Suddenly, 2015 isn’t looking all that much rosier for Roger Goodell than 2014.
A domestic violence scandal that began the season may be mostly behind him, but now he must quickly confront an on-the-field story that involves the season’s end, with America’s biggest game coming on Feb. 1. That’s because one of the teams may have qualified for Super Bowl XLIX by using footballs that were not in compliance with NFL rules. Eleven of the 12 footballs measured by game officials and used by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game were under-inflated, a fact that was discovered when the Indianapolis Colts intercepted a Tom Brady pass.
The incident, besides reviving those old “Belicheat” cliches from SpyGate, ripped the cover off a part of the game that many fans never think about: the journey of a football from approval to sideline. NFL footballs, according to the rule book, must be inflated with 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch. Each team brings a number of balls to game officials, who approve them and mark them 135 minutes before game time. The footballs eventually are returned to each team, and each side uses its own set of balls when it is on offense.
The NFL won’t be pulling the Patriots out of the Super Bowl. If it determines that they acted deliberately, a fine and/or loss of draft picks would be the likely punishment.
But in a multi-billion-dollar business, this is either a really bad way to go about things or it’s a nonchalance, an arrogant shrug that says “everybody does it” and pays no mind to the possibility that it taints all those gaudy stats offenses have put up the last decade. So one of the first questions Goodell must ask as the NFL probes DeflateGate is: how pervasive is this? At the college level, adjusting footballs is widespread, according to an unnamed equipment manager who spoke with Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, and it’s not a huge deal. “Being around football, it’s just common. It’s just the way it works. Everybody does it. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but nobody thinks it’s that big of a deal. I don’t think anybody looks at it as cheating.”
Each team, the manager told Robinson assumes the other is doing the same thing. As with baseball pitchers and catchers who doctor the ball, it’s done surreptitiously. “Honestly, I don’t think anybody ever thinks twice about doing it. Although, if you’re in a position where you have to do it on the sideline, everybody is always aware that you can’t do it out in the open,” he said. “You might have somebody stand in front of you when you’re taking air out, or you might sit down on the bench and kind of cover it up. But, yeah, it’s normal. It’s kind of the game-day process.”
Is that true in the NFL as well? An under-inflated football would theoretically be easier to catch and easier to hold onto, especially in a pouring rain, and the Patriots’ footballs were, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, under-inflated by 2 PSI. But quarterbacks are persnickety about the tools of their trade. For every one that likes an under-inflated ball, there’s an Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback believes there should be only a minimum PSI requirement because he’s loves a football that is inflated to the max.
“I have a major problem with the way it goes down, to be honest with you,” Rodgers said Tuesday on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show. “The majority of the time, they take air out of the football. I think that, for me, is a disadvantage.”
That raises another question for Goodell: Why didn’t referees, who arguably spend more time touching the ball during games than players, do something Sunday? Did they correct the inflation at halftime (the Patriots scored 21 points in the third quarter). And why aren’t footballs, as Bill Polian suggested to Newsday’s Bob Glauber, “kept in officials’ custody until right before the game”? Just let “a neutral person” handle them during the game on the sidelines.
The sooner Goodell can put out this fire, the better with teams and media converging on Arizona on Sunday for Super Bowl week. The Patriots will arrive under a cloud of suspicion and controversy, their very presence questioned. Coach Bill Belichick has promised full cooperation with the investigation, but until there’s a resolution of the issue, people will only bring up SpyGate, for which Belichick was fined $500,000 in 2007.
“We try to do things the right way,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We work hard at our jobs, our professions, to be successful and it’s unfortunate that things like this come up, but that’s life, that’s the world we live in.”
There’s no answer for this one, for why, as Steve Young put it, the Patriots are a team that does the really difficult things well, yet trips up and sets off a national conversation in which everyone, from the Colts, the team the Patriots vanquished 45-7, to Vice President Joe Biden has weighed in. “Having been a receiver, I like a softer ball,” Biden told “CBS This Morning.” “That’s all I can tell ya.”
— Darius Butler (@DariusJButler) January 21, 2015
If New England was to be DQ'd.. We'd be their replacements right??… I should probably lay off these strawberry margs
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 21, 2015
Inside the NFL offices, the mood, according to ESPN, is “disappointed … angry … distraught.” Last summer and in September, Goodell and the NFL badly botched the issue of domestic violence. They can’t make that mistake again with the Super Bowl looming.
11 of 12 balls under-inflated can anyone spell cheating!!! #Just Saying
— Jerry Rice (@JerryRice) January 21, 2015