PHOENIX — It’s the scandal touched off by a pffffffffft. A whisper of escaping air that begs the question, what is the real substance of DeflateGate, anyway? Let’s stop right there and admit something about this whole matter: No one at the Super Bowl can say whether it’s even important. Which may be why the NFL is having such a hard time investigating the thing. League officials are trying to figure out what they need to get to the bottom of it, a gauge or a French theoretician?
Either the New England Patriots are a dynasty or the rest of the NFL are their longtime dupes, depending on your view of DeflateGate and how much you suspect Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for their cool, blithe, fast-tracked lives. There are a lot of subtle thermodynamic principles involved in the question of whether someone altered game balls to give Brady a better chance of reaching his sixth Super Bowl.
The amateur sleuths run around sticking needles into spheres and tossing off PSI notations — what is the palpable difference between 12.5 and 11.5 PSI anyway, about four exhalations of a veteran toker’s breath or a squirt from a Cheez Whiz canister? But they also are forced to admit there is a potentially obvious explanation: Tires lose air, so why can’t footballs?
Then there is the unscientific but unavoidable fact that Deflate would be more of a Gate if the Patriots hadn’t won the AFC championship game over the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, and scored four touchdowns in the second half with legal-weight footballs. Brady completed just 11 of 21 passes and threw an interception in the first half with the supposedly suspicious spheroids. Which leads us to the following Newtonian conclusion: When you’re handsome and rich and famous and married to someone gorgeous and rich and famous, it’s almost impossible to get neutral treatment from ragged and unsightly reporters in a controversy.
SpyGate was a genuine moral crisis: In 2007, Belichick was caught videotaping opponents’ sideline signals. That is the only reason this controversy has any real power. Otherwise it’s just the vampiring of a couple of exhalations of air. Ask NFL veterans and expert observers how important the issue is, whether an air leak intentional or otherwise provided a competitive advantage and therefore constitutes cheating, and their opinions are elusive and vaporous as nitrous oxide.
“My thought is simply that I’m not sure that in and of itself it becomes an enormous deal,” Kurt Warner says. “But I think due to the background of the Patriots and what we know of the past, it has become a bigger deal than it would have been otherwise. . . . I don’t know if deflation, inflation becomes an enormous deal other than it’s outside the rules, and if it’s a habitual thing, then it becomes a bigger deal.”
Let’s say some low-level equipment attendant intentionally did it to please Brady’s princess-and-the-pea quirks when it comes to gripping the ball. Quarterbacks are finicky. Boomer Esiason had to have pasta and potatoes exactly four hours before a game. Former coach Brian Billick reports, “Warren Moon was absolutely phobic about the length of his nails. Phobic.” They are particular about the texture and surface of the ball, the precise feel in their hands. So maybe an attendant darted into a tiny bathroom with 24 footballs and fidgeted with 11 of them via some sort of pocket gauge — in less than 90 seconds.
A couple of Peter Wimseys of the media corps have tried this themselves and state that it is indeed possible to release the air from 11 balls in under a minute and a half. Though they don’t say how much trouble it is loading those dozen balls back into a bag — ever tried to pick up more than two footballs at once? — and getting two large duffels in and out of a small bathroom.
Would that have given the Patriots a genuine advantage? Billick says no.
“The actual physical application and how it affected the game, absolutely none whatsoever,” he says. “. . . No. I been at this 40 years, and I don’t know that I can tell the difference between 11 and a half and 12 and a half PSI.”
Warner, however, says yes, especially in a cold rain. “Grip is everything for a quarterback. . . . It’s all about finding whatever that perfect fit is for you, whether it’s inflation or deflation. It’s all about the quarterback feeling comfortable, that he’s got the kind of control he wants,” Warner says. When Warner played in the 2001 Super Bowl, new balls were simply broken out of the box and handed to the players, which meant they were covered with a slippery film. If you want to know how that feels, go to a sporting goods store. Warner swears “some balls got away from me” that day.
But for every perceived advantage, there is a disadvantage. Aaron Rodgers is the opposite of Brady: He has large hands and prefers to grip a harder, even overinflated ball. According to CBS analyst Phil Simms, earlier this season Rodgers told him he likes to “push the limit” on how much air is in the ball, “even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take the air out of it.” Simms said this on national television — and no one called it a “-Gate.” For the simple reason that it’s just not a genuine advantage. If Rodgers prefers a larger ball, it’s also harder for his receivers to catch. Similarly, while if you let a little air out of the ball, it may be easier to catch, but it also decelerates when you throw it, loses its zip, doesn’t travel as far.
“I don’t know how much it really helps,” Michael Irvin said. “I don’t give too much thought to it. It helps the grip, but it kills the distance.”
The NFL Network’s Heath Evans, a former running back who retired in 2010 after a decade with four teams, including the Patriots, contends that the focus on air pressure is silly for the simple reason that no two footballs are really alike, given the tanning process.
“Think about it: Every cow has a little bit different texture skin,” he says. “It’s not going to be an exact science. It’s just not. It’s a non-story.”
Ultimately, DeflateGate loses its air as a scandal for the simple reason that the better team so obviously won.
“And the better team is going to win on Sunday,” Evans contends. ‘They could play with a 10-pound ball, and the better team is still going to win.”