The problem with the real-time news cycles is that anyone who presses pause on the generation of content to process information, to gather more information, and to carefully consider the situation fails to serve the audience — and in turn loses money. People want instant analysis; if one content provider isn’t providing it, the people will go to a provider that is.
At PFT, the goal is to provide instant analysis but also to keep an open mind, which means that analysis can be adjusted based on further information and consideration. It’s not easy to balance immediate-term and longer-term thought processes, but it’s necessary — especially when a story is constantly changing and evolving.
A full seven days into the life of the Ted Wells report, I’m ready to set forth a theory as to what happened at the outset of the investigation. The following assertions are opinions based on facts that have been reported and information I have gathered via many phones calls and other communications with league sources.
1. Before January 18, 2015, football air pressure had never been a big deal for the NFL.
Rule 2 of the official NFL playing rules states: “The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind.” For decades, the 12.5-to-13.5 PSI range had been the prevailing standard. It’s the way it always was, and no one ever gave it much thought.
Despite the intense scientific analysis applied to the air pressures measured at halftime of the AFC title game, the issue of air pressure was not, as former NFL official and former supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos said on Tuesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, an exact science. Daopoulos added that officials generally didn’t know that footballs lost air pressure in cold weather; thus, even though Rule 2 seems to mandate that the ball “shall be” inflated in the range of 12.5 PSI to 13.5 PSI at all times, many games over the years were played with footballs at significantly lower pressures — especially when officials set the pressures to the lowest end of the range before kickoff.
“The practice has been to for the officials to check the pressure pre-game, then play the game,” a league spokesman told PFT on Tuesday. This means that, consciously or not, the NFL has allowed hundreds of games to be played with footballs having an air pressure that was increasingly less than 12.5 PSI.
2. Teams routinely make complaints to the league office before games, few of which are taken seriously.
Early in the development of this story, the fact that the Colts had alerted the league office to concerns about the Patriots tampering with football air pressure had considerable significance. The league’s receipt of the complaint and failure to act on it before the game created the impression that someone from the NFL had set a trap for the Patriots.
It was a compelling and troubling notion. In lieu of warning the Patriots and reserving the right to spot-check air pressure during the game, the NFL apparently opted to allow the game to proceed with non-complying footballs, in the hopes of catching the Patriots in the act.
The more likely reality is that the NFL simply didn’t take the complaint seriously. The league didn’t take the complaint seriously because teams routinely make complaints about opponents, whether due to paranoia, delusion, or gamesmanship.
The best evidence of the league’s failure to take the complaint seriously comes from referee Walt Anderson’s failure to insist that the footballs be kept out of play after the footballs went missing for the first time in Anderson’s 19 years as an official. If Anderson regarded the complaint as credible, Anderson likely wouldn’t have allowed the game to be played with footballs that may have been deflated during the time that they were beyond his supervision.
3. The Colts weren’t hoping to catch the Patriots cheating.
The Colts chose to share the information with the league the day before the game not to catch the Patriots in the act but, I believe, to ensure that the Patriots would be prevented from tampering with the footballs. The timing of the complain suggests that the Colts hoped the Patriots would have minimal notice of the change in procedures, and in turn minimal time to adjust to not having the footballs at the preferred pressure. Based on the traditional nonchalance that applied to the filling of footballs with air, the Colts also may have been hoping that the officials would simply put extra air in the footballs for good measure, which would have resulted in the balls being inflated well above quarterback Tom Brady’s preferences.
4. Walt Anderson made a big mistake after losing track of the footballs.
Rule 2 states that “the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.” That didn’t happen prior to the AFC title game; for the first time in Anderson’s 19 years as a game official, he lost the footballs. When he found them, Anderson used them.
He should have required that the alternate balls be used, and he should have ordered that the original balls be taken inside and tested. This would have avoided the use of potentially tainted footballs during the first half, and it would have provided much better evidence regarding whether the air pressures had been deliberately reduced below 12.5 PSI.
5. The game officials and league executives didn’t know about the application of the Ideal Gas Law.
The Wells report explains that, after the Colts made another complaint based on the perceived reduction in air pressure in the football intercepted by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the second quarter, two alternate officials (Clete Blakeman and Dyrol Prioleau) tested the pressure in the footballs, with league officials Alberto Riveron and Troy Vincent present. The 11 Patriots footballs were each below the 12.5 PSI minimum; the four Colts footballs tested by the officials were in the vicinity of 12.5 PSI. (It’s unclear whether the men conducting the testing or observing it realized that the Colts’ footballs had a higher initial inflation amount of 13.0 to 13.1 PSI.)
Based on the explanation on Tuesday’s PFT Live from long-time game official and supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos that officials generally weren’t aware that air pressure shrinks during cold-weather games, the visceral reaction at that moment by the folks in the room quite likely may have been that the Patriots had been caught in the act.
6. The NFL initially made the numbers seem worse than they actually were.
Fueled by PSI measurements that seem low to someone who doesn’t instantly realize that air pressure drops significantly during prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, the league promptly launched an investigation. But NFL executive V.P. Dave Gardi inexplicably told the Patriots in the initial letter explaining the investigation that one of the balls was determined to have a pressure of only 10.1 PSI, even though none of the footballs had a pressure that low.
Then, someone from the league (it surely wasn’t someone from the Patriots) leaked to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that 11 of the 12 balls were a full two pounds below the 12.5 PSI minimum. The measurements reveal that this information was false.
The false information leaked to Mortensen gave the story more traction and a higher degree of significance. It also placed the Patriots on the defensive without the Patriots knowing the specific PSI measurements against which they were defending. If true and accurate information had been leaked to the media or given to the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick’s notorious Mona Lisa Vito press conference would have been far more persuasive, because the data from one of the two significantly conflicting gauges used to determine the air pressure generated measurements in line with the expected loss in pressure during 90 minutes in the elements of a January day in Foxboro.
Think of how different the narrative would have been if, in the early days of the scandal, the prevailing information from one of the largest sports-media outlets in America had been not that 10 of the 12 balls were two pounds under the minimum but that all 12 balls (including the one that had been intercepted by Jackson) tested within the range consistent with the application of the Ideal Gas Law.
Also, think of how different the narrative would have been if, in the early days of the scandal, the league had acknowledged that the officials used two different gauges with dramatically different readings generated.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened within the confines of the Ted Wells ensuing investigation without having access to the raw transcripts of interviews and the full range of text messages. For now, though, it’s clear that this investigation proceeded aggressively despite a history of less-than-zealous attention to air pressure, an apparent lack of immediate understanding regarding the Ideal Gas Law, and a non-accidental attempt to make the tampering seem more obvious than the facts suggest it was. And that makes it hard not to wonder what other flaws may be lurking within the 243-page report and the underlying evidence on which it was based.