It began as an intriguing statistical correlation. It blew up into a national debate. Now it's a civil engineer's redemption song.
Back in January, after the deflate-gate story broke, a civil engineer named Warren Sharp put together some numbers that led him to a surprising finding: the Patriots are very, very good at holding onto the ball; and their ability to do so improved significantly after Brady and other quarterbacks pushed for a rule change allowing teams to provide their own footballs for games.
"Based upon the data we've collected and the probabilities, it definitely is extremely unlikely that their ability to hold onto the football would change so much and be as far away from the rest of the NFL," Sharp said back then. "It's extremely unlikely."
Sharp never leapt to the conclusion that the Pats' alleged deflation of footballs brought about their fumbling advantage – correlation doesn't mean causation – but many people took it that way. And several statisticians scoffed. After all, this guy runs a gambling site and suddenly he is some sort of stats wizard? One statistician called Sharp's work "98 percent bunk."
Sharp didn't expect to be vindicated.
"I didn't think they were going to find anything of merit that would implicate anybody," he said Thursday by phone, "or show potential proof of something in the past."
Then the Wells Report came out. And lo and behold, there was indeed evidence of something beyond one game against the Indianapolis Colts in bad January weather. This was likely more than just atmospheric conditions.
Whether there was something systemic that the Patriots were doing, with or without Brady's knowledge, is still not known and might never be known. But the fact that there was someone in the organization known as "The Deflator" indicates that there was a process to take air out of the ball.
That re-opened the door to the possibility that Sharp was onto something.
"I think the much-maligned study by Warren Sharp about the Patriots having a low fumble rate should be taken more seriously, for sure," wrote Benjamin Morris of the stats site fivethirtyeight.com. "I mean, though it had flaws, at a very minimum that author correctly identified that the Patriots' fumble rate has been absurdly small. I did my own calculations using binomial and Poisson models and found the same."
Morris took it a step further:
"Now that it seems likely that the Patriots were violating the rules to gain an advantage," he wrote, "the fact that they also had an extremely low fumble rate makes it more likely that the relationship between inflation levels and fumbling is real – and more likely that the Patriots have materially benefited from their cheating."
Disclaimer: "cheating" is not suggested by Sharp. But the proximity between the fumble rate and the possible deflation is gathering more credibility. Sharp's gun is suddenly smoking again.
A day after the Wells Report came out, Sharp's analysis had escaped the orbit of stat planet. Even NBC's Luke Russert tweeted the study.
"Now I actually have some validation in the field," Sharp said. "'Hey, this guy was right all along.'"
So what does this mean for football fans? That depends on if you want to jump to the conclusion that someone with the Pats started deflating footballs back in 2007. If you're in that camp, there was a material advantage to the new rule. It benefited not only Brady, but anyone on the Pats who carried the football. It actually may have benefited the other Pats more than it helped Brady himself. (Kevin Faulk, for example, had 23 fumbles from his rookie year in 1999 up until the 2006 season, and then only two after that in the next five years) And since turnover ratio is so closely tied to winning, having a key to controlling the football is not a minor advantage.
If you're in the camp that the Wells Report is a sting and a setup, then the stats don't prove anything other than the team is superb at playing the game – which we all knew already.
Like any good stat geek, Sharp is trying to avoid bias.
"I don't know that there is a conspiracy," he said. "I do know that if this was just a Brady thing, that it really helped the team out at the time."
Let's face it, the Wells Report really helped Sharp out at the time, too. Though don't expect him to become the next Nate Silver. He's keeping his day job.
And his peace of mind.