The DeflateGate controversy ripped back the curtain on a little rule change that has come roaring back from 2006.
It didn’t make enormous headlines when Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and the league’s other marquee quarterbacks lobbied hard for a rule-book tweak that would allow each offense to supply its own footballs. Brady, Manning and the rest of the NFL’s QBs were at the top of their game, TV ratings were skyrocketing, offensive records were falling — why not change a rule if that’s what the marquee stars wanted, even if they’d still be marquee stars without a change? Women were flocking to the game, fantasy leagues were thriving and the league was only too happy to enable its modern golden age of quarterbacks with that change, along with others limiting defenses that have helped keep QBs at the top of their game over the last nine seasons.
As the last week has shown, though, there might be plenty of complications with the idea. The NFL is investigating how footballs used by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game became underinflated below the margins of 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch mandated by the rule book. Coach Bill Belichick and Brady deny any knowledge of how this occurred and the league has brought in its own PSI CSI technicians and investigators to get to the bottom of the matter. It really tracks back, though, to 2006, when the NFL lost custody of footballs, the most important piece of equipment on the field, during games and illustrates how DeflateGate is a problem the NFL created for itself.
The pre-2006 system wasn’t exactly perfect and you can see where Brady, Manning and the others were coming from. Home teams supplied footballs, which weren’t available to road teams until pregame warmups. The modern quarterback isn’t just a chucker, he’s an artist. Brady took the extraordinary step of addressing the league’s competition committee as it considered rules changes during the offseason that year. “The thing is, every quarterback likes it a little bit different,” Brady, who had reached out to Manning and Jake Plummer, said (via the Sun-Sentinel). “Some like them blown up a little bit more, some like them a little more thin, some like them a little more new, some like them really broken in.” In 2006, the majority of the league’s 32 QBs were on board with the rule change, The Post’s Mark Maske wrote in late November 2006.
“We had a little petition going around . . . and got 20 quarterbacks to sign the petition,” Manning said earlier this season. “We tracked Steve [McNair] down in Mississippi. Everybody faxed their petition back pretty much the next day. It was pretty much a no-brainer on trying to get that changed because it just makes sense. . . . Nobody wants to see a receiver wide open and the ball two-hopped to him because the ball is slick.”
To Manning, the rule would prohibit a home team from suddenly handing a visiting quarterback a brand-new football, all shiny and slick, for an important drive with two minutes left in a tight game. “If [a bad throw happens] because somebody is at the quarterback’s feet, that’s one thing,” Manning said, “but not because of a bad football.”
Members of the rules committee agreed because, after all, players still had to throw and catch and carry the football, as the Baltimore Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome said at the time. But it’s far more complex than that. Quarterbacks are artists, guys who are choosier than JIF mothers. You might not notice if Yo-Yo Ma’s cello is a wee bit out of tune, but he sure will. It’s the same with quarterbacks. They are, as Ron Jaworski put it, “freaks.”
Footballs may be months in the making, as Eli Manning’s are. The New York Giants quarterback was willing to tell Bill Pennington of the New York Times in 2013 what he looks for from Joe Skiba, the team’s equipment director, and his brother Ed, the assistant equipment director. “I want a brand new ball that feels like it’s 10 years old,” Manning told Pennington. “You want it to feel like it’s been in your house for 10 years, where you’ve been playing Saturday afternoon games with it for a long time. I want it broken in, but it should still have nubs on it. The process has gotten better as we’ve changed some schemes and techniques. We’ve honed in what works.”
Brady didn’t reveal anything about the process the Patriots use, but he displayed the same obsession about the game balls he selects each week. “When I pick those footballs out, at that point, to me, they’re perfect,” he said in a Thursday press conference. “I don’t want anyone touching my balls after that. I don’t want anyone rubbing them, you know, putting any air in them, taking any air out. To me, those balls are perfect and that’s what I expect when I show up on the field.”
At some point, the NFL will reveal the results of its investigation, but it seems obvious that this may be the time to take back a little of the game from the quarterbacks. The NFL, a multibillion-dollar business, can afford to hire independent equipment managers on the sideline. After all, that’s what they do for the Super Bowl. As in an ordinary game, officials will approve footballs submitted by both the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks 135 minutes before gametime only, in this game, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin will oversee custody of the footballs.
“At this Super Bowl, the equipment manager of a team not competing in the game is in charge of the game balls and arranging for the ball attendant crews, which are hired before the Super Bowl teams are determined, a longstanding practice,” NFL spokesman Michael Signora said (via Newsday’s Bob Glauber). “The balls go through the standard testing and verification process with the game officials during the pregame time period, as happens for every game.”
Something like that seems reasonable for every game. At least then it would be clear where the buck stops.