Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 22, 2015

What Needs Deflating Is All The Hot Air

President Obama laid out his agenda for the country in his annual State of the Union speech this week, and the Republican-controlled Congress signaled its opposition to most of his proposals. The President of Yemen resigned abruptly, leaving his Iranian-backed opposition largely in control of a country that has served as a breeding ground for Al Qaeda. A massive fire destroyed a 408-unit apartment complex in Edgewater, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan. Among the displaced residents was John Sterling, the long-time radio voice of the Yankees. Right-hander Max Scherzer signed with the Washington Nationals, agreeing to a unique deal that will pay him for 14 years while only obligating him to pitch for half that time.  Yet despite these and many other important national, international and local stories; even despite the presence of bigger sports stories, the CBS Evening News began its Thursday broadcast with a report on underinflated footballs. Deflategate, as it has predictably been christened, is seemingly all anyone wants to talk about.

Perhaps that is a reflection of the NFL’s enormous popularity. But while football’s preeminence among major sports in this country is unquestioned, the singular focus on how most of the footballs used by the New England Patriots’ offense in their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday were inflated below the league’s required 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure may also be a sign that too many fans either have way too much time on their hands or are taking the game far too seriously.

This is not an argument that the rules don’t matter, or that some rules aren’t as important as others. All of our games would be reduced to chaos without their rules. In the unlikely event the NFL determines conclusively that New England head coach Bill Belichick or veteran quarterback Tom Brady ordered that the game balls be deflated in order to make them easier to grip under Sunday evening’s cold and rainy conditions, then they and the team should be subjected to the harshest penalty allowed under the rules. In this circumstance that would include not just a hefty fine, but also the loss of one or more draft picks. In the more probable scenario, in which the NFL fails to uncover a smoking gun proving culpability and is left with only the fact that 11 of 12 balls were below the 12.5 PSI minimum when tested, then a fine alone would seem to be the appropriate response. What seems wildly inappropriate are the calls for Belichick to be fired or, for that matter, this story achieving pride of place on the nightly news.

It is said that the Patriots bring some of this on themselves. That is true only for those who are willing to bend reality, turning one egregious error into a pattern. Seven years ago Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team fined an additional $250,000 and required to forfeit a first-round draft pick when the NFL determined that the Patriots had been videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets. It was a stupid move by a smart coach; one that will dog him for as long as he patrols the sidelines. Before that incident and since, Belichick has been innovative and daring, and always willing to find opportunities to surprise and unsettle opposing teams. But there is a critical distinction between breaking the rules and exploiting them.

In this year’s divisional playoff game against Baltimore, New England frequently sent in a tight end or wide receiver who reported to the officials that he was an ineligible pass catcher for that play. That in turn made the offensive lineman who was lined up next to him eligible. The gambit cost the Ravens dearly, and infuriated Baltimore coach John Harbaugh; but it was entirely within the rules. Last Sunday, the Patriots used the same bit of absolutely legal legerdemain to confuse the Colts defense. The result was 320-pound offensive tackle Nate Solder catching the first and likely only touchdown pass of his NFL career.

For their parts both Belichick and Brady met the press on Thursday, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, both avowed they had no knowledge of how the balls came to be deflated. In an equally unsurprising development, many pundits scoffed at the twin denials. Whether or not that skepticism is justified, part of the reason for it may lie in the side stories that have come out this week about the attempts of various teams and quarterbacks to doctor balls to their own liking. Fans were reminded, for instance, of retired quarterback Brad Johnson’s admission several years ago that prior to the 2002 Super Bowl he successfully paid unnamed parties $7,500 to “get the balls right.” There were also assorted reports during the week about which quarterbacks like their balls soft and which prefer a overinflated, or hard, ball.

So if one can set aside the hysteria, it’s clear that this is an area where many teams and quarterbacks seek an advantage. No wonder about that, for those players build their careers based largely on what they are able to do with that leather ovoid that weighs less than one pound. Of course any quarterback who does so should still abide by the rules and anyone who doesn’t should be punished.

But even assuming the worst, let’s not pretend that the air pressure in the footballs determined last Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The Colts’ Dwayne Allen put it best, tweeting “not a story. They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team.”  Last weekend in Foxborough, New England was indeed better, from start to finish.

Whether the Patriots or the Seahawks hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale a week from Sunday, it will still only be a game.  One in which the result isn’t going to turn on the air pressure in the footballs. Fans who can’t accept either of those truths need to get a life.

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Responses

  1. Couldn’t possibly have said it better myself. I’ve even heard people on the radio saying that the Pats coach should be arrested and jailed for this offense. As you say, get a life.
    Fantastic article.
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. No question NFL fans have really gone over the edge on this one.

      Mike


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