FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This is what usually happens inside an NFL locker room the day after a conference championship: nothing. Players file in with hangovers, spew a few clichés about not looking ahead to the Super Bowl, even though it’s the Super Bowl, and say nice things about their teammates and opponents.
This is what happened inside the Patriots locker room on Monday, less than 24 hours after they handed the Colts a 45-7 drubbing at Gillette Stadium: controversy, or what qualifies as such. This particular hullabaloo centered on air, or lack thereof, and whether the Patriots deflated footballs to gain an advantage, or slow the Colts' offense, or save money on inflatable tire pumps.
Players did not file in, not many, anyway, and while some that did may have been hungover, they answered far more questions about footballs and air pressure and weather conditions than they did about the Seahawks, their Super Bowl opponent. It was an exercise in hot air that could have filled a few thousand footballs until they burst.
It made one long for the inane questions of Super Bowl week.
Those will arrive soon enough. On the Monday of the week before the week before, the Patriots mostly ceded their locker room to the dozens of media that assembled. A decent-sized scrum settled in front of Brian Tyms, a wide receiver in his first season in New England who was inactive against the Colts on Sunday night. Inactive meaning he didn’t play. And yet, a reporter from The Weather Channel peppered Tyms with more questions about rain than at perhaps in any interview in NFL history. He revealed that, yes, he had played football in the rain before. Someone else asked him about the weather in Arizona – for a football game that will be played inside a climate-controlled domed stadium. No, Tyms also told those assembled around his locker, he had never been interviewed by The Weather Channel before. “But I always wanted to,” he said, semi-seriously. OK, not that much.
Then came the question about the footballs.
“I’ve never heard of that ever in my life,” Tyms said.
Someone started to ask another question.
“They really said that?” he continued.
Someone mentioned the allegation, which was first reported by Bob Kravitz of WTHR in Indianapolis. Tyms laughed, then said, “I don’t want to laugh at it,” then shrugged. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he concluded.
The allegation will have as much impact on the Super Bowl as it had on the AFC championship game, which is to say, not much. But it does add another story line to a game with no shortage of them. There’s Pete Carroll and the Seahawks set to defend their title against the team that once fired him. There’s Richard Sherman vs. Darrelle Revis in the debate for best cornerback in pro football. There’s Tom Brady one victory from his fourth Super Bowl triumph, which would tie him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most all-time. There’s Marshawn Lynch against a few thousand microphones.
Should Bill Belichick and Brady capture their first Lombardi Trophy in a decade, the question of deflated footballs is likely to remain, at least in some capacity. Because this is the Patriots, and their run of 14 straight winning seasons and six Super Bowl appearances since 2001 is marked by creativity, both within the rules and outside of them. That impacts how both casual sports fans and those who flat-out hate the Patriots feel about the historic postseason numbers they have produced.
It’s a stretch to compare DeflateGate with the videotape scandal known as Spygate, which produced an actual advantage for several seasons and resulted in $750,000 in total fines and a lost draft choice. No coach had ever been penalized as much as the $500,000 fine the NFL sanctioned against Belichick. But it’s not a stretch to connect the sheer number of rule-bending, rule-stretching, rule-ignoring allegations leveled at the Patriots during their run. No other team is close. The week before the conference title game, John Harbaugh, the head coach for the Ravens, charged that New England had circumvented the rulebook with its use of eligible and non-eligible receivers.
So it went.
Most of the Patriots avoided the locker room altogether Monday. Belichick, personable as ever on a conference call, said the franchise would cooperate in full with the NFL’s investigation. Tom Brady, on WEEI radio in the morning, called the latest allegations “ridiculous” and said, “I think I’ve heard it all.” Tight end Rob Gronkowski declined to comment as he made a pit stop at his locker, perhaps for the first-ever time. Gronk in, Gronk out.
As the open media period ended, Vince Wilfork stood at his cubicle. He played in his 20th playoff game on Sunday night. On his way home afterward he witnessed a car on the side of the road, turned over, and he stopped and saw a woman inside and pulled her out to safety. It was a touching story, one that will no doubt be retold next week in various Super Bowl scrums.
"I don't touch footballs," Wilfork said. "I tackle." So that was that.
Then everyone turned their attention back to the footballs the Patriots used on Sunday night. “Balls felt fine,” receiver Julian Edelman said, as the cameramen closed in, rapt, and the Super Bowl media circus started a week earlier than usual.