The Patriots’ run to the Super Bowl has turned into an episode of “Law & Order.” And three days into Deflategate, it is becoming increasingly clear that the “law” was broken.
Now the tricky part: Figuring out the appropriate punishment.
The NFL’s investigation into the Patriots using under-inflated footballs in Sunday night’s AFC Championship is still ongoing. The league has said very little about the investigation or the timetable for its conclusion. The NFL sent a letter to the Patriots on Monday informing them that the league concluded that under-inflated footballs were used on Sunday. The investigation is now centered on how this could have happened.
We don’t need official word from the NFL to know it’s not looking good for the Patriots right now.
We know the Patriots’ footballs weren’t fully inflated when tested by officials at halftime. We know it wasn’t cold enough (51 degrees at kickoff) for the balls to deflate by almost 20 percent on their own. Pro Football Talk reported Tuesday that the officials tested the balls properly before the game. WEEI reported that the officials removed the faulty footballs at halftime and replaced them with properly inflated backup footballs. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the Colts noticed the under-inflation in the teams’ Nov. 16 matchup and alerted the officials to it before Sunday’s game.
So it’s becoming apparent that deflating footballs was a deliberate tactic orchestrated by someone with the Patriots.
The question is, who did it? And how should the NFL penalize the Patriots?
According to NFL rules, if a team tinkers or uses a non-approved football, the minimum penalty is a $25,000 fine for the team and any club personnel found to have been involved.
But the NFL has the leeway to increase the penalties and discipline, and the reaction outside of New England has been harsh. Many fans and media are calling for the Patriots to lose a draft pick. Some have suggested Bill Belichick should be suspended for the Super Bowl, especially given his track record with the Spygate incident. Indianapolis reporter Bob Kravitz, who broke the under-inflated footballs story Sunday night, wrote Tuesday that, “If Patriots owner Robert Kraft has an ounce of integrity, he will fire Bill Belichick immediately for toying with the integrity of the game for the second time in his otherwise magnificent career.”
But let’s be real. Not all cheating is created equal. Breaking the speed limit and committing armed robbery are both illegal, but have vastly different punishments. Using a deflated football is breaking the rules, but it’s not nearly as heinous as game-fixing, or even the Spygate fiasco, which cost the Patriots $500,000 and a first-round draft pick in 2008. No, Belichick shouldn’t be fired. Yes, he should coach in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots would have blown out the Colts, inflated footballs or not. And the concept of ball-doctoring is as old as the NFL itself. Aaron Rodgers said he prefers over-inflated footballs beyond the NFL’s legal limit. Former Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson admitted he paid ball boys $7,500 to allow him to scuff up the footballs to his liking before Super Bowl XXXVII.
“Every team tampers with the footballs,” former Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart said on Twitter. “Ask any QB In the league, this is ridiculous!!”
And the Patriots are absolved, at least a little bit, because game officials didn’t notice the under-inflation until informed by a league official. The refs touch the ball on every play, yet couldn’t determine that the Patriots’ footballs were around 20 percent softer than a normal football?
But here’s the big difference between what most quarterbacks do and what the Patriots did: The Patriots appear to have altered the footballs after they were checked by the officials. When Rodgers, Johnson, Leinart and dozens of other quarterbacks scuff up and break in the footballs, they generally do it before the officials check the footballs, which is 2 hours and 15 minutes before the game.
But the Patriots’ subterfuge appears to be deliberate, which won’t help them in the court of public opinion or the court of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
On Wednesday I asked a rival AFC East coach, who has been in the league for the last six years, how common it is for quarterbacks to tinker with ball pressure.
“I think some guys do it, but it’s not that common,” he said. “A lot of quarterbacks don’t really like the balls under-inflated.”
And how easy is it for team personnel — a player, coach or ball boy — to get his hands on the footballs after the officials certify them?
“Players and coaches, no way,” he said. “Maybe in some situations a ball boy could. Game balls are pretty hard to get to, but it depends on the team, stadium, officials, etc.”
So now it’s time to look at the ball boys, and don’t be surprised if one of them ends up being the scapegoat. But, come on — no ball boy is going rogue under Belichick’s watch. They do what they are told.
The heat is coming down on Belichick, but I’m looking at Brady as central figure in this. He has more of a direct stake in the feel of the footballs. It’s quite possible he tells the ball boys to let a little air out of the footballs before the game, without Belichick even knowing.
No, the doctored footballs don’t detract much from the 45-7 win over the Colts. But would it have helped Brady on a 10-degree night against the Ravens two weeks ago, when he threw the ball 50 times? Would it have helped Brandon LaFell make a spectacular game-winning touchdown catch in tight coverage? We don’t know the answers, but the questions are fair game.
Someone is going to take the fall because Goodell can’t afford to go lax on the Patriots. He messed up the Ray Rice investigation earlier this season, and many believe he let the Patriots off the hook when he destroyed the Spygate evidence. Deflategate strikes at the integrity of the game, and Goodell can’t afford to have a specter of cheating hanging over the Super Bowl. A ball boy might get fired. The Patriots should be punished. And the officials should be reprimanded for not discovering the under-inflated footballs earlier.
But this isn’t armed robbery. And it’s not speeding, either. The penalty feels like reckless driving — the Patriots deserve to be punished, but we’re not going to lock them up and throw away the key, either.
A $100,000 fine for the organization, and a potential fine for Belichick or Brady seems appropriate. If Goodell really wants to throw the book at the Patriots, I’d be OK with docking a fourth-round pick.
But this isn’t worth a first-round pick, and any notion that Belichick or Brady shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the Super Bowl is ridiculous. The Patriots were the best team in the AFC this year and rightly earned their spot in the Super Bowl.
But it is becoming clear that they deliberately broke the rules. And it’s time to face the music.