Last year was a big year for scandal in the NFL. There was actual football being played for the last five months, but between the awkward press conferences, scathing reports, various legal battles and doubling down on the same personal conduct policies that got Roger Goodell in trouble in the first place, the games have taken a back seat to the league's stumbling, mumbling and fumbling. It's only fitting that we now have the Patriots and DeflateGate (I prefer BallGhazi, personally) perched atop the news cycle less than two weeks ahead of Super Bowl 49.
Letting the air out of game balls isn't as serious as the incidents that rocked the NFL world last fall. But it is another round of bad news coming at a time the NFL usually reserves for hyping its biggest event of the year.
The Patriots are now under investigations over allegations that they intentionally deflated game balls. On Tuesday night, ESPN reported that 11 of the 12 balls set aside for the Patriots offense were found to be under inflated. Whether or not that was intentional and how it could have happened is what the NFL is now looking into, with the expectation of getting to the bottom of it by the end of this week.
With that, here's a run down of what we know so far and a closer look at the biggest questions about the incident.
Why deflate the game balls?
Sunday's game at Foxborough was rainy and windy. Wet footballs are harder to grip, thus more difficult to throw and catch. Letting some of the air out would make them more pliable and easier for a player to handle.
Pounds of pressure or weight of the ball?
By regulation, all NFL game balls are supposed to be inflated to a range between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch (PSI). When you hear reporters talking about 11 of 12 balls found to be under-inflated by as much as two pounds, that means the air pressure in the balls was as low as 10.5 PSI. A regulation NFL football itself only weighs between 14 and 15 ounces, less than a pound.
Could the cold temperatures have caused the balls to deflate?
Temperature can change air pressure, lowering it because the molecules that make up the gas are less active. However, the weather for the AFC Championship would have deflated the balls set aside for the Colts as well as the Patriots. Only the Patriots balls were found to be deflated.
Wouldn't the deflated balls help the Colts too?
No, because each team has their own balls for use when its offense is on the field.
Per NFL rules, each team has 12 balls they use on offense. The home team is also required to provide 12 more balls for backup, and visitors can bring 12 backup balls of their own if they so choose. In addition to those balls, Wilson, the company that manufactures NFL footballs, ships eight new balls directly to the officials for a game. Those are the kicking balls used by both teams, and they're kept under the control of the referees.
Why the NFL doesn't provide game balls and control them tighter than they do now is a question for another time.
How did they come to suspect the balls were deflated?
Oddly enough, it came after Tom Brady threw an interception in the second quarter last Sunday against the Colts. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who picked off Brady, noticed a difference and took the ball to the Colts' equipment manager. It quickly went up the chain of command and back to the NFL.
On Tuesday night, the Boston Globe reported that the refs discovered the issue at halftime. According to the rules, the refs are supposed to replace the balls, if they find them not up to standard, with balls from the visitor.
Why didn't the officials notice the balls before the game?
That's a question the NFL investigation will likely answer.
Some basic understanding of the rules is in order here too. Refs check the balls two hours and 15 minutes before the start of the game. The balls were tested before the game, according to the rules, per Pro Football Talk.
The balls are then placed in a bag and stay under supervision until they are delivered to the sidelines shortly before the start of the game. If the Patriots did intentionally deflate their balls, it would have most likely had to happen amidst the hubbub on their sideline, with cameras and crowds all around the stadium, shortly before kickoff.
So why didn't the refs noticed the balls during the first half, before Brady's interception? According to the same PFT report, a ball under inflated by two pounds wouldn't be noticeable unless the refs were specifically looking for it.
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Were the balls deflated for the Patriots' Divisional round win over the Ravens too?
Several Baltimore players reportedly claimed that the kicking balls were not properly inflated for that game. It's harder to kick a deflated ball.
However, their claim doesn't add up. Kicking balls are under the supervision of officials before the game and throughout. Those eight balls, shipped directly to officials from the manufacturer, are inspected two hours and 15 minutes before the game. Teams get 45 minutes to break in those balls as well, and they go to the kicking ball coordinator after that. The coordinator works with the refs during the game to put those balls into play.
Those eight kicking balls are used by both teams, so a deflated ball would have affected the Patriots as well as the Ravens.
What will happen to the Patriots?
The rulebook says that teams tampering with balls are subject to a $25,000 fine. But this is the NFL, where the commissioner has the authority to deliver ad hoc discipline as he sees fit. If the league's investigation does determine that the Patriots intentionally deflated their game balls, most expect them to lose a draft pick and be subject to some heftier fines than the minimum.
Can the NFL overturn New England's win?
Nope. The rules do not allow for wins to be vacated in the NFL.
What's the difference between deflating balls and scuffing them up?
Both teams are allowed to break in their game balls, i.e. rubbing them down and scuffing them up so that the leather on the new balls isn't slick and harder to grip. This rule went into effect in 2006. Prior to that, only the home team's quarterback was allowed to break in game balls.
So what's Brad Johnson talking about?
The former Buccaneers quarterback admitted to paying someone $7,500 to break in the balls used in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. Johnson had actually admitted it before, but the incident is back in the news ... for obvious reasons. The Bucs were designated as the away team for that game, meaning that they were not allowed to break in their own balls at the time (see the previous item).
Johnson bought access to all the balls used in the game, meaning the Raiders had the same advantage as the Buccaneers thanks to Johnson's investment.
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Why is this such a big deal?
For all the chest thumping the NFL does about the integrity of the game, this is one of those issues that really and truly is about the integrity of the game, unlike, say, the color of a player's cleats or press conference hijinks.
This is one of those rules that makes sure that teams have the same basic set of circumstances when they play a game. It's just as important as making sure the lines on the field are the correct distance apart and the goalposts run straight up and down, maybe more so.
Some have pointed to the box score from the AFC Championship as evidence that deflated balls didn't really matter in the outcome of that game; the Patriots dominated the Colts for a 45-7 win. They even ran the ball more than they threw it, scoring three times on the ground. That doesn't matter. It's the basic principle of fairness and respect for the rules of the game itself, as opposed to The Shield.
It also looks bad for the NFL, especially in light of recent circumstances that feed the perception of a corporate behemoth drunk on its own power and run amok. Suddenly, the league can't control the one piece of equipment that's fundamental to its own existence. That's a really bad look after six months (if not more) of Roger Goodell promising to get his house in order.