As we approach the pinnacle of the NFL season, we have ourselves yet another controversy, just when we were moving on from Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Ray Rice and the domestic abuse issues that plagued the first couple weeks of the regular season.
Welcome to “Deflategate”.
If you are somehow still unaware, this is the controversy swirling around the AFC Champion New England Patriots. As the story goes, during the AFC Championship Game against Indianapolis last weekend, an interception by Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson triggered an investigation when Jackson felt the ball was underinflated beyond the acceptable, “it’s cold outside causing the ball to deflate” amount. However, Jackson himself says he thought nothing of the inception ball, since he rarely possesses the ball in the flow of a game anyway, and rather just wanted to keep the ball as a souvenir. Regardless, the NFL has since found that 11 of the Patriots 12 footballs weren’t inflated within the boundaries of the rules (two pounds per square inch below proper size) and that the footballs were found to be underinflated at halftime before being pumped back to proper playing size for the second half. Evidently, the lack of air was impacting the Patriots negatively anyway as they put up 28 unanswered points in the second half on their way to the Super Bowl. Now, the media and fans alike have let the story grow and grow with speculation running rampant.
And now we are at the crux of the issue… what does this all mean and why is it such a big story?
Let’s begin with why it’s a big story. Playing with a football that isn’t inflated to regulation size does create an unfair advantage, particularly in the cold weather, that was present in Foxborough, MA last weekend. Simply put, a flat football is easier to throw (depending on preference), easier to catch and easier to tuck and hold if you are a ball carrier. Compare a fully inflated football with what essentially amounts to one of those big, swishy Nerf footballs. A Nerf football has more give than that of the underinflated footballs, but it will demonstrate my point. A fully inflated football in cold weather is hard and hits your hands like a rock, making it very hard to catch. There is no give in the leather, which makes it harder to grasp when you hardly feel your fingers due to the weather and this can make the ball feel very slippery. A Nerf football, in the same cold weather and at the same weight, provides cushion for the receiver and allows a person to squeeze the football more than would otherwise be possible. Again, a Nerf football is much softer than what the Patriots were playing with, but my point is, which one do you want to be catching when it’s coming at you with the velocity an NFL quarterback puts on it? I know I would like the one that gives a little more cushion and allows me to dig my fingers into the football. That’s the issue here from a playing standpoint. The alteration may seem insignificant, but it still does impact the ease at which you can catch, hold and throw the football.
There is a need for an investigation, for this reason, because it does ruin the integrity of the game giving one team an unfair, albeit slight, advantage. Teams are supposed to play on equal playing ground, but if one has an easier time catching the softer, underinflated football, then it is no longer fair by definition. Now, this story doesn’t mean much with the Colts. Indianapolis would have lost regardless of the air pressure in the football, but this is a story because, first of all, fans can’t stop talking about it (see Johnny “Football” Manziel) and, second of all, because there is a rule that has been broken. Maybe we shouldn’t care as much as we seem to, but this warrants an investigation and subsequent penalty if the Patriots are found to have participated in said wrong-doing.
The problem is that the media and fans are commenting and discussing this story without any real knowledge of what happened yet. The fact of the matter is that an investigation means the NFL is finding more information. If they don’t know what has even happened, how can anyone on the outside know what New England’s punishment will be or that Tom Brady spearheaded this scandal (for example)? Heck, the NFL hasn’t even talked to Brady about the investigation yet, which either shows you how early in this process we are, or demonstrates that the NFL still struggles to combat this situations, but that’s another discussion for another time.
What we do know is that 11 of 12 were underinflated and that the Colts, who played in the same environment, didn’t encounter similar problems with their footballs (each team provides their own footballs – to use on offense – that are checked prior to kickoff). It was thought that Jackson began this investigation, but Jackson himself has stated he didn’t notice anything peculiar about the football he intercepted. Now, Fox Sports has reported that the Baltimore Ravens tipped the Colts off to the Patriots using underinflated footballs, but the Baltimore Sun reports that Baltimore didn’t notice anything about the Patriots’ footballs and any comments made were referring to the impact the cold weather naturally has on a football, particularly in the kicking game (making it flatter and decreasing kick distance). New England denies any tampering, but the general pulse of football fans seems to be split depending on if you are a Patriots fan or not. That leaves many calling for New England to dissolve and become a Major League Soccer team… or… something. Point is, too many people are taking dramatic sides on this issue without any real information.
The reason why “Deflategate” is a story of this magnitude, after all, is because the Patriots are involved. Teams who have been good for a long time make a lot of enemies. Many fans would love for the New England rein to crumple and this, coupled with “Spygate“, gives fans an opportunity to question New England’s success. I think it is a fair question. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of the “Deflategate” investigation, my initial thought was that it was nothing more than an attempt to undermine what New England has accomplished this season. I thought the story was mere rumors and we would find little to nothing to prove or support the claim that the Patriots had tampered with the footballs. However, with more information coming out, you can’t help but wonder what this may mean moving forward.
Underinflating footballs is inherently unfair, but really is being blown out of proportion. It may make it a little easier to catch the football or throw the football, but it doesn’t make it harder to tackle the ball carrier or harder to rush the passer. What the Patriots do with their footballs shouldn’t have any impact at all on New England defensively and on special teams anyway. If New England did something to gain an unfair advantage, they should be punished, but underinflating footballs shouldn’t make us question the talent of the Patriots team or really even the quality of Brady at quarterback. If they cheated, punish them, but at this point, nothing is proven and the weight of a football doesn’t change the fact that New England would beat most every team in the NFL more often than not as rosters currently stand. “Deflategate” won’t suddenly void the NFL season, regardless of what is discovered, and it likely doesn’t have enough of an impact on games to even impact New England’s regular season record considering how much the Patriots beat teams by. This story is being discussed as if New England is nothing if they play with a regulation football all season, which is clearly not the case.
If it is found that New England did cheat, then we rightfully would have a different discussion. With the Patriots having a bit of a history with the NFL between “Spygate” and Bill Belichick’s attitude towards the media/NFL, New England could face a punishment that is more significant than it would be for “Deflategate” itself. Think of it as a sort of “repeat offender” situation. That punishment could range from a fine, to a suspension for those involved (when/if that is discovered) and/or lost draft picks. Any of those works for me if we get to that point. There is a pattern of bad behavior with New England and I would completely support action that accounts for what would be repeat occurrences. One interesting idea that I heard was proposed by Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio, who suggested forcing the Patriots to be on HBO’s Hard Knocks television series for a year or two. It sort of makes sense to go that route if you need to punish the Patriots, doesn’t it? New England doesn’t really need draft picks and the money doesn’t appear to be much of an issue, but a couple appearances on Hard Knocks might actually send a message given how much Belichick hates the media being around his facilities. Again, any punishment thrown out at this point in the investigation is merely speculation, but if the story continues to develop and the Patriots end up being big characters in this story, Hard Knocks – while unorthodox – may be the most fitting punishment.
Either way, we live in a world where news is made instantaneously. In a rush to break the news story, information is rushed to the front lines and then media personalities are asked to comment on bits of information without knowing the entire story. We don’t know what will come from this investigation. Even if New England is involved, we don’t know to what extent or for how long and, again, playing with a underinflated football is unfairly creating an advantage, but it doesn’t mean the entire season should be thrown out or that we should question the talent of the New England offense. An underinflated football helps players, but it doesn’t suddenly make them AFC Champions. “Deflategate” is a story worth following, but I’m surprised by the venom and anger this has stirred amongst fans, particularly at this stage in investigation. It will work itself out – assuming the NFL handles this investigation better than Rice’s – and through that process we will get a better picture of what was actually done, if it was done with the explicit intent of cheating and how the Patriots intertwine with this controversy, if at all. More will come out in the next week or so and there is a good chance that when those investigation findings do come to light, we may ask ourselves then why “the scandal of deflated footballs” took up so much of our time and energy.
There was something else going on in about a week…
Oh yeah… the Super Bowl. Don’t forget about that.