The National Football League released its report on the investigation of whether the New England Patriots used under-inflated footballs in the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The authors of the report concluded it is “more probable than not” that Patriots’ employees under-inflated the game balls and that quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware of it.” While I think the conclusions of the report are sound, the report implicitly highlights the incompetence of NFL officials in enforcing its own rules.
At the outset, I should say that I am a Patriots fan, although the last time I attended a game it was when they were using Boston College (sic) as a home field, and in an exhibition game against Washington the stands caught on fire and fans had to be evacuated. Now that was your father’s Patriots.
The report on the so-called “Deflategate” was released on Wednesday by the law firm retained by the NFL to investigate an allegation that the Patriots had used footballs that were not inflated within the permissible limits of 12.5 and 13.5 pounds-per-square-inch (psi). The evidence showed that the balls used by the Patriots were closer to 11 psi, while the smaller sample of balls used by the Colts were within legal limits.
Having read the full document except for the scientific evidence, I think the “Wells Report” was thorough, professional and its conclusions correct. Significantly, Brady has yet to deny that he was aware of the under-inflated balls. In a statement released by his agent, John Yee, not only was there no denial, but an allegation that the NFL and the Colts may have participated in a “sting operation.” Perhaps Agent Yee did not consider that a successful sting operation only catches the guilty.
Now if you think that the ball in a football game is treated like the ball in a baseball game – you take a new ball out of the box and put it in the game – this report is illuminating. (It’s not even that simple in baseball, where balls are “treated” before being used.) In the NFL, however, each team has its own balls used when they are on offense, and they are not just taken from the box. Brady had a complete routine for selecting the balls to be used in a game. The balls may have been broken in at practice, treated with oil, and inflated to the desired level.
Once Brady selected his 12 balls and Andrew Luck, the Colts’ quarterback, picked out his, the balls were brought to the referees in their locker room. The Patriots’ employee in charge of the balls, Jim McNally, informed referee Walt Anderson that Brady liked the balls inflated at 12.5 psi. The standard practice, according to the report, was that the balls remained with the referees until the game was about to begin, and then brought to the field under their supervision. According to the report, Anderson measured the inflation of all the game balls to ensure compliance with the rules, and then placed each team’s balls in its own bag. This is when it gets interesting.
The report concluded that McNally took the bags of balls and headed toward the field without any game official aware of it. He stopped in a restroom for 1 minute and 40 seconds. It was enough time to let air from the 12 Patriots’ balls. When Anderson and the other officials could not find the balls when it was game time, they were “surprised and concerned.” Anderson told the investigators it was something that had never happened in his 19 years of officiating. McNally was then found on the field with the balls.
This is where the NFL’s handling of this comes into question:
- The NFL had been notified by the Colts of their concern that the balls used by the Patriots in their regular season game had been under-inflated;
- At least seven NFL officials were informed of the Colts’ concern, and three of them said they would confer with the game officials before the game;
- Anderson confirmed he was aware of the allegation;
- Anderson said McNally’s removing the balls from the dressing room without authorization was a “breach of standard pre-game procedure,” although other evidence indicated that McNally did this regularly;
- While the referees dressing room was crowded before game with “security and operations personnel,” apparently none of them were there to keep track of the balls; instead they were there for the free food and to watch the ending of the NFC Championship game;
- It was only when the Colts intercepted a Brady pass and reported what appeared to be under-inflation that the game balls were re-tested;
- When the balls were re-inflated, it was not to 12.5 psi, but to 13 psi – a violation of the NFL rule;
- The Patriots were already in a post-season controversy from their preceding playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens over substitution patterns, one of which may have been illegal;
- The Patriots had a prior history of violating rules from the “Spygate” controversy from 2007.
The report also identified another instance in which the inflation level of the Patriots footballs was an issue. In this case, it was Brady who complained that the balls for an October game against the Jets were over-inflated. One of the Patriots’ employees involved in this matter informed the investigators that he tested the balls after the game and recorded readings near 16 psi, well above the legal limit. The report also identified other game officials who adjusted the levels of all balls to 13.0 psi to ensure “consistency” – again, a violation of the NFL’s rule.
For the AFC game, we have a referee who admits to being apprised of the Colts’ concern, had the game balls under his supervision disappear – the first time it happened in his 19-year career – and still did nothing to check the balls before the game began. For the NFL’s part, it states it did not take action to check the balls during the game – as the Colts requested – because the Colts “did not provide specific factual support” for their concerns. When the balls were re-inflated for the second-half, it was done in violation of the NFL’s rule that required the inflation level go to 12.5.
It is, of course, not surprising that a crew that did not think of asking for all security footage when Ray Rice was seen dragging an unconscious woman from an elevator would bungle something they now supposedly believe to be an important matter.
How important is the level of a properly-inflated football? Tom Brady obviously thinks so because he and Peyton Manning were behind the adoption of the current rule permitting teams to use their own balls on offense. The Patriots, however, led the Colts by 17-7 at half-time using the under-inflated balls. With the pressure increased for the second half, they out-scored Indianapolis 28-0.
Does the NFL think this is important? The report identifies instances in which game officials clearly violated the rule. Even in the AFC Championship, the second-half balls were inflated to 13 psi even though the rule requires they be inflated to 12.5. I suspect the only reason the NFL thinks this is a big deal is because of the criticism they took over the past year for the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases.
Here is a sensible solution: Accept the findings of the report. Then acknowledge that the report identified deficiencies in the NFL’s compliance with the inflation rules in other instances, including in the AFC Championship game. After all, if their own officials cannot apply the rule correctly after being warned of possible non-compliance, it may be better for all parties to just move on. This would, of course, require the Patriots and Brady to acknowledge their fault.
How likely is this happening? I think it is about equal to the chances of Ocho Ocho Ocho winning the Kentucky Derby.