Saturday’s unexpected press conference from Patriots coach Bill Belchick seemed like an effort to put the issue behind the team as the trip to Phoenix and Super Bowl XLIX awaits. But Belichick’s words, which deftly loaded up the media with information on the subject at a time when the NFL is providing very little, raise several key questions.
Most significantly, Belichick’s Thursday and Saturday press conferences starkly differ on one key question: Who inflates the footballs?
“Obviously with our footballs being inflated to the 12.5-pound range, any deflation would then take us under that specification limit,” Belichick said Thursday. “Knowing that now, in the future we will certainly inflate the footballs above that low level to account for any possible change during the game.” (Emphasis added.)
On Saturday, Belichick said that the Patriots have no control over the actual inflation, indicating that the officials — not the team — inflate the footballs.
“When the footballs are delivered to the officials’ locker room, the officials were asked to inflate them to 12.5 PSI,” Belichick said. “What exactly they did, I don’t know. But for the purposes of our study, that’s what we did. We set them at 12.5. That’s at the discretion of the official, though. Regardless of what we ask for, it’s the official’s discretion to put them where he wants.” (Emphasis added.)
So who inflates the footballs? Thursday’s “I have no explanation” Bill Belichick made clear it’s the team that was putting the minimum required amount of 12.5 PSI into the balls before the game, and that any naturally-occurring deflation was necessarily taking the footballs under the low end of the one-pound acceptable range from 12.5 to 13.5 PSI. Saturday’s “I have an extensive explanation” Bill Belichick said the Patriots simply ask the officials to inflate the footballs to 12.5 PSI, but that it’s ultimately the “official’s discretion” as to how much air will be put in the footballs. (And, in turn, the official’s fault if the balls weren’t properly inflated.)
It’s a stunning contrast, one that calls for further explanation from Belichick. This should be the first question he’s asked at his first press conference in Arizona, and the assembled media should decline to accept a response along the lines of, “I’ve said all I’m going to say about that.”
Another topic on which Belichick may need to say more than he has said is the interaction between inflation of the balls to 12.5 PSI and any “rubbing” that results in the balls reaching an “equilibrium state” of 11.5 PSI. The key question is whether anyone in the organization — specifically mysterious football savant Ernie Adams — knew that any type of rubbing would result in the ball reaching an “equilibrium state” that brought it one full PSI below the minimum. Beyond that, atmospheric conditions would drop the ball even farther below the minimum.
Other curious statements were made by Belichick on Saturday. For example: “We can’t speak specifically to what happened because we have no way of touching the footballs other than once the officials have them we don’t touch them except for when we play with them in the game.” That’s just not accurate; ball attendants employed by the Patriots have possession of the 12 game balls and the 12 backup balls until they’re used during the game.
“I believe now 100 percent that I have personally, and we as an organization, have absolutely followed every rule to the letter,” Belichick said early in the Saturday press conference. But there’s a potential difference between following rules to the letter and respecting their spirit. As Ravens defensive lineman Chris Canty said earlier in the week on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk, the Patriots are “habitual line-steppers.” In an effort to gave every possible advantage, they possibly look for ways to push the envelope, retreating to plausible deniability whenever complaints are made or investigations are launched.
It would be naive to assume that the procedures used by the Patriots when it comes to inflating and handling footballs was accidental or coincidental, even if Belichick truly had no knowledge or involvement in that aspect of game preparations. The ultra-competitive nature of the sport coupled with the uncanny ability of Belichick and those he employs to seize upon every opportunity to gain an edge suggests that they discovered a way to produce footballs that passed the pregame inspection at the low end of the permitted PSI and that then dropped well below the minimum, furthering the stated preferences of the guy charged with the task of throwing the footballs.