It's been almost 4 months since Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game and gave the ball to a Colts equipment manager, which was then judged to be suspiciously soft, given to the NFL officials at the game, measured and found to be insufficiently inflated to meet the League standards. This lead to all of the Patriots game balls and four of the Colts game balls being checked at halftime, several of which were found to be underinflated, and reinflated to conform to the rules. And this led to an investigation by Ted Wells that, as we all should know by now, found that the Patriots deliberately altered the balls after being inflated and checked by the officials before the game, deflating several below the minimum pressure mandated by the rules.
Since the release of the Wells report, there have been many comments, of course. Many critical of the Patriots, finding the report has damned the Patriots as cheaters, Brady as an evasive cheater, and reinforcing the opinions of many players, coaches, and others that the Patriots are a deceptive and illegal organization undeserving of its otherwise favorable reputation. Others find that the investigation was biased, and complain that the Patriot are regularly unfairly accused of bad behavior.
I have some strong opinions on this matter. Some are held by others, but some are not widely expressed.
First, I've considered the events, as they occurred, as they have been made known:
1. The Wells Report states that "Prior to the game, Colts personnel had notified the NFL that they suspected that the Patriots might be deflating game balls below the minimum level permissible under the Playing Rules, although they did not support their suspicions with any specific factual information." Despite the lack of specific evidence, it seems logical that the League would at least notify the game officials that they should pay attention to the game balls.
2. The Report further stated "In response to the pre-game concerns raised by the Colts, NFL Football Operations staff had notified the head of the NFL Officiating Department, Dean Blandino, and a senior officiating supervisor who would be attending the game, Alberto Riveron. So indeed the League did alert the game officials to the allegation.
3. From The Report: "During a pre-game conversation concerning various game-day topics, Riveron told referee Walt Anderson that a concern had been raised about the air pressure of the game balls. Anderson told Riveron that he would be sure to follow his usual ball inspection procedure to ensure that the balls were properly inflated". It should, from this information, be reasonable to believe that the game officials did indeed pay attention, and would ensure the game balls were inflated to meet the League standards as required by the rules.
4. The Report also included this statement, from an email by Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson: "As far as the gameballs are concerned it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better, it would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don‟t get an illegal advantage."
5. From the Wells Report we learned that "During the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game, a ball thrown by Tom Brady was intercepted by a player for the Colts and the ball was taken to the Colts sideline. On the sideline, Colts equipment personnel used a pressure gauge to measure the inflation level of the ball, determined that it was below the minimum 12.5 psi level and informed a game official and other NFL personnel." (page 9 of the Report). This is, to me, of great significance. More about this later.
6. At halftime of the game, the officials did indeed recheck, the game balls, and found that "Each of the eleven Patriots balls tested at halftime measured below the minimum 12.5psi level established by the Playing Rules on both gauges. Each of the four Colts balls tested measured within the permissible 12.5 to 13.5psi range on at least one of the gauges." The Report also states "The measurements were recorded in writing by Richard Farley, an NFL security official who has been assigned to the Patriots and Gillette Stadium for approximately twelve years. Only four Colts balls were tested because the officials were running out of time before the start of the second half".
7. The game was completed, and the Patriots did indeed win.
My first observations:
- This issue really is precipitated by statements by Colts GM Ryan Grigson, based in part on statements made by unspecified Ravens players or staff. It appears the League was, therefore, alerted to allegation that the Patriots may be altering game balls to their advantage.
- The League, if it were interested primarily in the integrity of the game and fair play, could have warned the Patriots that these allegations had been made, and that such activities would not be tolerated.
- It was found in the Report that the Colts staff tested the Patriot game ball that was intercepted. How could Ted Wells not observed that this tainted the evidence and led to the entire process being suspect.
- Further, the League could have handled much if this better. The Patriots game balls in question were not even taken by the League after the game, but were retained by the Patriots, and requested that Monday by the League.
- Since the game ball pressures measured before the game were not recorded, we really do not, nor ever will, know if any of the game balls were precisely at the minimum legal pressure, nor the variations. If it were known that every Patriots ball were exactly 2 psi lower at halftime than measured before the game, would that be of interest? Would you expect the Report to claim that the Patriots attendant was able, in 90 seconds, to deflate each ball precisely?
- The Colts balls, being checked after the Patriots balls, were not all checked due to a lack of time. We will never know if there were a similar difference in pressures among all of the game balls. Not just an oversight, but an error. Was it not worth the time to finish the examination? Is that consistent with the League interest in fair play?
- And the Colts game balls, having been set aside while the Patriot game balls were checked at halftime, would have warmed up more and could not be relied upon to accurately reflect their game-time condition. If the Colts game balls were assumed to be a control, they were not in similar condition to the Patriots balls at the time they were examined.
- The officials gauges are described in the Report to vary by as much as .35psi. This is enough to make citing pressures with more precision than perhaps .5psi pointless, and not supported by the observed accuracy of the available gauges.
- Did you know that many of the text messages exchanged between John Jastremski and Jim McNally were dated MONTHS before the AFC Championship game? This admittedly does not rule out the Patriots engaging in deflation for months during the season, but perhaps this is am example of ongoing banter between these two.
- Oh, and without unnecessarily disparaging these two attendants, The texts I read seem just as likely to be a couple of schmos cracking wise. These two are probably Patriot fans lucky enough to have gotten jobs on game day, revelling in the exclusivity and notoriety, trading in dark humor and self-aggrandizement. And more power to them. I envy them a little. Maybe more. Nefarious? There are alternative, credible conclusions.
- Has the League stated that altering game ball pressure has never been an issue before? Ah. Not even random accusations? We have learned one thing from this episode: Several teams complain to the League about the Patriots. And other teams do, we can safely assume, accuse teams of all sorts of malfeasance. How many are investigated? How many result in warnings and cautions?
I'm convinced that:
The League intended to catch the Patriots in this, if they could.
The chain of custody of the intercepted Patriots game ball is suspect. If this were a criminal case, there would be no useful evidence on which to base examining the balls at halftime.
Arguing over the precise pressures of the game balls is pointless also. The gauge inconsistencies alone make this difficult.
Most important, however, is the evidence that the League appears to have conspired with the Colts (at least) to catch the Patriots in this act. Impartiality can be assumed to be lacking. The League had an agenda here.
I have no doubt that Robert Kraft, the Patriots staff, and several other team ownership groups will be at the current League meetings discussing this in great detail. Among other things, Goodell has squandered much of the little trust he enjoys among the owners. This is as much his mess as anyone else's.