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In the mystery of the inflation levels of footballs, many key pieces of information are missing. The NFL's hired investigators will have to rely on forensic evidence to find the truth, along with getting a buttoned-up organization to be forthcoming

By Peter King
January 27, 2015

“We have obtained and are continuing to obtain additional information, including video and other electronic information and physical evidence. We have retained Renaissance Associates, an investigatory firm with sophisticated forensic expertise, to assist in reviewing electronic and video information."

—From the NFL’s release last Friday, announcing the appointment of litigator and investigator Ted Wells to head the Patriots’ football investigation, along with NFL counsel Jeff Pash.

PHOENIX — You know the most important two words in that 19-sentence NFL release? “Forensic expertise." That’s because in most investigations, the ones doing the investigating run into brick walls of denials. Sometimes the denials are absolutely true and on the level. They may well be in this investigation too. To find out for sure, forensic experts such as Wells and his staff—used to sifting through needle-in-a-haystack reams of electronic data in emails and text messages—will try to find clues in some long-forgotten electronic areas.

The report Monday by FOX’s Jay Glazer that the NFL was zeroing in on a Patriots’ locker-room attendant who “allegedly took footballs from the officials’ locker room to another area of Gillette Stadium … prior to the AFC Championship Game" makes Wells’ methodology even more important now. (And late Monday night, Pro Football Talk reported the attendant in question stopped in a bathroom for 90 seconds with the 24 game balls in tow.) Clearly, Wells is going to have to peel back the curtain on the league’s most secretive team, and that may involve seeking text-message exchanges and other information exchanges different from interviews of people in the organization.

On Monday, after Glazer’s provocative news (but before Pro Football Talk's report), the league—effectively through gritted teeth, clearly not pleased that the story it wishes would go away continued to have legs in the league’s marquee week—shut up tight. Wells issued a statement urging all potential witnesses and information leaks to zip it. “We are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation on the issue of the footballs used in the AFC championship," Wells’ statement said. "This work began last week, stretched through the weekend, and is proceeding expeditiously this week notwithstanding the Super Bowl. We are following customary investigative procedures and no one should draw any conclusions about the sequence of interviews or any other steps, all of which are part of the process of doing a thorough and fair investigation. I expect the investigation to take at least several more weeks. In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly."

The Patriots probably would have obeyed Wells’ dictum anyway; coach Bill Belichick had said Saturday he was through discussing it, and he repeated that Monday upon arriving at the team hotel in suburban Chandler, Ariz. “My attention is totally turned to the Seattle Seahawks," Belichick said, “and that’s where it’s going to stay this week. This week, it’s all about Seattle … I am totally focused on preparing for the Seattle Seahawks, 100 percent." Get the idea?

What that says to me is simple: After owner Robert Kraft’s four-minute diatribe defending his coach, quarterback and organization, New England’s not talking about the story this week, and will focus on the game, and, well, that’s the way they’re treating the story of the under-inflated football from the AFC title game.

To recap: All the footballs set to be used in the first half of the AFC Championship Game nine days ago were tested for pressure before the game. NFL footballs need to have between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch of pressure by league rule. According to Bob Glauber of Newsday, the Colts believed one or more of the balls had less pressure than required during the first half of the game and reported their suspicions to league official Mike Kensil in the press box during the first half. At halftime, all the footballs from each sideline were checked for air pressure during halftime by the officiating crew, and, according to ESPN, 11 of the 12 showed up underinflated by approximately two pounds. The Colts footballs, I reported, were within the proper range at halftime. The officials inflated the New England footballs to the proper level and sent all the footballs back out for the second half. At the end of the game, all footballs tested in the proper range.

As I reported Monday, the vital period of time Wells and his investigative team must look into is the period of time between when the balls are released from the officials’ custody and when they appear on the sidelines for play. I am told the average time the footballs are out of officials’ supervision or plain sight is about six to 10 minutes, depending on the crew and the game. For instance, Gene Steratore’s crew in 2013, which I witnessed, released the balls about two minutes before the national anthem, which would be about six or seven minutes before the start of the game in most stadiums.

So the question Wells must focus on is this: Could something have happened to the 12 footballs in the Patriots’ possession between when they were released by the championship game officiating crew and when they had to be on the sidelines for the start of the game? With late Monday's report by Pro Football Talk, we know now a Patriots' attendant had the footballs in a bathroom for 90 seconds.

You’d think finding out what happened in those few minutes wouldn’t take very long. And they may not. But Wells, retained by the league last year to investigate the Miami Dolphins harassment case, took 14 weeks to issue his report on the bullying by guard Richie Incognito and some teammates of young tackle Jonathan Martin. It’s unlikely this case will take that long, but the league has sent signals that the case will take as long as the case takes—there’s no pressure on Wells and his co-lead investigator, Pash, to hurry to a verdict. Clearly, if they were going to hurry, they’d have had the results before the Super Bowl, so such a Sword of Damocles event wasn’t hanging over the league during Super Bowl week.

Now the question is how cooperative the Patriots and their employees will be. Key point: Wells did not have subpoena power in the Miami case. He won’t have it here. Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have pledged their full cooperation. But how full is full? Will they allow the league to see text-message records? Will pertinent employees such as the locker-room attendant in question or ball boys working the sidelines voluntarily give data records to Wells’ team investigating the case? If there is some culpability found, and the Patriots were found to have blocked access to some information pertinent to the case, the league could come down harder on them if the league felt it was stonewalled.

So it’s a complicated investigation.

Most of the Dolphins report's information stems from interviews as well as text messages and emails voluntarily provided by Martin, Incognito or the Dolphins. (Since it wasn't an official proceeding, they didn't have the power to issue subpoenas, possess private information or force people to produce documents.) The Wells report said it reviewed 1,300 text messages between Martin and Incognito, and went on to recap this way:

Both Incognito and Martin provided relevant text messages, including messages they sent to each other and messages exchanged among fellow Dolphins offensive linemen. We also obtained text messages sent and received by key Dolphins personnel … We [also] reviewed the Dolphins’ scouting, medical and security files for Incognito and Martin, which included a limited number of medical records.

Again, how cooperative the Patriots will be beginning next week, when they return from the Super Bowl, will be interesting to note.

* * *

I got a great and well-reasoned email from Tom Bannister, a chemistry professor from The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla., Monday. I will save the explanation of the difference between absolute pressure and relative pressure, and other complex topics. But I called Bannister after getting his smart email, and you’ll see why in a moment.

Key points from his email:

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FULL STORY
“By the ideal gas law, a football inflated to 12.5 at 72 degrees and cooled to 51 degrees [the temperature on the field during the first half] will have a final pressure of 11.43 psi, thus a loss of 1.16 psi … A second factor, the expansion of a football as it gets wet, also leads to a drop in psi. This factor contributes another 0.7 psi in pressure drop … Plain English ultimate conclusion: It would be reasonable to expect, based on both experimental results and ideal gas law calculations, for a pressure drop in excess of 1.5 psi to have occurred within the Patriots footballs in the first half, based on the known game-time conditions and the observation that the footballs were inflated to 12.5 relative psi at room temperature.

“[But] what about the Colts footballs? We don’t know their initial pressure, but if we assume that they were the maximum legal pressure of 13.5 psi relative pressure, we can calculate the expected pressure drop. Thus the Colts footballs should have been a final pressure of 12.3 psi. The legal lower limit is 12.5 psi. The Colts footballs should have been illegal by 0.2 psi. Question: Would a referee call a reading of 12.3 rather than 12.5 to be clearly out of specifications and illegal? Maybe yes, maybe no. It certainly depends on both the accuracy and precision of the pressure gauge.

“Final conclusion: It is not unreasonable at all to assume that the Patriots balls would fail the inspection and the Colts balls would (barely) pass, based upon logical assumptions of inflation levels, inflation temperatures in concert with the issues of temperature-related gas expansion, the expansion properties of a leather football as it becomes water-soaked, and the human-element.”

So I called Bannister Monday, and we discussed it. I said the assumption is the Colts footballs were at the higher pressure level, and that’s perhaps why they didn’t flunk the halftime pressure test; but there’s no proof of that. But if the Colts did deliver footballs to the officials at 13.5 PSI, then clearly there’s a chance the pressure level would have hovered around 12.5 PSI, and it’s possible the differing results have to do with where each football that was tested was set before the game.

In other words, there’s much we don’t know.

“There’s a lot of missing pieces in this story," Bannister said.

In this case, truer words have never been spoken. Wells has much to discover. I just hope he gets to discover everything that’s important here.


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