Current and former NFL players downplayed the “DeflateGate” scandal Tuesday after an NFL investigation reportedly confirmed that 11 of the New England Patriots’ 12 game balls were not sufficiently inflated during last Sunday's AFC Championship game. Among the dissenters were multiple former NFL quarterbacks, who each suggested pre-game alteration of game balls is a relatively common occurrence throughout the league and not a form of gamesmanship adopted solely by the Patriots.
DeflateGate conspiracy theorists argued this week that deflated footballs are easier to throw and catch, giving the Patriots a distinct advantage in the poor weather conditions at Gillette Stadium during their 45-7 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts. But Colts tight end Dwayne Allen joined a chorus of pundits who said the Patriots simply outmatched their opponent.
“[DeflateGate is] not a story,” Allen wrote on Twitter. “They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team. We have to continue to build!”
The Colts first suspected something was amiss with the Patriots’ game balls after linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter, a source told Newsday. Jackson handed the ball to the Colts’ equipment staff, who determined the ball was underinflated. Colts officials then contacted the league office to lodge a complaint.
A subsequent investigation found the Patriots’ footballs contained two pounds per square inch of pressure less than the required window of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch, league sources told ESPN reports. NFL communications declined to comment on the matter, while senior vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said only that the “investigation is currently underway and we’re still awaiting findings.”
People connected to the Patriots, including Brady, have roundly dismissed accusations that they cheated to obtain a competitive advantage. That hasn’t stopped many football fans from convicting New England in the court of public opinion, particularly on social media platforms that were awash by Wednesday with anti-Patriots sentiment.
There’s evidence that NFL officials are upset with the franchise as well. A source described the league’s mood as “disappointed … angry … distraught” over the investigation’s findings, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen noted.
But the Patriots are hardly alone in tailoring game balls to their preferences, several former players said. “QB’s are picky about [footballs] and could tell you everything about their game balls. [The footballs are] broken in to their liking. How it works. Period,” said Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst. “Coaches, refs, average fan wouldn’t be able to tell the difference by holding them.”
Matt Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Southern California and quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, shared a similar sentiment. He tweeted that DeflateGate is “ridiculous” and acknowledged “every team tampers with the footballs.” Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson admitted to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that he paid unnamed individuals $7,500 to break in game balls ahead of Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003.
NFL procedure requires each team to submit 12 game balls to officials for inspection two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. Teams are allowed to “break in” the footballs the day before the game, thanks to a 2006 rule implemented after Brady and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning lobbied for its creation.
This customization is such a routine part of NFL preparation that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke candidly Wednesday about his preference for overinflated footballs. In fact, Rodgers criticized the inspection process, which often results in officials letting air out of the footballs.
"There is, if you don't have strong grip pressure or smaller hands, an advantage to having a flat football, though, because that is easier to throw. So I think that is something they need to look at. There should be a minimum on the air pressure but not a maximum. Every game they're taking air out of the footballs I'm throwing, and I think that's a disadvantage for the way that I like them prepped,” Rodgers said, according to ESPN.
The NFL officially forbids any alteration to game balls once they’ve been inspected and reserves the right to impose a fine of $25,000 on anyone who breaks that rule, but that fine is rarely enforced. The Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers were each issued a warning in November after Fox television cameras spotted attendants using sideline heaters to warm footballs in freezing temperatures, though no formal punishment was meted. When it comes to the alteration of game balls, scrutiny only seems to occur if the incident becomes public knowledge -- or if a team decides to complain.
Given the seemingly widespread nature of game ball alteration, why is it that the Patriots have taken so much flack this week? Part of the attention can be attributed to the increased media attention that all teams face when the league’s competitive balance comes into question.
But fans are particularly suspicious of the Patriots’ tactics, particularly those of head coach Bill Belichick, due to the team’s involvement in the 2007 “SpyGate” scandal. After a lengthy probe, NFL officials determined that the Patriots had sent team employees to deliberately spy on opposing’ teams defensive coaching signals. Belichick was issued an unprecedented $500,000 fine for his role in the controversy, while the Patriots were stripped of a first-round draft pick. Football fans haven’t forgotten, and they now watch Belichick closely for any evidence of underhanded methods, said former NFL offensive lineman Crawford Ker.
“Because of SpyGate and that stuff that [Belichick] got caught up in, I think he’s under suspicion. If you steal a piece of candy one time, and some candy’s missing, you’re going to be the first one that people will look at … if it was any other team, I don’t think this would be an issue,” Ker said.