INDIANAPOLIS — Robert Kraft was right. Roger Goodell does owe an apology.
But not just for staining the reputations of Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots organization leading up to the Super Bowl last month.
Goodell owes an apology to all 32 NFL owners. Because this whole Deflategate mess has been badly mishandled by the league office from the start. And it makes the NFL leadership look like a bunch of people who can’t keep their own house in order. Again.
The key issue with Deflategate no longer is, “Did the Patriots cheat?” And it’s not, “Did the Colts and/or Ravens set up the Patriots?”
It’s, “Why did Goodell and the NFL launch a full-scale investigation into this matter in the first place?”
Goodell mishandled the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson fiascos last year, so he got tough with Deflategate, siccing his best and brightest investigator onto the matter — attorney Ted Wells, who got to the bottom of the Dolphins’ bullying scandal last year. He’ll get to the bottom of this one, no doubt.
But by treating it like the Warren Commission, and not as a minor procedural incident that had no effect on the outcome of the AFC Championship game whatsoever, Goodell and the NFL have exposed to the world that the league is, well, kind of a clown show when it comes to following its own rules and procedures.
Just this week, we’ve learned that there were two separate ball issues in the game: the Patriots’ underinflated footballs and the unapproved special teams ball that was almost put into play by an unknowing Patriots employee, Jim McNally. Why was he unknowing? Because the league employee responsible for providing the footballs was secretly stashing them so he could sell them for personal gain.
When another league employee noticed a football was missing, the offending employee handed McNally an unapproved football. This man, named Scott Miller, according to ProFootballTalk.com, has since been fired for his transgressions.
We also learned that the league had been suspicious of Miller for a while, per ESPN, but still tapped him to work the AFC Championship.
And Thursday at the NFL Combine, we learned that Colts general manager Ryan Grigson alerted the NFL to potential issues with the Patriots in the days leading up to the game. Yes, this was already on the NFL’s radar prior to kickoff. And it happened anyway.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The matter didn’t demand investigators and sleuths and more than 40 interviews and a full written report. The appropriate way to handle it would have been for Goodell to say, “It’s unclear if the footballs were purposely doctored, but gamesmanship has long been a part of the NFL and professional sports. Teams and players always have, and always will, look for ways to bend the rules. We will bring this issue up to the Competition Committee at our annual meeting, and look to clean up and strengthen our policies.”
Instead it was treated like a major scandal, resulting in it becoming the top story on national newscasts and hovering like a dark cloud over the Super Bowl. It’s fair to wonder whether this was treated with this magnitude only because it involved the Patriots, who have Spygate on their résumé. If this were the Carolina Panthers, would Goodell have called upon Wells?
And now we’re finding out that the NFL has issues — a lot of them — when it comes to how the footballs are prepared and handled. This was a can of worms that really didn’t need to be opened.
I can’t wait to see what else Wells unearths. And we are certain to find out, because Wells’s report “will be thorough and objective,” as Goodell and the NFL promised in its initial press release.
The Grigson admission on Thursday has angered a lot of Patriots fans and called into question the integrity of the game. “The NFL knew about the deflation issues, and let the Patriots use those footballs in the first half, anyway?” they say.
But I don’t think it’s that simple. I believe Dean Blandino, the league’s head of officials, when he said this wasn’t a “sting” operation. And I don’t believe Mike Kensil, the league employee and former Jets executive who personally inspected the footballs at halftime, has an ax to grind with the Patriots.
Here’s how I’m led to believe this whole mess went down:
In the days leading up to any football game — whether it’s Week 1 or the Super Bowl — teams send an e-mail to the league office with several notes that they want to emphasize, as sort of a heads-up: “We’re going to run ‘X’ trick play,” or “Watch for No. 74, he’s always holding.”
This is how Grigson alerted the league to a potential deflation issue; it was one of several bullet points submitted to the league. The Colts became aware of this in their Nov. 16 game against the Patriots, when safety Mike Adams had two interceptions, and a member of the Colts training staff noticed that the balls felt underinflated.
So the NFL was alerted to this issue, but it wasn’t a sting by the league office, either. Remember, all 24 footballs passed Walt Anderson’s pregame inspection.
At some point, 11 of the 12 footballs became underinflated, and we still don’t know if this was a deliberate act by the Patriots or it was due to a combination of temperature change and the process by which the Patriots prepare the footballs, as Belichick explained last month.
After D’Qwell Jackson intercepted Brady at the end of the first half, the Colts equipment staff got its hands on the football and started this whole chain of events.
Many in New England are up in arms over Kensil’s involvement in this mess, but I don’t believe his role is as sinister as some have portrayed. As the NFL’s director of football operations, and the man in charge of game-day operations for the AFC Championship, it was his responsibility to figure out whether the footballs were improper. If he really had an ax to grind, wouldn’t he have saved the evidence instead of reinflating the footballs and putting them back into circulation?
To me, that says that Kensil didn’t believe the deflated football issue was that big of a deal. It was big enough to get involved in, but it didn’t demand a full-scale investigation that is now in its 33d day, with no end in sight.
But, Goodell messed this one up, as he messed up the Rice and Peterson fiascos. Hope he has a good apology ready to go.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin