The at-times-fierce debate over the legacy of the New England Patriots, and of Coach Bill Belichick in particular, has been reignited while the team readies for its sixth Super Bowl appearance engineered by Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

As the Patriots celebrated last Sunday’s lopsided triumph over the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., in the AFC title game, team owner Robert Kraft said in the locker room that Belichick and Brady are, in his estimation, the greatest coach-and-quarterback combination in the history of the sport.

But hours later came news that the NFL was looking into the possibility that the Patriots supplied improperly deflated footballs for use during Sunday’s game. The league’s investigation continues, with a person familiar with the NFL’s deliberations saying Wednesday morning that league officials regard the potential infraction by the Patriots as, if willful, “very serious” but it was “too early” to know what penalties might be imposed in the case.

The three Super Bowl triumphs achieved by Belichick and Brady already were tainted, in the minds of some, by the “Spygate” scandal in which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished the team for videotaping opposing coaching signals in violation of league rules.


How will the Bill Belichik era be remembered? (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Some call Belichick and the Patriots cheaters. Others dismiss such talk as whining by those teams unable to beat the Patriots and their followers.

Here we go again.

Jerry Rice, widely regarded as the best wide receiver in NFL history, noted the ESPN report Tuesday night that the NFL had found 11 of 12 footballs supplied by the Patriots to be improper and wrote on Twitter: “11 of 12 balls under-inflated can anyone spell cheating!!!”

But not everyone is so firmly convinced that this latest episode is serious enough to be a Spygate-level controversy.

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II spoke to reporters Wednesday and said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “It’s up to the league at this point. I expect there will be discipline if that [is] determined to be accurate.”

But Rooney also said, according to the newspaper: “I guess I wouldn’t put it on the [scale] of serious. If it is true, it is a violation of league rules.”

Some called such tactics commonplace in the NFL.

Former NFL quarterback Matt Leinart wrote on Twitter: “Every team tampers with the footballs. Ask any Qb In the league, this is ridiculous!!”

According to the Tampa Bay Times, former Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson paid $7,500 to ensure the footballs were properly scuffed to his liking—rather than new, slick and difficult to grip—before beating the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl in 2003.

“I paid some guys off to get the balls right,” Johnson said, according to the newspaper. “I went and got all 100 footballs, and they took care of all of them.”

Johnson told Pro Football Talk later Wednesday that he “never saw the footballs” prior to that game but he did give the ball boys a “tip” and he did, after consulting with Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, have the footballs prepared so that they would be easier to grip and throw.

But this is the era of social media and around-the-clock sports news and commentary.

And this also involves the Patriots.

In September 2007, Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 after the Patriots were found to have improperly videotaped opposing coaching signals. Goodell also stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft selection.

That season, the Patriots nearly had the first 19-0 season in NFL history. They won their first 18 games before being upset by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. They also lost the Super Bowl to the Giants to cap the 2011 season.

They have remained consistent winners. Their 45-7 victory Sunday over the Colts came in their fourth straight appearance in the AFC championship game. But detractors like to point out that the Patriots have not captured the biggest of all prizes since Spygate.

“I give them all the credit in the world,” Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cary Williams said this past summer, expressing his objection to his team holding joint training camp practices with the Patriots. “But one fact still remains: They haven’t won a Super Bowl since they got caught.”

One of the media members standing around Williams that day said to him: “They cheated. Just say they cheated.”

Williams, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, replied: “They are cheaters. They are. You got caught. I know you’re gonna be looking at the film when we go out there. That’s just that. I don’t want to show them my cards. That’s just me. Not them. Not them. They’ve got a history of it.”

The NFL is a league of paranoia. People within the sport routinely circulate private tales of fake crowd noise being piped in at this stadium or wireless communications invariably failing at that stadium. It’s always difficult to know what might be real and what might be competition-induced hallucinations of subterfuge.

After Spygate, the NFL said it conducted unannounced checks of wireless communication systems in stadiums and took other steps to crack down on possible violations of competitive rules. Goodell wrote a March 2008 memo to the sport’s rule-making competition committee pledging to impose tougher penalties on any future violators.

“Too often, competitive violations have gone unpunished because conclusive proof of the violation was lacking,” Goodell wrote in that memo. “I believe we should reconsider the standard of proof to be applied in such cases, and make it easier for a competitive violation to be established. And where a violation is shown, I intend to impose more stringent penalties on both the club and the responsible individual(s). I will also be prepared to make greater use of draft choice forfeiture in appropriate cases. I believe this will have the effect of deterring violations and making people more willing to report violations on a timely basis.”

The person with knowledge of the league’s deliberations said Wednesday that the NFL regards the possibility of the Patriots deflating footballs to gain a competitive edge as “very serious stuff.” Asked what penalties the league is contemplating in the case if the Patriots are found to have intentionally under-inflated the footballs, the person said: “Too early.”

It is difficult to make a case that the inflation of the footballs made much of a difference in a game won by the Patriots by 38 points. There even is a question as to whether under-inflated footballs would have given Brady an advantage. Some contend that an under-inflated football is easier to grip for throwing and catching, particularly in rainy conditions such as those in which Sunday’s game was played. But Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, likely to win his second league most valuable player award this season, reportedly likes to throw footballs over-inflated beyond NFL specifications.

But that isn’t the point, many say. The point, they say, is following the rules.

Under NFL rules, each team provides footballs to be used during the game while it is on offense. Those footballs are inspected by the game officials prior to kickoff. But instead of remaining in the possession of league employees, the footballs then are given back to team-appointed ball attendants.

ESPN reported the NFL had determined that 11 of 12 footballs provided by the Patriots for use during the game were under-inflated. According to the ESPN report, the footballs were under-inflated by two pounds per square inch of air pressure. NFL rules require the footballs to be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch and to weigh from 14 to 15 ounces.

Former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik wrote on Twitter: “The quick fix to stop deflated footballs. Officials should now begin random testing anytime up to kickoff and during halftime.”

When the Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1 in Arizona, Brady will become the first quarterback ever to start six Super Bowls. Belichick will join Don Shula as the only head coaches to reach six Super Bowls. Their six Super Bowl appearances in tandem are two more than any other quarterback-coach combo. They are seeking their fourth Super Bowl win together.

As Kraft stood in the locker room Sunday evening after the win over the Colts, he was asked where he thinks Belichick and Brady rank among all-time great NFL coach-quarterback duos.

“I don’t think there can be a greater one, especially because you think of the era we’re in with the salary cap, free agency,” Kraft said. “To do this in the way they’ve done it, it’s pretty special. I think it’s harder to do in this environment than it’s ever been in the 90-year history of the NFL. It’s really special.”

With the Patriots, once more, that is up for debate.

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