No team in the NFL is given less benefit of the doubt than the New England Patriots. Retired players still fume over long-past Super Bowls they claim the Patriots won through acts of duplicity. Football stalwarts dream up nicknames for coach Bill Belichick, who will soon lead the Patriots into another Super Bowl — “Belicheat,” Don Shula calls him. And big-time columnists continue to plunk down voluminous dispatches that enumerate the Patriots’ many alleged transgressions.
These are the New England Patriots: the NFL’s least-trusted team.
It now appears that designation is more warranted than ever. On Tuesday night, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, long the NFL’s go-to writer for scoops, reported the NFL determined that 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots used during Sunday’s beat-down of the Indianapolis Colts were suspiciously deflated, raising questions as to how that happened and whether the Patriots had an unfair competitive advantage.
According to Mortensen, the balls had two pounds per square inch less air pressure than what’s required by NFL regulations, which would allow players to grip, throw and catch the ball with greater ease. “Under NFL rules, each team provides balls each game for use when its offense is on the field,” Mortensen noted. “The balls are inspected before the game by the officiating crew, then handled during the game by personnel provided by the home team.” It remains unclear how the balls were deflated, considering referees are supposed to check the balls two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff.
One individual told Mortensen that the league, which spent a good amount of Tuesday looking into the matter, was “disappointed … angry … distraught.”
If true, the Patriots could lose draft picks or face a fine. But of course, such stakes are nothing new for the Patriots, a squad that has long navigated a minefield of fines and scandals.
“The Patriots are suspected of cutting so many corners, their home field should be an oval,” wrote Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Rosenberg. “It starts in the parking lot, extends to the locker room, goes right to the field of play, and makes opponents look all over Gillette Stadium, wondering what Belichick will pull next. … There is resentment of the Patriots in the NFL, and all the winning only partly explains it.”
The Patriots are suspected of many misdeeds. Some have been proved. Others not.
As Rosenberg explained, smart opposing coaches put locks on every entrance to their locker rooms when they’re visiting Gillette Stadium lest some wayward aide walk in and lift an illuminating document. “There are well-founded whispers in the NFL that the [Patriot] underlings who supply towels in the visiting locker rooms sometimes run back to the home locker room to share what they heard,” Rosenberg continued.
How accurate are these rumors? Who knows. But numerous coaches said they don’t trust how the Patriots go about their business — complaints that go back to the beginning of Belichick’s tenure as head coach in 2000. According to the New York Times, before even his first preseason game as a head coach, he came up with an idea that would eventually balloon into one of the biggest scandals to hit the league in the past decade: illicitly videotaping an opposing team’s signals. The practice would continue through the 2007 season, when Belichick was caught and fined $500,000 — but not before his team racked up three Super Bowl victories and a postseason record of 12-2.
It’s uncertain how much the practice, which violated league rules, benefited the Patriots. Under what some observers call suspicions circumstances, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell destroyed the evidence of what took the name “Spygate.”
Belichick, for his part, claimed he had misunderstood the NFL rules. But that excuse struck other coaches as disingenuous. “The rules are very, very clear,” former Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher told the New York Times in 2008. “There is no need to be more specific or clarify any rules whatsoever.”
Whatever the cause — or the effect — some players allege the tactic may have tilted pivotal games in the Patriots’ favor. Among them is Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who played and lost against the Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl. He says there’s no way the Patriots could have known about some of the plays they ran — but they seemed to. “I’ll never be over being cheated out of the Super Bowl,” he told CSNNE.com last year. “…We had some plays in the red zone that we hadn’t ran. … And a couple of plays on third down that we walked through also. … And they created a check for it. It’s just little things like that. It’s either the best coaching in the world when you come up with situations that you had never seen before. Or you’d seen it and knew what to do.”
The Patriots’ reaction to such allegations has been to chuckle. Other teams are just grasping, the thinking goes. They’re just jealous.
After the Patriots ran an unusual formation in a recent playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, head coach John Harbaugh complained it was “an illegal type of thing that I’m sure that [the league will] make some adjustment and things like that.” The response of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, with which the NFL agreed: “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out.”
Then, when confronted with the most recent allegations of deflating the footballs, Brady laughed. “Ridiculous,” he said on a radio show. “I think I’ve heard it all at this point.”
But this time, the NFL may disagree.