Championship Fallout: On Deflation and Blame

A look at what is known about the NFL’s probe into the potential use of deflated footballs in the Patriots-Colts game. Plus readers weigh in on the Packers-Seahawks game, including who is most to blame for Green Bay’s late collapse
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Regarding the NFL’s investigation into the possibility that some footballs were deflated in the New England-Indianapolis AFC title game Sunday:

The league was quite buttoned-up Monday regarding the probe. New England coach Bill Belichick said the team would cooperate with the NFL's look into the story. Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano mostly had no comment.

On Monday I talked to two football people with knowledge of the process of preparing footballs for NFL games. Neither knew a thing about this investigation. That I expected. What I was more concerned about was this: What advantage could be gained by purposely deflating footballs for game action?

“It’s all about the grip," one of the men said. “For a quarterback on a very cold and rainy day, if he’s gripping a rock-hard football, that’s different than gripping a football that is softer and has some give to it. If you take a pound [of pressure] out of the footballs, that could be a significant difference in handling the ball."

Last year, I was in Chicago for a story for The MMQB on a Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew. I saw the men on the crew work at inflating the game balls to just the right pressure. In the NFL, footballs have to be filled to a pressure of 12.5 pounds to 13.5 pounds per square inch of air. Each week, teams customarily would be able to prepare 12 footballs for the game. When I say “prepare," I mean equipments guys and/or ballboys would take the balls before the game and rub the shine and slipperiness off the balls, so they’d be easier for quarterbacks to grip and receivers to catch and running backs to hold, and then return them to the officials in the officials' locker room.

Inclement conditions can increase the normal amount of footballs the refs use during games. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Inclement conditions can adjust the amount of footballs the refs use during games. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Each team would also be able to condition six “K" balls, or balls used only by the team’s punter and kicker, for 45 minutes on the day of the game. During the week before the game, each team gets to condition 12 balls for use by its offensive team. In the event of a game with bad weather in the forecast, the NFL would mandate 24 balls be conditioned during the week of the game by each side—12 to be used in the first and the other 12, kept in the locker room at halftime, to be used in the second half. I do not know for sure that this was the procedure on Sunday, but I can assume, with the stakes involved and the bad weather Sunday in the Foxboro area, there were probably 24 balls conditioned by each team.

Before the game, those 12 or 24 balls would have been returned to the officiating crew in the officials locker room. Each ball would be weighed and measured so that 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure would be found in each football. Then the balls would be put in a zipped-up ball bag and, just before the start of the game, be handed to the ballboys working the sidelines.

One of the officials on the crew I met with last year, Bob Waggoner (who will work the Super Bowl), said to the two ballboys in Chicago in the game I witnessed: “We’ll have weather today, so be prepared to change balls every play, okay?" And the two kids both said they would.

And that’s what I know. Is there nothing to this story? Could something have happened to the balls in Foxboro after leaving possession of the officiating crew? Could there have been 12 balls for the first half on this inclement day, and those balls have somehow been doctored while the other 12 balls sat under wraps in the locker room for the second half? Could the ballboys have done something to the balls? Who knows? But those are the things the league would be looking at as the investigation continues today.

Newsday's Bob Glauber reported Monday that the Colts first noticed something unusual after an interception by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the second quarter. According to Glauber, Jackson gave the ball to a member of the Colts' equipment staff, "who noticed the ball seemed under-inflated." Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were informed, and Grigson contacted a league official about it at halftime. That's what we know now.

Again, it could very well be nothing. But the league would be smart to finish the look into this by the end of the week. The last thing the NFL needs is a controversy like this hanging over the Super Bowl.

Now for your email:

LEGIT REF QUIBBLE. With 8:02 to play in the third quarter, Clay Matthews sacked Russell Wilson at the Seattle 41, for a loss of 15 yards. On the play, Seahawks guard Justin Sweezy was flagged for unnecessary roughness for a late hit on Matthews, but the penalty was declined. Given that the unnecessary roughness occurred after Wilson was down, why wasn’t the penalty assessed as a dead-ball penalty? That would have put the Seahawks back at their own 26. Wasn’t that called incorrectly—shouldn’t it have been automatically assessed because it occurred after the play?

—Jon M., Currituck, N.C.

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The officials viewed it as part of the previous play. I watched this play several times, and I agree with you and several other e-mailers on Monday: That looked like it was not a part of the play, that it was not continuous motion. It looked like it was after the play. If I were officiating, my feeling would have been to make this a tacked-on 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.

COVERING THE WINNER OR THE LOSER. All the headlines today tout the Seahawks' miracle comeback. But equally correct headlines would be "Packers blow it" or "Packers defense turns to Swiss cheese." How do sports journalists decide whether to put the emphasis on the team that came back or the team that gave the game away?

—Allan H., Boulder, Colo.

That’s a good question. I don’t think that it ever can be 100% either way. But I must tell you that being in the stadium and watching the comeback, and feeling the stadium shake with the tremendous collective emotion of 68,000 people, does have some impact, at least for me, on the way I see the story. I’ll also tell you that, as I wrote Monday, I believe a substantial part of this story is someone playing terribly for 55 minutes and somehow finding the wherewithal inside himself and with his team to put up three touchdowns over the last three minutes of regulation and first four minutes of overtime. There’s something about Russell Wilson’s comeback performance that I believe is so appealing to so many people. It’s about not getting too down on yourself, not abandoning hope when things seem hopeless, and not giving in to the very real human sentiment that it just isn’t your day. But, as I noted in my column, Morgan Burnett’s decision to slide down in the open field after his interception with five minutes left and Mike McCarthy’s ultra-conservative play-calling both played a significant role in the outcome.

How do we decide what to emphasize and what to write after a game like that? I went into the Green Bay locker room for 15 to 20 minutes after the game, and had I found a group of distraught and overly emotional men or zombies who just couldn’t believe what happened, I could have written about the specter of Green Bay losing a game it had no business losing rather than Seattle winning a game it had no business winning. But when I walked into the Seattle locker room and found so many stories all over the place, it just felt like that was a better story and more illustrative of what happened on a crazy day. Thanks for the good question.

REGARDING FIELD-GOAL DEFENSE.I don’t understand why teams who aren’t actively trying to block a field goal don’t play a regular defense to protect against a fake.  Up 16-0, why would you not protect against the fake even if you think there’s 0% chance one would be run?  If they make or miss the FG, they still need two TDs. Give up a fake and eventually a TD, and it completely changes the momentum, as we saw yesterday.  Granted, the Packers made a lot of questionable decisions (dropping to the ground after intercepting the ball, calling timeout with 19 seconds left before the tying field goal, etc.) but the one I still don’t get is the FG defense. 

—Matt F., Syracuse N.Y.

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Simon Bruty/SI/The MMQB

Another interesting question. I hadn’t thought of it very much until you wrote. And although I’ve never asked a special teams coach this question, I assume a coach would say, basically, that he wants to keep his options open. If he sees a particularly weak link on the offensive field-goal team, he probably wants the ability to call a potential block if he feels it's there. I think there’s one other factor at play. Often, and it happened in this case this way, a coach decides at the last second to try the fake. And the holder has the ability to either call off the fake or to run some kind of different play out of that formation. On Sunday, Jon Ryan, the holder, thought at the start of the play that he probably was going to run it himself. But as our Robert Klemko wrote in

his insightful story

 on Monday, the Seahawks saw a specific wrinkle in the Green Bay rush and changed the call to a pass. I do appreciate your question, however, and think it is smart for special teams coaches to consider.

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AN EVEN DUMBER PACKER PLAYWhile Brandon Bostick of the Packers is taking the blame and being made the scapegoat for the Packers loss, I would like to mention a play and penalty early in the game that ruined a great opportunity to put the Seahawks in a deep hole. Seattle's first offensive series, third play, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix intercepts and returns the ball to the Seattle 4. Packers DT Mike Daniels goes out of his way to taunt Seattle players and draws a 15-yard penalty. So instead of first-and-goal from the 4, it is now first-and-10 from the 19. Packers settle for a FG. At least Bostick was making an attempt to help his team; Daniels was not. I'll take Bostick's mistake any day over Daniels' personal choice.

—John O., Missouri

You can’t think that a 15-yard penalty in the first five minutes of the game could be the biggest negative play of the game for a losing team. It’s not even close. The Daniels' play was boneheaded, but a tight end who is supposed to have good hands and who muffs a bouncing ball that goes right through his hands is a far more significant play than the dumb penalty in the first quarter.

BLAME MIKE.It seems the players are taking a lot of the blame for Green Bay’s collapse, but why isn’t Mike McCarthy under more fire for his decision-making? It was clearly visible that Richard Sherman was playing injured. However, Green Bay didn’t throw or run the ball once in his direction after that injury. Why not go right at him and test him to make a play with one arm?! I don’t think it’s Mike McCarthy’s fault that his player fell down on an interception return or dropped an onside kick, but kicking first-quarter field goals from the 1-yard line and not attacking an injured Sherman are on the coach. Thoughts?

—Rob, Chicago

You’re one of many who wrote wanting to see McCarthy further excoriated for his conservative play-calling. I think it's okay to blame McCarthy for being too conservative. But he is not totally responsible for his players’ inability to make plays when they were there to be made. With five minutes to go, even with Seattle crowding the box, I have an issue with Eddie Lacy running twice and losing six yards. That is poor execution in addition to poor play-calling. So I think there is enough blame to go around, to be sure. 

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