Inflation, Deflation, & the NFL


Football image courtesy of Fotalia

Inflation, Deflation, & the NFL
| published January 23, 2015 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

Inflategate, Spygate, mishandling of the Ray Rice assault case and a plethora of high-profile off-field incidents have drawn negative attention to the National Football League and sports in general, according to the Associated Press and scores of other news agencies.

On Friday the NFL finally broke its awkward silence and confirmed that its own internal investigation showed that footballs used in a playoff game last weekend were intentionally under-inflated. The NFL has now hired a special investigator to look more deeply into the matter. Earlier in the week, after the NFL's initial determination Wednesday that 11 of 12 game balls used in Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts appeared to have been underinflated, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady felt compelled on Thursday to answer questions concerning the accusations.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "I get the snap, I drop back, I throw the ball. I don't sit there and try to squeeze it and determine that." However, former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, who is almost always even-keeled and non-judgmental, found Brady's comments disingenuous.

“I just didn’t believe what Tom Brady had to say,” Brunell said on ESPN following the press conference. "It's very contradictory to my experiences,” he said, referring to Brady’s indifference to how game day footballs are prepared. "That is your livelihood. You’ve got to feel comfortable with the football. You’ve got to get ‘em in your hands; you’ve got to dig your fingers into them. You’ve got to make sure they meet your specifications.”

In previous segments on ESPN, Brunell and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis demonstrated the obvious advantages of throwing, carrying and catching an underinflated ball. In one segment, they each correctly identified properly-inflated, under-inflated and over-inflated footballs.

I am sure Brady and Coach Bill Belichick knew exactly what was going on and were skirting the rules, just like when Spygate blew back on them several years ago. Belichick is known as one of the game's biggest micro-managers in its history, and Brady is a consummate professional when playing. If you know every play and tendency of your opponents, and you practice throwing an under-inflated ball a couple thousand times when most other teams are grabbing a slick ball, then you might have a slight advantage.

The Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, February 1, and the jury is out on how much punishment might be meted out to Belichick and the New England franchise. The league choreographs everything it ever does, so all announcements and potential punishments will trickle out and be designed to have the least amount of blowback on the NFL.

In 2007, the Patriots were caught videotaping defensive signals of the New York Jets during a September 9 game, which is contrary to the rules. I understand the world has changed and many people don't consider cheating to be a bad thing, especially if it's your team that stands accused of indiscretions. The taping incident received the moniker "Spygate," Belichick was docked $500,000, the Pats paid a $250,000 fine, and lost their 2008 first-round draft selection. Everyone moved on, because the NFL is extremely powerful and fans couldn't care less what is actually happening behind-the-scenes as long as they're properly entertained.

New England has reached the Super Bowl six times in the last 14 years, hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy three times. Oil prices may be dropping worldwide as part of energy deflation, but Super Bowl ticket prices have fallen 20 percent compared with this time last year, with analysts blaming a combination of the game's Arizona venue, the Patriots being in the game too many times and common fans souring on a league overshadowed by cheaters and lawbreakers. Wife beaters and murderers will eventually put a damper on sporting interests, especially when half your fans are female and chastising seems to be the league's primary form of punishment for transgressors.

I don't see anybody being banned for life for egregious acts. What do you think of this list of names? Aaron Hernandez, O.J. Simpson, Rae Carruth, Pacman Jones, Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Little, Lawrence Phillips, Ray Lewis, Alonzo Spellman, Robert Rozier, Tommy Kane, Jim Dunaway, Darryl Henley, Gene Atkins, Dwayne Goodrich. The list is much longer, but I think you get the point.

They might not all be household names and they aren't all murderers, but unrepentant and out of control are not what I want on my tombstone. Smile you billion-dollar NFL, these are the gladiators you glorified in your pursuit of the almighty dollar. I understand you have bigger fish to fry than cheaters, but you people need to start disciplining someone sometime, and now is just as good a time as any.

Only a couple weeks ago, coaching legend Don Shula, the NFL's winningest coach, referred to Belichick as "Beli-cheat." At the time, I found that such a quaint notion from an aging soul of yesteryear, but the combination of these revelations and the league's seeming indifference have truly irritated me.

As for the underinflated football brouhaha, the league is extremely precise about the game and its equipment, including the number of balls prepared for games, how much they must weigh, and exactly who monitors those balls until kickoff. I won't bore you with all the details, but the NFL is investigating a report the Pats used underinflated balls in the AFC title game against Indianapolis. Evidently, 11 of 12 balls were underinflated by two pounds per square inch of air. Does this mean New England cheated and did this lead to the Pats' 45-7 victory over the Colts? The truth may never come out on that point, which reduces the likelihood that someone will be punished.

And not to be outdone, the odds-makers in Las Vegas have weighed in on the controversy. One bookmaker has posted odds of 3-2 that Belichick could be suspended at least one game, while the line is at 15-2 that he might be suspended for the Super Bowl.

The supposed cheating fiasco has evidently become such a massive story that Super Bowl XXXVII winning quarterback Brad Johnson has stepped forward with an opinion. Johnson's Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have beaten the Oakland Raiders 48-21, but he he's letting the whole world know his victory may have been tainted.

Remember Johnson and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon in their Got Milk? mustache photo shoot several days before the big game? Anyway, Johnson, 34 at the time, had numerous idiosyncrasies he'd picked up through the years well before joining the Bucs. He changed socks and shoes every game, and throughout the course of the game would replace everything but his pants. The man just couldn't get enough of that clean, dry feeling.

Then came the footballs. He sweated like he owed a bookie millions, so he couldn't seem to grip a football if it was wet, cold, or new and just out of the box. The week before in the NFL title game in Philadelphia, the 26-degree weather forced him to wear a glove for the first time in his career.

"I wouldn't have been able to play without it," he said.

Back then the league had more than 100 game footballs, and the new, slick balls were carefully watched by the NFL. Johnson and Gannon, who were formerly teammates with the Minnesota Vikings, worried about losing their grips during the biggest game of their lives.

"Rich and I talked about it. The footballs needed to be worked in,'' Johnson said. "In years past, you heard Troy Aikman, John Elway and Steve Young complain about the balls being slick. Phil Simms, all of them. And basically we agreed on that if the balls could be—if we could work them in, we'd work them in...I never saw the footballs, I never touched the footballs. I never got to touch them until game time. The first possession is the first time I touched the ball.''

Before the Dixie Chicks sang the national anthem, Johnson apparently paid two ball-boys working for the NFL $7,500 to make sure the footballs were scuffed and sufficiently broken-in before the Super Bowl, and they obliged. Johnson revealed the secret payment to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, just before the 10-year reunion of the Bucs' Super Bowl championship team. No big deal back then, but now it's suddenly front-page news, trending Wednesday when it was repeated on the Tampa Bay Times website.

"The refs never complained about the footballs, the league never complained about the footballs,'' Johnson said Wednesday, "Rich Gannon never complained about the footballs. I talked to Rich this morning and he and I laughed about the whole thing being blown out of proportion.

"Somebody said, 'Hey, we can work in the balls,' and I said, ‘Let's do it, then. Work them in and prepare them the way you would normally prepare them.’ That was my only concern. Was the ball slick? Or could it be (broken) in.''

Co-hosting a show on Sirius XM NFL radio Wednesday, Gannon said since Super Bowl XXXVII the league has allowed quarterbacks to practice with the footballs prior to the NFL title game.

"I think Peyton Manning and Tom Brady convinced them to change this (policy)," Gannon said.

Johnson claimed to not have any preference concerning the inflation level of footballs during his career.

"I don't know anything about that. I don't know how that works,'' he said. "You've got cold weather versus hot weather—I don't know. I preferred to be in nice weather. All I was concerned about was if it is raining and can I hold onto the ball? The first time I played with the glove was the (NFC) championship game. I played with a glove five times in my career and all of them were cold weather games.''

Johnson began his NFL career in the '90's, and the home team controlled footballs for regular-season games.

"Back in '95-'96, if you went to play Kordell Stewart (in Pittsburgh), the balls were real slick,'' he said. "If you played in St. Louis against Kurt Warner, the balls were real slick. If you played at Green Bay, the balls were worked in the way I loved them. If you played in Minnesota where I played, the balls were worked in. Those were the rules and they're still the rules.

"But back in the day, when you played at an opponent's field, you had to play with the balls the way they like them. When you play a regular-season game, they just put a black dot on it with a Sharpie. And you play three games with the ball and then they discard it. You have 12 footballs and they have 12 footballs in the regular season. And then when you play in the Super Bowl, there's over 140 balls, I think, and no one got to see them. No one touches them and that's where it's at.''

Anyway, Johnson threw two touchdown passes to Keenan McCardell and the Bucs beat the Raiders 48-21. Gannon was intercepted five times, and that's the end of the story. Wow! What do you think?

"I paid some guys off to get the balls right,'' Johnson said, adding, "they took care of them.''

Related Thursday Review articles:

The NFL's Unfortunate Tradition; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; November 21, 2014.

Will Big Bucks Sway the NFL?; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 20, 2014.