The NFL has found that 11 of the 12 footballs the New England Patriots provided in the AFC Championship Game win over the Indianapolis Colts were under-inflated from league standards. Punishment is coming, and we project what it might look like.
Does It Really Matter?
I never played pro football, so I can't obviously answer why teams would even bother deflating footballs. I did play in high school and some small college, and when the ball wasn't quite as inflated, especially in wet or cold conditions, it was easier to grip. The NFL ball is already tougher to handle compared to the ones used in college, and it's why many quarterbacks have theirs scuffed up to their liking even weeks ahead of time.
Reportedly, former Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson paid some unidentified guys $7,500 before Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego 12 years ago for them to make sure the 100 game balls were "scuffed and ready" before kickoff. Teams are permitted to condition 12 balls to their liking in games prior to the Super Bowl, but not in that game. So clearly some NFL employees must have taken the bribe. Tampa Bay crushed Oakland 48-21 for its only Super Bowl win. Because Johnson had all the balls altered, it would have been the exact same for the Raiders so really no harm done.
If all 12 balls New England used when it was on offense -- teams use their own balls on offense only -- had been fully inflated to league standards, would that changed the outcome of the Patriots' 45-7 destruction of Indianapolis on Sunday? Certainly not, but the Patriots might have had an unfair advantage while on offense; and this might impact the current Super Bowl odds. The Colts may not ever have known about this if Brady didn't throw a second-quarter interception to linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. He felt the ball was underinflated and notified the team's equipment manager, who then informed head coach Chuck Pagano, who told GM Ryan Grigson. It was Grigson who alerted the NFL, and the league's director of field operations spoke with the game officials at halftime.
If this was any team other than New England, it wouldn't be such a national story. But Bill Belichick likes to stretch the rulebook as much as possible, as proven by the "Spygate" scandal. In September 2007, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick and the Patriots a total of $750,000 and stripped the team of a first-round draft pick after the Patriots found to have videotaped opposing coaches' signals. Now the league does random checks of communication systems at games.
Second Offense for Pats
Because of Belichick's past with the league, expect Goodell to come down hard. In 2008, he wrote in a memo to the league’s competition committee that he would impose tougher penalties for future violations of the competitive-balance rules.
The league manual states this as punishment for this infraction: "If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000."
There is no precedence for this in the NFL, but there is in big-time college football. The Pac-12 fined USC $25,000 three years ago and warned the school when it was determined that a Trojans student manager was deflating balls in the first half of a game. Head coach Lane Kiffin denied having a role in that, but Belichick and Kiffin might as well be father and son as they will do whatever it takes to win. There's a reason both are so despised by the opposition; they bend the rules to their liking.
Projected NFL Discipline
Expect the league to come down quickly so the focus can return to the terrific Super Bowl matchup between the Patriots and Seahawks. I guarantee you the game balls will be protected like the gold in Fort Knox. And there certainly will be new procedures put in place going forward, with the NFL instead of the teams likely providing game balls.
Odds of Patriots forfeiting Super Bowl spot: 1,000-1. There's zero chance of this happening. Even if "deflate-gate" had happened in a regular-season game, there's no way the NFL would have forced the Patriots to forfeit and given the win to the Colts.
Odds Belichick suspended for Super Bowl: 10-1. The key here is obviously proving the coach knew about this. That might not be decided for weeks. The NFL isn't going to take a Super Bowl team's head coach away because that's such a massive competitive disadvantage.
Odds Belichick suspended for 2015 regular-season game: 12-1. This is a distinct possibility because at least the Patriots could plan ahead accordingly.
Odds Belichick gets same suspension Ray Rice did: 500-1. Of course Rice, the former Ravens' running back, originally got just a two-game ban for beating up his then-fiancée this past winter. That two-game ban was a PR disaster for Goodell once the graphic videotape became public. Can you imagine the public skewering of Goodell if he gives Belichick the same suspension (or more) simply for tampering with footballs?
Odds Super Bowl is Belichick's final game: 1,000-1. Might Belichick be tired of jousting with the NFL and walk away with a fourth Super Bowl ring should his Patriots win? Only if Brady does too.
Odds Patriots fined more than $1 million: even money. The league is fed up with the Patriots skirting the rules. The team and/or Belichick will pay plenty. Both can afford it.
Odds Patriots docked 2015 first-round pick: -200. Goodell will make a statement here; the real question is whether he simply takes the pick away or does he give it to the Colts?
Odds sportsbooks have "deflate-gate" novelty props: -500. Some sites -- Bovada often has very good novelty props -- will come up with something.
Odds this is a huge topic at media day: -5000. And you thought it was pointless and boring before?