The New England Patriots just can’t seem to shake the perception that they are cheats. After the Spygate scandal of 2007, everyone has kept a little closer eye on Bill Belichick and the Patriots. During their dominant win against the Indianapolis Colts to secure the AFC Championship, and book a place in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks, a new -gate scandal seems to be following the team—Deflategate.
What has happened?
During their win against the Colts, Tom Brady was Intercepted by D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson took the ball to the sideline, and handed it to a Colts equipment manager, likely so it could be identified, to allow him to keep it as a trophy after the game.
Either Jackson or the equipment manager noticed that the ball appeared to be somewhat under-inflated—the NFL rules state that balls must be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 PSI—so informed Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano then informed Colts GM Ryan Grigson in the press box, who in turn notified the NFL’s director of football operations, Mike Kensil. He spoke with on-the-field officials at halftime, who removed the ball for further testing, which caused the delay seen on field following kickoff.
The ball in question was not used for the remainder of the game, with other balls—each team supply 12 balls for use during the game—substituted for it, but all 12 of the Patriots ball, and presumably also the Colts balls, were secured after the game for further testing.
After the game, coaches on both teams brushed off the claims, and Tom Brady called the idea that they had deflated the balls “ridiculous”.
The NFL indicated that they would likely have results within 2-3 days, and initial reports are just coming through.
What did the NFL report find?
In spite of claims by Belichick and Brady that there was no reason to worry about there being anything wrong with the balls, 11 out of 12 of the Patriots balls were found to be under-inflated by around 2 PSI, putting them at around 10.5 PSI, or 20% less than the minimum required amount.
Each team provide 12 balls prior to the game, which are tested for weight and pressure by the officiating crew. These are then handed to ball boys, and are supposed to be kept secure by the ball attendant until the game starts.
Ball attendants are selected by the home team—in this case the Patriots—but are employed by the league, and are supposedly vetted by the league too. However, most have close ties to the home team, and are often employed by the team on non-game days, and during away games as equipment managers.
There is no indication, at the moment, that the officiating crew found anything wrong with the balls during the pre-game checks—if they were, the officials are at liberty to throw them out. Assuming that the officiating crew followed correct procedure and properly checked the balls, they must therefore have been deflated during the 2 hours and 15 minutes between the checks, and the start of the game, or else, during the first half of the game itself.
As of yet, the report is not complete, as the league have not yet established how the balls came to be deflated, however if that the Colts balls were not deflated by a similar amount, the assumption would be that this was a deliberate act by someone within the Patriots organisation.
Why does this matter?
A ball with less pressure is smaller, softer and therefore easier to grip and throw by the quarterback. It will also be easier to catch for a wide receiver—though this, of course also means it may be easier for a defensive player to catch too.
This is particularly true in a game like the one against the Colts, which was rain-soaked, and cold, where quarterbacks typically have a hard time trowing the slippery wet ball, and high completion percentages are rare—Brady had an approximately 65% completion percentage (compared to 64.1% average on the season), versus Luck’s 36% (compared to 61.7% average on the season).
Subjectively, the Patriots certainly appeared to have a much easier time throwing and catching the balls, and generally keeping them secure than Andrew Luck and the Colts, though there are many reasons why this could be the case, including the obvious one that Gillette Field is the Patriots home stadium, and they are more used to the conditions—Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis is a domed stadium.
Surely this affects both teams equally though?
In many sports this would be true, as both teams would be playing with the same ball, or balls, however, in the NFL, this is not the case.
As we have mentioned, both teams supply their own set of 12 balls for use in the game, and each offence plays only with the balls they have supplied.
This is for a number of reasons, including preferences as to where within the the 1 PSI allowed “range” of pressure teams prefer the balls to be inflated to, and various ways that teams are allowed, legally, to customize their balls. These mainly include how and where the ball is roughed up, to provide extra grip. Typically, this is done by rubbing dirt into the ball on the places where the QB wants extra grip, and is within the confines of the rules.
Since Luck and the Colts were using balls which were, presumably, within the defined range, the fact that the Patriots were primarily using balls which were under inflated gives them, and only them, a clear advantage on offense.
A third set of 6 balls, supplied by the league, are also used. . These are kept separate, and used only in the kicking game.
The initial speculation during the game was that perhaps one of these balls had been mixed in with the balls used by the Patriots offense. These are monitored a lot more closely by the league due to a long-standing, though unsubstantiated rumour, that in the past teams have filled these balls with helium to give them extra hang time. All three of these sets are marked up in an easily identifiable way, and there is no indication at all that these sets did in fact get mixed up.
Did this affect the outcome of the game?
Most commentators would say no—the Colts were so outplayed in so many phases of the game, that it’s hard to say that this provided any real advantage for the Patriots. However, others argue that any advantage at all, no matter how small, can be significantly magnified over the course of the game, and that even a small advantage on a single play can dramatically change the outcome.
If the ball was properly inflated, they argue, who is to say that Brady would not have fumbled the ball on a play, which the Colts could have recovered for a touchdown. Something like this early in the game could have significantly shifted its complexion.
Indeed, the significant difference in completion percentage, on a similar number of plays, with quarterbacks of similar levels of ability may indicate that, perhaps, the advantage could be significant.
The reality is, we have no benchmark. We can never know what would have happened if the Patriots had used regulation balls, we can never know if it may have resulted in a key turnover, a failure to convert on third and long or other differences, and assuming that we concede that the deflated ball provides any advantage at all, which most agree it does, we have to conclude that this may indeed have changed the outcome of the game.
Does this mean the Patriots cheated?
Just because the balls appear to have been deflated, giving the Patriots an advantage, doesn’t automatically mean that the Patriots cheated. Only if the league can prove that the Patriots, or someone working on their behalf deliberately did this can we fairly consider the Patriots cheats.
There are a number of ways that the balls could have become deflated without the Patriots deliberately tampering with them. This could include faulty measuring equipment—if both the Patriots and the officiating crew used the same faulty pressure gauge, for example—changes in the weather between the time the balls were checked and the start of the game, or a small, undetected leak in the ball could all adjust the pressure without anyone actually cheating.
A faulty pressure gauge is perhaps the most likely scenario, though presumably, this same gaugue was used for the Patriots balls, as well as the Colts and the kicking sets. In this case, this does not account for why one of the Patriots balls was properly inflated, nor why the kicking balls, and the Colts balls did not show up as over-inflated, however, without the complete results of the investigation, we do not know for sure that they did not, in fact, find this.
The second option, a change in temperature is also a real possibility, as this would adjust the pressure of the ball. But again, this would not account for the one properly inflated ball, or the Colts balls being properly inflated—assuming this is what they found—as this would affect all balls equally.
The final option, a small hole in the ball would make sense for one or two balls, but certainly not 11 of 12, and therefore points to a deliberate action, though sabotaging the balls in this way does not automatically mean it was done by anyone associated with the Patriots.
The other possibility, of course, and one that cannot be discounted, is that the Patriots, or someone involved with them deliberately attempted to influence the game. While this is certainly a big claim, the league have found the Patriots guilty of cheating in the past, Belichick, who apparently orchestrated the Spygate scandal, remains the club’s head coach, and de facto general manager, so it is hard to put it past him.
The league will likely spend the next few days trying to rule out any possibility that this was not a deliberate act, before imposing any discipline.
What kind of discipline could be handed out?
Assuming that the league find the Patriots guilty of deliberately deflating the balls, the most likely outcome will be a fine, probably hefty, and conditional loss of draft pick. If they can tie Bill Belichick directly to the deflation plan, or can prove that he should have been aware of the plan, he may face some kind of suspension from team activities at some point next season.
In the case of the spying scandal, Belichick was personally fined $500,000 for his role, and the team an additional $250,000. The Patriots also lost their first round draft pick in the following years draft, though this would have been reduced to a second and third had they failed to make the playoffs.
Additionally, Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for one season for his role in the NFL bounty scandal, where Saints players were reportedly paid bonuses for injuring key opposing players.
However, “spygate” was uncovered during the opening game of the 2007 season, and it is hard to suggest that this gave them any competitive advantage for most of the season, and certainly not come the playoffs. It would be very difficult to use this, which potentially affected only the first game of the season, as a benchmark for punishment in the deflation case, which almost certainly impacted the result of a key playoff game.
And the bounty scandal, while it undoubtedly did impact the results, and more importantly the health and well being of players in a number of games, was not “cheating” per-se. Encouraging players to hit hard, and tackle dangerously, while undoubtedly very immoral, and something with needed to be made an example of, is not really in the same category as deliberately cheating in a playoff game.
The least likely outcome, unfortunately, is that the Patriots will be disqualified from the playoffs, and for the Colts to take their place. However, this is the outcome we feel is most fair.
Why do you feel the Patriots should be disqualified?
If the league is convinced that the Patriots deliberately cheated, then it is impossible to know what the outcome of the game would have been had they not done so. As we’ve already mentioned, if the fully inflated ball impacted Brady’s grip at all, there could have easily been a fumble or other key moment which significantly impacted complexion of the game.
If their win is in question, then their AFC Championship title is in question, as would the Super Bowl be. All of these would be tarnished, and significantly devalued by allowing a team to “cheat” their way to a win. Worse, it sends a very negative message to fans about how the NFL views their championship games, effectively saying that the results and fair play do not matter, and sends a message to the world that the NFL think it is okay to cheat your way to the top.
We don’t think the NFL will have the guts to make this call, but we firmly believe it is the right thing for them to do.
What happens next?
We have to wait until we have the full report from the NFL into the deflated balls, as well as any subsequent investigation into who is responsible for deflating them. Assuming the NFL’s timeline is correct, this should come in the next few days. After this, they will assign punishment, though they may choose to wait until the offseason to do so, rather than disrupting the last couple of weeks of the playoffs.
If, like us, you feel that the NFL need to disqualify the Patriots, you can sign our petition on Change.org. We will need to move quickly, as, obviously, there will be only minimal time to announce this decision, before the Super Bowl.
You can also make your feelings known by calling the League offices, on (+1) 1-212-450-2000, writing to them at 280 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA or emailing the commissioner Roger Goodell on [email protected] (this email address may not be manned, and has not been confirmed as active). You should also tweet him @nflcommish and the official NFL account @NFL. Use the hashtag #deflategate and point people towards our petition. The more people that sign it, the more seriously the league will have to take it.
Can the Commissioner change the result of a game?
Short answer yes, but doing so is not entirely straight forward, and somewhat unprecedented, especially for a playoff game.
The NFL Rules contain an all-encompassing clause, detailing “Extraordinarily Unfair Acts”. This is their “get out of jail free” card for anything which the rule book doesn’t explicitly detail, stipulate punishment for, but which obviously impacts the game.
An Extraordinarily Unfair Act is defined as “any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity [which] occurs in an NFL game which [the commissioner] deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.”
It is left deliberately vague, for a reason, so the only requirement to evoke this rule would be to define that Goodell deems the act “extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional” and establish that the act “has a major effect on the result of the game.”
I think most people would define deliberate cheating, as “extraordinarily unfair” and “outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football”.
I would argue that, in the weather during that game, being able to more easily grip the ball is a huge advantage, and it is impossible to say it didn’t affect the game result. If the ball is harder to hold, every tackle has a greater chance of being a fumble, ever pass has a greater possibility of coming out awkwardly and falling to the ground, and every attempted catch has a greater chance of bouncing off a receivers hand, and into the arms of a defender.
Under this rule, the commissioner has authority, unilaterally, to enact a punishment, including “if appropriate, the reversal of a game’s result or the rescheduling of a game, either from the beginning or from the point at which the extraordinary act occurred.”
Interestingly, Goodell would not even need to prove that anyone from within the Patriots camp deliberately tampered with the balls to, at least, force a replay of the game, as the rule even allows for “non-participant interference”. All they would need to prove, in this case, is that someone deliberately deflated the balls in an attempt to interfere with the result.