Brady was the quarterback, perhaps teased for his fashion or footwear or occasionally awkward celebrations, but never much on issues of substance. He was the underdog turned megastar, likable and respectable and just oh so good.
Bill Belichick played the villain, the supposed win-at-all-costs genius under the ratty hoodie. When allegations of underhandedness or unsportsmanlike play or anything else hit, it was all assumed to be Belichick’s orders, not Brady’s.
Now, however, comes the deflate-gate scandal. The NFL, according to ESPN, found 11 of the 12 footballs New England provided for Sunday’s blowout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game were under-inflated by as much as 2 pounds per square inch of pressure.
And now this is a Tom Brady situation. Now these are questions for Tom Brady to answer, once the NFL’s investigation is complete, likely this week. After all these years, he’s earned the right to be heard.
It’s not uncommon for teams to try to rig the football to the preference of their quarterbacks. Some, most notably players with bigger hands, want the ball inflated as much as possible to allow for better spirals. Others want a softer ball that’s easier to grip and, on the other end, catch. Some of it changes by the weather and game conditions. Some of it is psychological.
Whatever it is, it always comes down to the QB.
You don’t just use random footballs in the NFL, or even major college football. They are never brand new. A coach doesn't just decide "try that one." They’ve been selected, and prepared, specifically for a certain QB, and in New England that means Brady and Brady only.
They can take weeks to get exactly right. They get scuffed and buffed to remove the slippery wax veneer. They get soaked in water to help make them less susceptible to moisture during actual in-game weather. Some teams rub dirt all over them. Others sand the laces just so.
In general around the league, almost every football has been thrown in practice by the starting quarterback prior to seeing game action. If he likes it, it gets promoted to Sunday. It’d be surprising if Brady didn’t follow that trend. After a decade and a half with the franchise, Brady’s precise desires would be well known.
So if New England purposefully deflated 11 footballs after pregame measurements by the referees, then it was done to benefit Tom Brady.
There is no equipment man, sideline attendant or anyone at all in Foxborough (not even Belichick) who would mess with Brady’s footballs without his knowledge, if not active participation. That’s just how it works. You don’t go rogue on the greatest player in team history, particularly with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. And if they did, Brady would order them to fix it immediately.
Brady’s only comments on the scandal thus far were of dismissive shock. In his weekly appearance on WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan Show” early Monday morning, he claimed surprise a deflated ball was even an issue.
“I have no idea,” Brady said on the Boston radio station, as he laughed at the question. “I think I heard it all at this point. … It’s ridiculous. … Oh, God, that’s the last of my worries. I don’t even respond to stuff like that.”
It’s no longer the last of Brady’s worries, and he’s most certainly going to be asked to respond additionally.
If there is an explanation, no one is better equipped to provide it.
If he didn’t instruct someone on the Patriots’ staff to make the football agreeable to his preferences, then he must have noticed the footballs were under-inflated the moment he grabbed one, let alone across an entire first half.
This is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, known for his preparation and attention to detail. It’s not plausible that he didn’t either know or recognize the situation. There is nothing about the grip of a football that is going to escape him.
As for “[hearing] it all at this point,” the implication is that Brady had never heard of a ball being under-inflated, let alone his. As such, the suggestion was just ridiculous. Like, say, the NFL accusing him of filling it with helium.
But the gamesmanship of tinkering with the pressure of the ball is hardly new. It’s done often. There’s a reason, after all, the NFL has such strict rules on ball pressure and detailed protocol to measure and protect the integrity of game balls. The rules were long ago needed.
Even then players work angles, trying to come as close as they like, high or low, to the acceptable limit of 12.5 pounds to 13.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. Or they’d go just outside it. It was reported this week, for instance, that Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers says he likes his footballs inflated more than normal.
It’s all an open secret. To suggest it’s some new phenomenon would be like a baseball pitcher saying he never heard of someone doctoring a ball, or a hitter not knowing about finely tuned bats. It doesn’t mean they participate, but they’re aware it’s done.
Maybe the Patriots pushed the envelope too far this time. Maybe this is standard operating procedure and they figured no one cared because everyone in the league is doing something. Maybe it took a bitter Colts team to be the first to challenge them. Maybe there is a more benign explanation. We’ll see.
It doesn’t matter how or why this became a big deal. It just has. You can suggest the Pats would have won anyway. (And they certainly would have.) You can argue it doesn't aid a talent such as Brady that much. (Of course, if it doesn’t matter then why deflate the ball in the first place?)
The reality here is that a rule violation involving the Patriots, with their history, occurring during the run-up to a Super Bowl, is going to be a major story. To think otherwise is naive. To wish it away is silly.
Whatever happened, Brady is the central figure, even more so than Belichick. The coach isn't throwing the ball. He likely assumes that as long as Brady is happy with the football, then all is good.
And Tom Brady looked happy with the footballs Sunday – the footballs the NFL has deemed outside acceptable standards.
This time, the QB may not be able to just slip away. This time, he's the one in the middle of it all.