MOBILE, Ala. – Most of the NFL world is in this coastal town for the week of Senior Bowl practices, and you might be surprised to learn that the Patriots’ football scandal is not exactly huge news.
That’s not to say people aren’t interested.
I talked with team power brokers—general managers, head coaches and coordinators—as well as position coaches and others about the situation, and I got a mixed bag of opinions.
“Of course it’s a big deal,” said a defensive coordinator. “You go try to throw a ball in wet conditions that is fully inflated, and then throw one that has less air. Of course you’re going to get a better grip. It’s a definite advantage. And look which team it is. Not a surprise.”
An AFC defensive coach told me: “It pisses us off. We’re talking about the integrity of the game, respect for the game. That should mean something to you. You don’t have to look for every gray area to exploit. It’s like the ineligible player thing. [The Ravens complained that the Patriots were working too fast when players were reporting as ineligible and not allowing the defense time to change personnel, as is required.] That violates the spirit of the rule.
“[Belichick] is a great coach, and they are a great team. It’s just a shame that they feel the need to do these things. If you don’t respect the game, I lose respect for you.”
In his press conference on Thursday, Belichick categorically denied any knowledge of tampering with game balls: “I can tell you that in my entire coaching career I have never talked to any player [or] staff member about football air pressure. That is not a subject that I have ever brought up.” Indeed, Belichick said that before this story broke on Monday morning, “I had no knowledge of the various steps involved in the game balls, the process that happened between when they were prepared and went to the officials and went to the game.”
Still, one AFC general manager thought that if Belichick is tied to this latest incident—and several coaches I spoke to felt that Tom Brady would be more likely to be at the heart of this matter—it would affect his Hall of Fame candidacy.
On the other hand a head coach with a defensive background told me: “I don’t think you can gain a big edge letting air out of the ball. I don’t think it’s that big of an issue.”
Probably the most curious feedback came from three coaches who have spent most of their careers dealing with quarterbacks. Their responses were almost identical. Echoing Belichick’s sentiment, these coaches told me they had never really heard any discussion about the pressure in a game ball. Getting one worked in and scuffed up? Sure, every quarterback has a personal preference as to the feel of the football. When the balls come out of the box, they’re slippery because of wax on the ball. But the amount of air? Never part of the interaction with their quarterbacks. Why?
“Because the NFL has strict guidelines, and the officials make sure they are regulation before the game,” said an offensive coordinator. “The balls are always the same inflation for games.”
And this is the crux of the issue. It’s one thing to work on and scuff the leather to personal standards. It’s also understandable for a quarterback who likes the ball at a certain pressure to give balls that are inflated to his personal preference to game officials, with the hopes that a few or all of them pass through a less-than-rigorous inspection. (It’s the job of the officials, not the team, to make sure the balls that go into the game are up to specifications.) But it’s quite another thing for balls that have been certified by the officials before the game to fail inspection at halftime, as is alleged here according to various reports.
In a segment for ESPN, former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Jerome Bettis were given a ball inflated to regulation and another that was two pounds under regulation, as the Patriots’ balls were reported to have been. Both players were adamant an advantage would be gained. On the other hand, former NFL wide receiver Amani Toomer, on a Pro Football Now segment for SI, was given a ball at 13 psi and another inflated to just 10 psi—2.5 pounds under regulation—and said the latter felt “a little bit different” to him but it was not really noticeable unless someone worked and felt for the difference.
Whatever the case, any accusation that threatens the integrity of the game and/or competitive balance should be dealt with seriously by the league. And it doesn’t matter what the score of the game was. Intentionally breaking league rules is cheating. Period.
What kind of punishment should be doled out, if someone on the Patriots is found to have tampered with the balls? One veteran GM in Mobile said, “I think they’ll be hit hard in the draft.” To me, though, it’s simply too early in the process for such speculation. Media reports are nice, especially from respected reporters, but they aren’t established facts. There are simply too many unanswered questions at this point.
Is there any direct evidence, by testimony or visually, that the Patriots intentionally doctored the balls after the officials inspected them? Were the Patriots warned by the NFL that there were suspicions about the inflation level of their balls at any point this season, after complaints from the Colts and/or Ravens, as reported by Fox’s Jay Glazer?
If there’s evidence the Patriots did tamper, that’s bad. If Belichick directed it, that’s worse, given his previous sanctions in Spygate. If Brady or someone working on his behalf, outside of Belichick’s scope, was at fault, then the sanctions would be less severe, because Brady would be a first-time offender. If the Patriots were warned about inflation issues and still violated the rules, as in Spygate? Then the NFL should level serious sanctions, and I’m not just talking about a draft pick. A lengthy suspension for Belichick would be in order.
But we don’t know any of that yet. And the NFL coaches I spoke with were in the same wait-and-see mode. The one thing all were unanimous on: They’re interested to see how this is handled by commissioner Roger Goodell, because the perception is the Patriots get off easy on infractions that would result in harsher penalties for other teams.
If the Patriots are found guilty this time, I don’t think that will be an issue, considering Goodell made it clear in 2008 that conclusive proof shouldn’t be the burden on cases involving competition.
“Too often competitive violations have gone unpunished because conclusive proof of the violation was lacking,” Goodell wrote. “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.”
Now the NFL world waits for the league’s investigation to conclude, and to see if Goodell puts his money where his mouth is.
Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images