Eleven footballs the New England Patriots brought to Sunday's AFC championship game have now been determined by the NFL to be under-inflated – by 2 full pounds – according to ESPN, which cited the preliminary findings of a league investigation.
The home team in an NFL game is required to provide 12 footballs (plus 12 backups). Yet almost all of them came in at the same, illegal level, 2 pounds lighter? The ball is supposed to be inflated to between 12.5 pounds and 13.5 pounds per square inch, so 16 percent below the legal minimum.
That's not a little. Not the number of under-inflated balls, not the amount they are under-inflated. Some gamesmanship of trying to pump up or down a ball is understood. Everyone is always trying to gain an edge. This isn't that. This isn't a coincidence. And, because it's the Patriots and because it's in the run-up to the Super Bowl at the end of a season when the NFL has been consumed by scandals, it's a huge story. Fair or not, that's life in the big city. Bill Belichick and company will have to deal with it.
Unless there is a reasonable explanation, and neither New England nor the NFL has offered one yet, the Patriots should worry about losing draft picks as punishment. Their reputation may never be fully recovered.
Forget overturning the victory over the Indianapolis Colts. It's not happening per NFL rules. It'll be New England-Seattle on Feb. 1 in Arizona • but not before Belichick's sure-to-be-legendary Media Day session on Tuesday. And Tom Brady's, too, because if anyone would know about this, it's the quarterback.
This is a brutal black eye to the reputation of a franchise that has tried desperately to move past Spygate. It's chum to its legion of critics. There may not be an explanation or exoneration that can change public opinion at this point. It's a situation that winds up being an insult to what we'll assume is the overwhelming number of players who don't know anything about mandated-inflation levels but have to have their hard work and accomplishments questioned.
This is a strange story that keeps getting stranger, a scandal that creates only more questions as it grows.
Let's start with this: How the heck didn't the refs notice?
The NFL has a detailed protocol when it comes to game balls. Per Rule 2, Section 1 of the book, each team is supposed to bring 12 official Wilson brand balls "bearing the signature of the Commissioner of the League, Roger Goodell." (More on him in a moment.)
Precisely two hours, 15 minutes prior to kickoff, all the footballs are checked in the referee locker room by the head ref, in this case Walt Anderson.
"The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications," the rulebook reads. "A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game."
You can seemingly rule out the idea of the Patriots providing a pump that would provide inaccurate readings (if this is even possible) because it would have presumably then deemed the Indianapolis' footballs as overinflated. You can also give up on the weather altering the pressure because it would have done the same to the Colts' footballs and this isn't a story.
During a game each team uses its own footballs. So the Colts had theirs and the Pats had theirs. Why this is done in football (it's same at the college level) is another question. Kicking balls come straight from the manufacturer. Why not all footballs?
Anyway, if – if – the refs did their job before the game, then somehow New England managed to deflate 11 of the 12 balls during the heat of the game, all on a playing surface surrounded by cameras. To pull this off via sideline attendants or equipment managers is challenging but some in football say, commonplace. It's also, especially for New England, mind-numbingly brazen, especially to this level with that many footballs.
Then again, these are the Patriots, busted for Spygate back in 2007 and under suspicion from everyone outside of New England ever since.
Whenever they provide an explanation, it should be considered. It's worth noting that so far, the team hasn't denied anything. It has just said it would cooperate fully with the league, like it had an option to not cooperate.
Regardless, we're talking about 11 footballs. This isn't one that was deflated because Rob Gronkowski spiked it too hard. This isn't a couple that might have been defective. This isn't the weather causing just their footballs, but not the Colts', to lose pressure. This isn't … it doesn't matter.
Eleven. Eleven under-inflated footballs on a night when heavy rain made everything wet and a ball that is easier to grip makes passing, catching and dealing with snaps and handoffs easier. Eleven on a night when they had an offensive lineman catch a TD.
And who didn't "Do Your Job" and get to that 12th ball? It's about the only lack of execution New England had on Sunday.
It's still bizarre the refs didn't notice, or care. Two or three refs handle a football on each play. During Colts possessions the ball is inflated to one level and during New England possessions it's inflated to a different one? Wouldn't this seem obvious?
It was obvious enough someone from the Colts – an equipment man it seems – realized it after an interception brought one of New England's footballs to its sideline. It's why Indy complained.
How does the equipment man notice and grow troubled by it but not a team full of refs?
It wasn’t until after the Jackson interception in the second quarter that the footballs became an issue. The Boston Globe reports that, "the league inspected each of the Patriots’ 12 game balls twice at halftime, using different pressure gauges, and found footballs that were not properly inflated."
We don't yet know if there was an issue with the footballs in the second half, when Brady actually was better statistically and New England blew the game open.
Then, of course, there is this: Why the heck would the Patriots even bother?
They beat the tar out of the Colts on Sunday, 45-7. They beat the tar out of the Colts in November, 42-20. They beat the tar out of the Colts in last year's playoffs, 43-22.
The Patriots can pretty much beat the tar out of the Colts anytime they want. They rushed for 657 yards and 13 touchdowns in those games. They could carry a cannon ball around and win the game. The contests were in three different weather situations – including inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
It wasn't the ball that caused New England to advance to the Super Bowl. It was its offensive line and defensive secondary and the frightening prospect of Brady getting to use play-action. The Pats win no matter what.
So why do this, why risk this, why care about the ball?
Maybe these questions are answered by the NFL's full declaration on this, but if it is determined it was purposeful subterfuge (rather than just one heck of a coincidence or referee failure or something else), then it's an example of arrogance, of gumption, or addiction to gaining an edge, any edge, even an unnecessary edge.
The Patriots should know better if only because they had to realize this becomes a far, far bigger story because of who they are and the history they have.
So many big scandals come from small things, forgettable things, stupid things. Nixon was winning the 1972 presidential election without Watergate. They broke in anyway.
It snowballs from there.
Now it's rolled right onto Roger Goodell's desk, the commissioner coming off the worst year of his tenure where trust in his ability to lead the NFL through trying times is decidedly low.
He can't blow this one. He can't come down weak on this one. He can't be anything but fully transparent.
Maybe every team in the league tries to work the footballs to their liking, but that isn't the issue now. Maybe it doesn't provide that big of an advantage, but that isn't the issue either (if there isn't that big of an advantage, then why do it?).
There's more to come. Explanations perhaps, a full report on the investigation, hopefully lots of openness. Goodell can't afford to look like a stooge for Patriots team owner Robert Kraft. This is a big deal now, a big deal that is overshadowing everything.
The rule is the rule. The Patriots are the Patriots. The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl.
And 11 is one ugly, seemingly inexplicable number.