The New England Patriots have spent much of the past week answering questions from the league and media regarding whether they knew their footballs were illegally deflated during the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Now it appears the NFL has honed in on a potential culprit, per a report by Fox Sports' Jay Glazer.
According to Glazer, the league has reason to believe a Patriots locker room attendant may have taken the footballs from the officials' locker room to a different area on the way to the field. The league has apparently already interviewed the assistant and may have video, though it is still deciphering whether any actual wrongdoing occurred. Still, the assistant is currently a "strong person of interest."
NFL investigator Ted Wells says a finding is still weeks away, per the Washington Post.
"We are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation on the issue of the footballs used in the AFC Championship," Wells said in a statement sent by a league spokesman. "This work began last week, stretched through the weekend, and is proceeding expeditiously this week notwithstanding the Super Bowl. We are following customary investigative procedures and no one should draw any conclusions about the sequence of interviews or any other steps, all of which are part of the process of doing a thorough and fair investigation. I expect the investigation to take at least several more weeks. In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly."
The NFL has specific rules not only for inflating footballs but also for how those balls are handled before and during a game. The league's game operations manual states, "Once the balls have left the locker room, no one, including players, equipment managers, ball boys, and coaches, is allowed to alter the footballs in any way." The league can levy a $25,000 fine for an infraction. Accordingly, a locker room attendant moving the footballs from the officials' locker room before the game raises red flags.
Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have steadfastly denied deflating the footballs below the prescribed limit. Belichick offered a possible scientific explanation for the deflated balls, though neither Bill Nye nor the manufacturers of the balls themselves seem to buy it.
Given the low value of a locker room attendant, some will speculate that the league's focus on him is merely the result of needing a fall guy, or that a team or player would specifically use someone in such an expendable position to do their dirty work in order to maintain plausible deniability. Maybe it was even just a rouge employee acting on his own. Perhaps the NFL will find the correct answer during its subsequent investigation of the locker room attendant.
Update: According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, surveillance video show a person carry bags containing the Patriots and Colts footballs into a bathroom. The person then exits the bathroom roughly 90 seconds later.