The National Football League has been unable to avoid negative media attention since the final whistle of last year’s Super Bowl. So for the sake of symmetry and irony, it’s perfect that the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIX are steeped in controversy. To be honest, I don’t think the NFL, its media partner NBC (which is broadcasting this year’s game), or the advertisers particularly mind. Not that the Super Bowl needs controversy to generate an audience, but it would not surprise me to see this year’s game draw its highest ever TV rating – in part because people want to see how Tom Brady fares with a properly inflated ball.
The NFL’s investigation into the deflation controversy is being led by NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash and Ted Wells – who also led the investigation into the Miami Dolphins hazing scandal centered on Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The investigation promises to be thorough for one reason and one reason only – 31 other owners, team executives, and coaching staffs are less than satisfied with the alleged shenanigans the Patriots have been accused of. Thirty-one owners put their millions into an attempt to win the one prize money cannot buy – the Lombardi Trophy – and if another owner, wittingly or not, has them playing on an uneven field that is not going to sit well. The two latest investigations by the NFL – the first Wells Report and the Mueller Report into the Ray Rice investigation – seemed to be more public relations driven. Whereas any investigation into Deflategate is likely to have 31 owners demanding a complete and thorough investigation.
Even if no Patriots employee intentionally deflated any football prior to the AFC Championship Game as Peter King wrote in his MMQB blog, such an investigation might turn over stones showing that such behavior had occurred in the past. The longtime Sports Illustrated writer reported that in an email from Tom Bannister, a chemistry professor from The Scripps Research Institute, that according to “the ideal gas law, a football inflated to 12.5 at 72 degrees and cooled to 51 degrees [the temperature on the field during the first half] will have a final pressure of 11.43 psi, thus a loss of 1.16 psi … A second factor, the expansion of a football as it gets wet, also leads to a drop in psi. This factor contributes another 0.7 psi in pressure drop … Plain English ultimate conclusion: It would be reasonable to expect, based on both experimental results and ideal gas law calculations, for a pressure drop in excess of 1.5 psi to have occurred within the Patriots footballs in the first half, based on the known game-time conditions and the observation that the footballs were inflated to 12.5 relative psi at room temperature.”
Reports have surfaced that the Colts suspected the Patriots used deflated balls during the teams’ Week 11 match-up and that the Ravens suspected as much during their divisional round match-up against the Patriots. Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis examined the Patriots’ performance in rain and the team’s fumble rate since 2000 and found that they have considerably outperformed the mean since 2007. According to Sharp’s research, the Patriots averaged a fumble once only every 74 plays since 2007 while the league mean was 46 touches per fumble. The closest fumble rate to the Patriots was 56 touches. Sharp also points out that from 2000 to 2007 the Patriots averaged a fumble every 42 touches. Why the change? Sharp attributes it to, in part, Tom Brady advocating for the rule change that occurred prior to the 2007 season allowing every team to supply their own footballs – sans ‘K’ balls used for kicking formations.
If the Patriots are eventually found culpable of altering footballs on gameday, other clubs are highly unlikely to grant the Patriots a pass. Although it has been seven years since Spygate, the impression of playing above the rules has continued to follow the Patriots, and this latest controversy does nothing to alleviate that. The NFL destroyed all of the evidence gathered during the Spygate investigation. How many teams would want to reexamine that evidence if the Patriots were complicit in Deflategate? Just ask former Carolina Panther GM Marty Hurney.
Any culpability on the part of the Patriots in this latest scandal will surely tarnish the team’s legacy during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. That’s why Patriots owner Robert Kraft responded so strongly to the allegations and demanded an apology from the NFL if his team is exonerated. He’s worried about the effect it will have on his legacy as an owner, potential damage to the team’s goodwill with corporate partners thereby affecting revenue, and, perhaps even, his Hall of Fame candidacy. He knows other owners want answers, so the NFL will take this seriously. The Competition Committee is likely to enact a rule change making an NFL official responsible for all footballs as soon as the pregame PSI check is completed. If the Patriots are found to be complicit, I would expect the consequences to be on par with those handed down to New Orleans Saints executives and coaches following Bountygate. The same management team’s responsibility for two significant rules violations related to fair play in a span of seven years is akin to a major college football program charged with a lack of institutional control.
31 other NFL team owners and their executives are hunting for answers. The NFL can placate outside pressure and provide controlled investigations that produce limited answers in certain instances, but internal demands by the majority of League membership will require much more. As long as the remainder of the League continues to demand answers, then Deflategate will hang around long after the Super Bowl is played.
 In the second half of the AFC Championship Game after the referees ensured that properly inflated balls were used, the Patriots’ and Brady’s statistics were significantly better, although the Patriots were running the ball much more effectively.