The news broke as Sunday bled into Monday: The NFL is investigating whether the New England Patriots had intentionally underinflated the footballs used during their 45-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. So what's really going on here? Let's take a closer look, with updates associated with the news that the NFL found 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs in the game to be underinflated by about 2 pounds apiece, as well as comments Thursday from coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Newsday reported the following chain of events: Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the second quarter and brought the ball to the sideline. Jackson handed it to a Colts equipment manager, who noticed the ball seemed underinflated. Coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were informed, and Grigson notified NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil on site.
According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the NFL tested the balls at halftime and found the discrepancy.
What's wrong with that?
The NFL rulebook has precise stipulations for the inflation and weight of all game balls. They must be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch and weigh between 14 and 15 ounces.
Why would a team want to use underinflated balls?
Basic physics. A less-inflated ball is more easily manipulated by a quarterback's hands, allowing him to squeeze and secure it better. This ability could be especially advantageous in the kind of wet and windy weather in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where the AFC Championship Game was played.
How would one let the air out of a ball during a game?
Game officials inspect and approve all game balls 2 hours, 15 minutes before the start of the game, placing a unique mark on each to signify compliance with weight and inflation requirements. A ball attendant takes them to the field, where they are kept by ball boys on the sideline. Presumably, someone on the sideline could reduce inflation after the initial inspection.
Who are the ball boys?
In most cases, they are game-day employees identified and vetted by teams but paid by the NFL. In some cases, they can be sons or daughters of prominent team employees, but in recent years, teams have been moving away from using teenage staff. Ball boys work both home and road games, often doubling as assistants to the equipment staff.
Is there any oversight during the game?
The referee can swap out a ball at any point for any reason, including concern about inflation. Referee Walt Anderson did that at least once Sunday night, on the first play of the third quarter. It was not entirely clear why. Mortensen reported Anderson called for a new ball more than once during the game.
What will the NFL investigate?
Even after finding the weight discrepancy, the league will have to find proof of an intentional act to deflate balls used in the game. Its game operations manual states in part: "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."
If found guilty, how will the league punish the Patriots?
Again, from the game manual: "If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000."
Is that all?
The key question, of course, is how commissioner Roger Goodell would view the Patriots -- and coach Bill Belichick in particular -- if the investigation continues in this direction. Belichick, of course, was fined $500,000 after the Patriots were found to have spied illegally on opponents in 2007. The team was fined $250,000, and it surrendered a first-round draft choice.
Goodell's letter to Belichick at the time referenced a "calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field." If Goodell views Belichick as a repeat offender to the general act of, well, cheating, then the penalties for this episode could be considerably higher.
Could Goodell reverse the outcome of the AFC Championship Game?
Technically, yes, but it almost certainly won't happen.
Rule 17, Section 2 of the NFL rule book gives Goodell "the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which he deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game."
The bar is high for reversing the outcome. According to the rule, it must be an act or incident that Goodell "deems so extraordinary or unfair that the result of the game in question would be inequitable to one of the participating teams." Would the Colts have won if the footballs were inflated properly? That argument is hard to make.
What are the Patriots saying about this?
In unusually direct terms, Belichick said Thursday morning that he was "shocked" and had "no explanation for what happened." In an eight-minute statement, Belichick said he has never thought of the ramifications of various inflation levels of a football. He also said that in the future, the Patriots would inflate every football beyond the minimum of 12.5 psi to ensure compliance with NFL rules.
Brady's afternoon news conference was far less convincing. He repeatedly denied altering footballs, but acknowledged that a ball at 12.5 psi is "perfect" to him. On several occasions, however, Brady said he wouldn't notice if a ball's inflation changed between his pregame selection and after kickoff. If he knows that 12.5 psi is "perfect," then how would he not notice a two-pound difference?
Will the NFL change any of its ball inflation policies for the Super Bowl in response to this issue?
Actually, the NFL's current policy already takes ball preparation and inflation out of the hands of the teams involved in the game. This year, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin will supply balls to the game attendants, who were hired before the NFC and AFC Championship Games. A league spokesman said the league's Competition Committee is expected to review all of these policies during the offseason.
Is this really a big deal?
In itself, no. There is no chance that underinflated balls impacted the outcome of the AFC Championship Game. For the NFL, as with most things, it's about perception. Rules and policies are in place not only to ensure fair play, but to maintain trust. Fans must believe what they're seeing is honest and forthright competition, as removed as possible from subversive acts that would imply nonorganic winners and losers.
Are the Patriots being unfairly targeted?
Quite frankly, the league's 31 other teams do not give the Patriots much benefit of the doubt after the 2007 spying incident. These feelings could be based on jealousy, or simply an unwillingness to accept the Patriots' sustained success on its face. Others might follow the belief of the scorned wife: Once a cheater, always a cheater.
In the end, however, the Patriots will always generate higher levels of suspicion.