The Ted Wells report insists, at footnote 25 on page 46, that the NFL did not launch a “sting” operation against the Patriots. But that’s not the impression the body of the report creates.
Regardless of what the effort is labeled, the Wells report confirms that someone wanted to catch the Patriots in the act.
The Wells report explains that Colts G.M. Ryan Grigson sent an email to the league office raising concerns about air pressure in Patriots football. Attached to the Grigson email was a message from Colts Equipment Manager Sean Sullivan, who said “it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs [sic] are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys [sic] for the patriots [sic] will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better, it would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don’t get an illegal advantage.” (Emphasis added.)
Grigson’s email and Sullivan’s message went to David Gardi and Mike Kensil, members of the NFL Football Operations Department. Gardi responded to Grigson by explaining that Kensil would be at the game, and that he would speak to the game officials about the concern.
Kensil then sent the email to three other high-level league employees: James Daniel, Dean Blandino, and Alberto Riveron. Blandino and Riverson said they would raise the issue with referee Walt Anderson.
The Wells report does not explain that anyone informed the Patriots of suspected irregularities with the footballs or of any intent to keep an eye out for problems. As one league source with no connection to the present controversy explained it to PFT in January, past Commissioners like Paul Tagliabue would have informed the Patriots of the situation — and warned them that the NFL is paying attention, that the league reserves the right to check the air pressure in the footballs during the game, and that any funny business would be met with a decidedly unfunny reaction from the league office.
Instead, whether it’s called a sting or something else, a trap was set for the Patriots. And even when referee Walt Anderson noticed — for the first time in 19 years on the job — that the game balls had gone missing before the start of the game, nothing was done to ensure that no tampering with the footballs had occurred before the game started. Which would have been the best time to capture PSI readings that never could have been credibly explained away by the affects of 90 minutes of cold, wet January conditions on the air inside a rubber bladder.
Setting aside whether the Patriots circumvented the rules (and the Wells report definitely contains enough evidence to support a reasonable conclusion that they did), the NFL apparently allowed non-conforming footballs to be used despite the fact that the referee assigned to the game had experienced the unprecedented development of footballs going AWOL, at a time when the NFL specifically is paying specific attention to whether someone with the Patriots was tampering with the balls.
Sure, checking the air pressure inside the footballs would have delayed the start of the game. But it also would have provided much more conclusive proof about whether cheating occurred. More importantly, it would have kept the Patriots from realizing any benefit from their apparent misconduct.
Right or wrong, the NFL blew a chance to keep this mess from blowing up in the league’s face. And that’s something all 32 owners should be concerned about, since the incident ultimately applies another layer of tarnish to recently unshiny shield.