valley, get on that.) But if a football feels so obviously different at 11 psi than it does at 13.5 psi — enough to argue that it lends a team a competitive advantage — maybe the best officials on the planet should have noticed something was awry that night at Gillette.
Another thing that was awry that night was the weather. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who’ve been playing together in the AFC East for the last 15 years, know something about cold, wet weather. They seem to play their best when the temperature drops and snow or rain is falling. So if you believe Tom and Bill have been using deflated footballs, game in and game out, for a decade and a half, why is this the first time we’re hearing about it? That’s all the way back to 2001. You know how long ago that was? The first PT Cruiser came out in 2001. Creed was killing it in 2001. So either the Patriots have been doctoring footballs in every big game since Mulholland Drive was in theaters, or they’ve simply mastered the art of winning no matter the conditions.
Deflategate has also turned a lot of people into scientists. The scientist in me (also known as the dude who googles stuff) can see valid points on both sides of Deflategate. One guy I noticed last week was the host of the ESPN’s Sport Science, John Brenkus (a trustworthy University of Virginia grad at that). He concluded that “underinflated balls had a minuscule effect on any given play.” As ESPN’s authority on the the intersection of physics and sports, I couldn’t help but wonder if he made the folks in Bristol a little uncomfortable. The mothership has tirelessly led the effort to make Deflategate a spectacle.
Regardless, those physics folks have tended to agree on one thing: Changes in temperature can alter game ball pressure, changing the magic psi number in a big way. Both teams’ game balls were examined at halftime. Why were 11 of 12 Patriots footballs underinflated at the half while all of the Colts’ footballs remained “normal”? Common sense says that it’s likely there was some sort of human intervention, from someone in the Patriots camp. (Who it was, and why they did it, will give us a better idea of the necessary punishment.) But hypothetically, what if a team naturally prefers their footballs more inflated? They could overinflate the game balls to balance for the loss of pressure in the colder temperatures. That would be ludicrous right? What kind of idiot likes more air in their footballs?
A guy named Aaron Rodgers does. He likes them inflated to the max. Aaron Rodgers has reportedly said that he likes to “push the limit” on football air pressure. I feel sorry for Jordy Nelson catching those bullets up there in that brisk Green Bay climate. Then again I don’t because it must be nice having the best quarterback in the league throwing you passes, and the best quarterback also seems to employ a bit of gamesmanship. As Brenkus said this week on Sport Science, an overinflated football actually travels faster. How’s that for an advantage?
So it seems that the doctoring of game balls is nothing new — it’s just new to the public (and new to guys like me who, sadly, never get to tote the rock). As recently as this November, cameras caught the Panthers and Vikings using sideline heaters to heat up their footballs because game temperatures were hovering in the teens. According to NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino, this was a violation of league rules. But what kind of violation — a grievous ethical one, or something more gray? Another example: former Buccaneers QB Brad Johnson has admitted paying $7,500 to have his footballs doctored to his specifications for Super Bowl XXXVII, a game in which the Bucs cruised to a 48-21 victory. He freely and openly offered up that information. No one’s calling Brad Johnson’s legacy into question (and they shouldn’t).
The thing about Deflategate is that you can marshal an argument to support each and every side. You might think I’m carrying water for the Patriots, but I’m actually not. As an NFL player, I can admire Brady’s career and still ask critical questions. Someone defending the Patriots could point out that the Pats outscored the Colts 28-0 in the second half, after the deflated footballs had been replaced. (It was a competitive game, at 17-7, at the end of the first half.) They could also bring up the fact that two out of three of Brady’s TD passes came in the second half, or that his only interception came in the first. Brady also threw for more yards in the second half (131 versus 95) and had eight fewer incompletions. Basically, the change didn’t seem to rattle him. Maybe this sample size is too small to prove a point. I’m sure, however, that if the Patriots had played miserably in the second half and lost the game, everyone calling for an asterisk next to the busts of Belichick and Brady in Canton would lead with that argument.
And what about the run game? What effect does a football’s pressure have on a team’s rushing? LeGarrette Blount rushed for 148 yards and the Patriots didn’t fumble once that night. For years now, the Patriots have been elite when it comes to protecting the football. I’ve heard stories of the Patriots running drills with soaking wet, slick footballs. My college coach and good friend Al Groh is one of the tougher branches on the Belichick coaching tree, so I’m familiar with this style of coaching. As another coach told me, you get what you emphasize. This emphasis has been paying off for years. But that’s just the football player in me talking.
Let’s get down to it: This story isn’t as much about air pressure as it is about the cult of the New England Patriots. The Patriots are really good at two things: winning football games and not giving a shit what you think about them. This modus operandi has earned the Patriots an equal number of fans and haters. One thing that drives people crazy is Belichick’s “less is more” school of media engagement. Media relations, after all, is a game. It involves three parties: the teams, the media and the fans. All three groups know it’s a game, but if a player or a coach doesn’t play ball, people get pissed. Bill Belichick is not only a Hall of Fame coach, but he is also the undisputed heavyweight champion when it comes to flustering members of the media. I find it hard to believe Deflategate would be as big of a story without Belichick and Brady as the villains. Anybody heard about the recent Cleveland Browns texting allegations? I didn’t think so.
It all came to a crescendo this week, as all eyes were fixed on Foxborough. This had to be it. We’d finally see contrition. We’d get our coveted admission of guilt. We’d finally see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick sheepishly take the podium and whisper “mercy.” But all Tom and Bill proceeded to do was twist the knife. Tom stuck to his story. And so did Bill. Days later, Belichick stole the show by calling an impromptu press conference and pulling the ultimate “have some” maneuver: he made the media wait, strolled in on his own schedule and went all Isaac Newton. The media, longing to get Coach Belichick’s time and attention for years, finally had it … in the form of a physics lesson. It was beautiful.
I never thought a story about the science of football could be so entertaining, thought provoking and funny. (I even stumbled upon an article titled “What Can I Tell My Kids About Deflategate?” so you can add “disturbing” to this list of adjectives.) This mess will change the future of the league. Starting after the Super Bowl. The least self-serving thing the NFL can do mid-Super Bowl week is release some damning grainy video of sideline footage — if they have it. You’d also better believe sideline protocol will be forever changed. League officials will sit in some crow’s nest in NYC monitoring the sideline like Saul in Homeland. (Look on the bright side, at least this might create jobs.)
The real story line this week should be about one of the most exciting, evenly matched Super Bowls in recent memory. It should be about Brady and Belichick’s last and best chance to take their place in history alongside Noll and Bradshaw, Walsh and Montana. But as usual, some members of the media chose to go after the low hanging fruit.
I’m not saying the Patriots should skate free. If it comes out that the Patriots are guilty of bending or breaking league rules, they should be punished. But we should wait for an investigation to play out. Even today, Patriots owner Robert Kraft doubled down on the the team’s innocence, maintaining he believes “unconditionally that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate.”
No matter what comes of this, I don’t think I’ll be questioning the Patriots’ legacy. But that’s just one man’s opinion. Football is a profoundly difficult game. You could pair countless quarterbacks with countless head coaches and give them a bag of magic footballs and they’d still struggle to win a playoff game. As of today, Tom and Bill have won 20 (a record), with an ever-changing cast of characters in an ever-changing league. This Sunday’s Super Bowl may be one of their most difficult tasks yet. The Seahawks are as physical and complete a football team as I’ve seen in my seven years in the league. Beating them takes a hell of an effort. As a player, I know. We’ve been fortunate enough to beat them a few times, and we’ve always appreciated how special it was.
I know this for sure: the most perfect, pristine footballs of all time will be flying around that field in Glendale, Arizona this weekend. If the smoke clears on Monday and the Patriots are world champions, my hope is that everyone will appreciate the Patriots for sustaining one of the great runs by a franchise in league history.
Either way, Bill Belichick won’t care what you think.