Last night’s bombshell from Chris Mortensen of ESPN — that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs from Sunday’s AFC title game were underinflated by two pounds per square inch of pressure — has pushed #Deflategate to new heights, causing many to presume that these measurements mean that the Patriots deliberately deflated the balls.
But plenty of questions remain. Here’s an effort to address as many of them as possible. If I’ve missed any, let me know in the comments. (As if you need an engraved invitation to do so.)
First, why didn’t the officials notice that the balls were underinflated? The issue reportedly arose after Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the Indianapolis equipment manager noticed that something was amiss. Multiple officials touch the balls the Patriots are using on every play. The umpire was repeatedly wiping the ball off with a towel before putting it down for the center. Simplest explanation: The officials either didn’t notice that the balls were underinflated or the balls felt no different than they do in other games.
Second, what does a ball that is underinflated by two pounds per square inch feel like? It’s only a matter of time before ESPN or someone else has a ball inflated at the proper PSI and a ball inflated at the lower PSI for former NFL players to dig their fingers into on the air. Which may not be compelling TV, but could be instructive.
Third, were the balls properly tested before the game? With the NFL using mashed-up officiating crews during the postseason, it’s possible that certain procedures fell through the cracks. Before assuming foul play by the Patriots, it’s important to rule out error by the officials.
Fourth, how big of a factor was the weather? As noted in a prior post, the ideal gas law controls the operation of the gases that were inside the football. When the temperature drops, pressure drops. That’s why, in the winter months, we inevitably have to put air in our tires. The air isn’t leaking out; when the car is kept in the cold, the pressure inside the tire reduces. (It’s also why modern cars with automatic in-tire pressure sensors show the pressure increase as the car and its tires heat up with use.) Although it was a relatively balmy 51 degrees at kickoff on Sunday, a ball inflated to 12.5 PSI in a 72-degree locker room will necessarily experience a decrease in pressure with a 21-degree temperature drop.
Fifth, what was the in-game pressure of the Colts footballs? If the temperature caused the pressure in the New England balls to drop, it would have happened with the Indianapolis balls, too. At a minimum, it’s an important comparison that, if it wasn’t done, should have been.
Sixth, how was the chain of custody maintained? If the NFL plans to conclude that the Patriots did something to the balls absent a confession from someone who deliberately deflated them, it becomes critical to show that no one other than Patriots employees had possession of or access to the balls from the time they were given to the ball attendant until the moment they were taken out of the game. It also will be important to show that, once the balls were taken out of the game, no one other than game officials or other league employees had access to the balls.
Seventh, how widespread is the practice? Even if the NFL determines the Patriots deliberately removed air from the footballs, it’s impossible to properly assess the level and degree of “cheating” without considering whether and to what extent others do it. Maybe most teams do it, which would help explain why the officials didn’t notice it.
Eighth, should the NFL want pristine, fully-inflated footballs? The NFL wants teams to score points. With not enough competent quarterbacks to fill up the depth charts of 32 NFL teams, maybe the officials and, in turn, the league routinely look the other way on strategies aimed at allowing the quarterbacks to better grip and throw the footballs. Why else would the league have changed the procedures in 1999 for kicking balls only?
These issues, and probably others, need to be considered before taking Mortensen’s report and concluding that it means Don Shula was right. Hopefully, the NFL’s investigation will account for these potential variables both in the investigation and in the eventual public explanation of it.