Gillette Stadium last hosted a real NFL contest on Jan. 18, 2015. We all know, of course, what (might have) happened to the game balls before and during the New England Patriots' 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
To mitigate future confusion -- no jokes, please, as this is a serious matter of international importance -- the NFL quietly overhauled its policies and protocol for the handling of footballs on game day. Here is how it will go, more or less, in the hours leading up to Thursday night's season opener between the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. (And yes, we'll have a little fun with this. Deal with it.)
1. At 6:15 p.m. ET, two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, representatives of both teams each will deliver 24 footballs to the officiating locker room for inspection. Half of each team's footballs will be designated for game use, while the other 12 will serve as backups.
2. Referee Carl Cheffers will designate two members of his crew to inspect and record the pounds per square inch of each football. (I suggest "eeny, meeny, miny, moe," but it's Cheffers' call.)
3. Those two crew members will use a gauge certified by Wilson Sporting Goods. Cheffers will have a backup gauge, and the NFL office will maintain an available supply of backups as well. But the protocol is to use the same gauge that will be used for all testing throughout the evening for consistency.
4. A member of NFL security will arrive to observe the process and secure the location.
5. Each football will be tested. If its inflation level is between 12.5 psi and 13.5 psi, it will be left untouched and approved. If outside that range, it will be inflated to 13.0 psi. (If anyone mentions the Ideal Gas Law, the plan is for everyone to stick their fingers in their ears and sing, "Lalalalalalalala.")
6. Each of the 12 footballs designated for game use will be numbered, 1 through 12.
7. The same process will be followed for the backup footballs.
8. Everyone will take a break and sing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." (Well, they should.)
9. Each approved football will receive a stamp with, according to the policy, "the referee's distinctive mark" in a consistent and designated place.
10. And that's where the K-ball coordinator, known as the "KBC" in the business, comes in.
11. The KBC, whose job in previous years was to administer the introduction of specially treated kicking balls into the game, will now take custody of all game balls. He or she is responsible for security of the game balls until 8:20 p.m. ET, exactly 10 minutes prior to kickoff.
12. The KBC's expanded role should eliminate the possibility of the referee losing track of the game balls, which happened prior to the AFC Championship Game when a Patriots locker room attendant took them into a bathroom for one minute and 40 seconds.
13. The set of 12 backup balls will remain in the officiating locker room and "be secured to the satisfaction of the referee," according to the policy.
14. At 8:20 p.m. ET, a solemn procession will take place. The KBC, a designated game official and an NFL security representative will deliver the game balls to the field and deposit them at the league-maintained replay station.
15. Members of the Patriots' and Steelers' ball crews will collect their respective team's set of 12 footballs, under the watchful eye of NFL security. (No funny business allowed.)
16. At halftime, the KBC has the option of collecting the game balls used during the first half for a random test. No one knows whether that will happen Thursday night. (If they do, they can't tell you. It's right up there with Area 51 in terms of security secrets.)
17. If the KBC chooses to go through with it, each game ball for both teams will be inspected in the officiating locker room by game officials and NFL security. The psi measurements will be recorded for posterity.
18. In any game where a random halftime test occurs, the footballs will be removed from use. The second half would be played with the set of backup footballs.
19. Three minutes before kickoff, the KBC and game official will bring those backup footballs to the field. Each team's ball crew will then redistribute.
20. Oh, and we might not be done. (You thought football inflation could be measured and maintained in 19 easy steps??)
21. At the end of randomly selected games -- might happen Thursday night, might not, but that's part of the drama! -- the KBC will bring the game footballs back to the officiating locker room. The footballs would again be inspected and results recorded.
22. All measurements, recordings and other football-related information must be submitted to the NFL office by noon on the day after the game.
23. And that, my friends, is how a $12 billion sports league plans to ensure that no one has the opportunity to monkey with the air pressure in its game balls. The loophole is closed. Good night and good luck.