A coach with roots in the Mid-Atlantic finds a long-term home in New England. He quickly embarks on a run of unprecedented success, winning multiple championships. His star player doesn’t put up stats as gaudy as his contemporary rival, but wins the bulk of their meetings and is the stronger force in the playoffs, making the Boston athlete ultimately remembered as perhaps the greatest of all-time. Under the coach’s watch, the formerly shaky New England franchise forms deep roots and affection in the region, yet spawns legions who love to hate it throughout the rest of the nation. While a brilliant tactician with unimpeachable results, the coach is viewed by his peers with a brew of envy, resentment, and loathing mixed with grudging respect. The coach is occasionally slapped with discipline in the form of league fines, his tactics of psychological sports warfare shaking his opponents and provoking complaint even if they are most often in fact within the bounds of the league rules. In time, his legacy will not be measurably tarnished by any of this. He will be remembered as the finest coach of his generation and possibly the best to ever patrol the sideline.
If we’re talking about basketball, the star player is Bill Russell, the rival Wilt Chamberlain, and the coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach. If we’re talking about football, the same roles may be played by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Bill Belichick.
I’ve long admired Belichick’s work with the Patriots and the remarkably brilliant way he plays the press for fools (admittedly not always a Herculean task), but in recent days as the deflated football “scandal” has emerged, it’s dawned on me that in this present time we are witnessing the closest thing we may ever see again to Auerbach in American sport. The most proper reaction for any otherwise neutral fan is not to get on the bandwagon of fools deriding Belichick, but to appreciate what this man and this team are doing in a league structured to make such dynastic success impossible. Patriots fans such as myself are bonding together under a mantra of “Embrace The Hate.” We welcome you jump on our bandwagon for a couple of weeks and do the same.
Now, a bit about the substance of the manufactured scandal itself. If you’re reading this you probably have heard the basics by now and, if not, it’s easy enough to find them, so I won’t bother rehashing them in great detail. I’ll admit that, before the Belichick and Brady press conferences today, I was very concerned that there might be some merit to the charges and – even if partially deflating footballs would otherwise be a misdemeanor – Commissioner Goodell would come down extra-hard on Belichick and the Patriots in an effort to prove he has a spine after his PR missteps with the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson situations earlier this season.
I don’t fear any of that anymore. Conventional wisdom was that Belichick would sourly stonewall and reveal nothing, while Brady would deny any knowledge while putting on his smiling golden-boy act. In both cases, the conventional wisdom was incorrect. And, in both cases, Belichick and Brady struck me as imminently believable and honest.
Still, we know the basic facts: All 12 Patriots balls checked out fine before the game, but by halftime 11 of the 12 were deflated by 15% and inflated below the NFL’s permissible range. Casting aside any truly loony conspiracy theories or miraculous acts of God, here are the possible reasons as I see them for how the balls dropped a couple of PSI in a four-hour span.
1) A rogue Patriots clubhouse guy/ball boy deflated them without Belichick and Brady’s knowledge (1% chance of being true).
The notion that a lowly ball boy somehow went rogue on his own and thought to deflate the balls for a better grip in the rain stretches the boundaries of belief. A kid would almost certainly not even think of devising such a plot on his own, and even if he did, there wouldn’t be any motive to do so if he weren’t being instructed from above. The only variant of this that I see as even a 1% likelihood would be if a member of the Patriots staff (say, someone like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) were the mastermind, but on a team as cohesively-run as the Patriots it seems almost impossible that an assistant could or would go rogue without the knowledge of the coach or quarterback.
2) Belichick and/or Brady are lying (34% chance of being true).
I’m not so much of a blinded Boston homer that I can’t see this could easily be the case. Of course either Belichick or Brady or both could have been lying today when they claimed no knowledge of anything untoward happening to the footballs. But, after watching their press conferences, I really don’t think that’s the most likely scenario. If either were being untruthful, their untruthfulness likely would have taken one of two paths:
A) Deny all knowledge but otherwise provide zero detail. Stonewall and fall back on “there’s an ongoing investigation.” Give the press nothing to work with and no quotes that could be later proven obviously false.
B) Put on an act and create a storyline. Concoct a story with enough detail to give you an obvious alibi, so that if you are to be believed there is no way you could have done it. This could take the form of throwing a ballboy under the bus “he did it!” or any other number of theatrics or speculative theories.
Especially for Belichick and an organization run by Belichick, option A would have been the most likely course. For Belichick himself, with his SpyGate history, it would have been the only possible way to lie that wouldn’t have been completely moronic. If Belichick is caught in any obvious lie, Goodell will hit him HARD. He may never coach another game in the NFL. This is what the bloodthirsty media is demanding.
At any rate, Belichick and Brady took neither route, and in doing so they both bore what I believe to be the mark of honesty. They both provided some genuine insight – Belichick quite plausibly explaining that this issue has never come up in his 40 years of coaching, Brady explaining that as has been previously reported he does like the football on the lower legal end of the scale – but were unable to speculate any further about what happened because they likely truly don’t know. And this brings me to the most likely scenario.
3) The less-than-fully-meticulous mixed bag coupled with vengeful opponents theory (65% chance of being true)
Let’s look again at the universally agreed-upon facts as we know them
-All 12 balls were judged to be acceptably inflated 2 hours before gametime
-11 of the 12 balls were judged at halftime to be improperly inflated after the Colts asked that the officials re-measure them
-It was a rainy night in Foxboro, albeit mild for the season (in the 40’s)
-Tom Brady likes his footballs to be on the low end of the acceptable scale (just as Aaron Rodgers told Phil Simms in November, with no apparent fear of controversy, that he likes them on the high end).
-While it is in the rule book, the inflation level has never previously come up as a source of controversy in the NFL in anyone’s memory.
So, given Brady’s preference for a ball around 12.5 PSI, let’s assume the Patriots habitually inflate the footballs to somewhere in that vicinity. Because, again, this has never arisen as a controversy in the past, it’s doubtful that the team is meticulously making sure it’s 12.5 on the nose. The team is probably largely doing this by feel. Maybe their presumed “12.5” is actually 12.9 or 11.9 or whatever, but it’s “close enough” and “what Tom likes.”
Once inflated by the team, the officials need to measure the inflation. But, yet again, this has never arisen as a controversy before. So, in all likelihood, and apparently not having been alerted that the Colts were watching this intently before the game, why should we assume that the officials would be much more meticulous than the Patriots before the game about a rule nobody ever cared much about? Why should we assume that they would measure each ball’s pregame inflation with 100% accuracy? So, maybe in this case the very balls that “checked out” fine in the nominal pregame examination actually arrived on the field inflated slightly less than the officially sanctioned level, due to the direct fault of nobody in particular.
Add to the above the foul weather (rain, cool temps and dropping air pressure) and the fact that very large grown men are holding, throwing, and landing on the footballs for an hour-and-a-half, and it’s a virtual certainty that the pressure inside the balls would decrease a little bit by halftime. You know this is true if you’ve ever tossed a football around in the yard. Over time, you will see some very slight deflation even if the ball is in fine condition. I’d imagine that in the elements of a January NFL game, you will see more deflation than would take place in your own yard.
And now, for the X Factor: It has now come to light through media reports that the Colts staff was tipped off to check the balls’ inflation by Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Make that a very angry, bitter Ravens coach John Harbaugh likely still seething from his team’s close loss to New England the previous week. As you may recall, the day after his team lost, Harbaugh ungraciously protested, claiming that the Patriots had used illegal formations in the game involving unorthodox eligible and ineligible receivers. The protest failed miserably, as the league quickly confirmed that the formations and substitutions Belichick employed – while unorthodox – were entirely legal. Harbaugh had been outsmarted, figuratively pantsed on the national stage by a superior coaching intellect. In the aftermath, Brady even quipped of Harbaugh that maybe he should “read the rule book.” Well, apparently Harbaugh took Brady’s advice, noted Brady’s (previously stated) preference for footballs lightly inflated, and instructed his friends on the Indianapolis staff (and yes, they are friendly with each other) to take a crack at the inflation of the balls. If Indy would win, it would be a plausibly successful case of gamesmanship. If Indy would lose, it could be a great chance to get revenge on the Patriots by implicating them as cheaters – a narrative which many in the media who have long loathed Belichick’s dour standoffishness would fall all over themselves to report. And, if the balls checked out fine at halftime, nobody would ever know about any of this and no harm would be done.
If there is any modern American pro sports franchise cloaked in villainy, it is the Baltimore Ravens. Founded in 1996 when owner Art Modell unceremoniously ripped the old Browns out of Cleveland, this is the organization that enabled Ray Lewis to be the face of the franchise for years and attempted to cover for Ray Rice mere months ago. Anti-Patriots partisans will counter that New England employed a man who may have been a serial killer, but as soon as any charges were brought against Aaron Hernandez the Patriots swiftly severed all ties with him. The Patriots are no villains here. Look to the Inner Harbor for that.
Is it possible the Patriots knowingly broke the rules in the horribly-named DeflateGate? Sure it is. But I believe my theory above is significantly more likely, and the NFL can’t exactly convict on a mere possibility of wrongdoing, no matter how much Goodell’s image could us the redemption and no matter how much certain media talking heads may be salivating for Belichick’s scalp.
Here’s the bottom line. Part of what made Auerbach successful was that opponents feared him to the point where he got in their heads. The Celtics knew all the dead spots in the parquet floor. He’d rig their locker rooms with stifling temperatures and cold showers, and on and on… some of this was true, some was myth, but what meant more than the concrete shenanigans was the fact that all the tactics – real and perceived – got in the heads of the opposition. The same takes places with Belichick’s Patriots. Opponents tie themselves in such mental knots trying to figure what tricks Belichick will try that they get thrown off their game and waste valuable preparation time. A large part of Belichick’s genius is that he makes rivals fear his genius.
That’s a sort of brilliance that should be celebrated, not derided. Much of the media and NFL rivals are spewing hateful venom at the dominant NFL franchise of the era. Well, climb aboard and embrace the hate, because history shows that you don’t want to face the Patriots when they are angry. I happen to like the Seahawks and Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson, and if I don’t exactly like Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman I truly do enjoy watching them play. They’re an excellent team. But they’re not going to be able to compete with the combination of a furious Patriots team and a Brady hungry for his last great chance at a fourth Super Bowl ring.
New England is going to win the Super Bowl, it isn’t going to be close, and you should applaud a great team putting the haters in their place. Patriots 38, Seahawks 13.
Light up a victory cigar. Embrace the hate.