Here we go again. Another year, another Patriots controversy.
This one—Deflategate—however, doesn't feel real. I'll explain below in your handy guide to deflation and balls jokes.
The stakes here are actually incredibly high. It goes beyond potential fines and loss of draft picks. This has the potential to impact legacies.
First of all, what are we calling this?
The common name seems to be Deflategate. Adding "gate" to any controversy is cliche, but it's coming full circle. Gate is now cool again…like Star Trek.
Is it awkward saying "balls" so much?
I'll only tell you once: No ball jokes.
That wasn't a joke. If your deflated balls last more than four hours, see a medical professional immediately. See, that's a joke.
OK, OK, so give me the basics of this story.
This is what we know, based on conversations with two league sources and one team source: The sources confirmed that what started the investigation was a Tom Brady interception by Colts player D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson went to the sideline and immediately stated to one of the Colts personnel that the ball felt funny.
You said "ball felt funny." Tee-hee.
Stop it. What happened next is really interesting. Jackson's suspicion went all the way up the team and NFL ladders. It went from Jackson to the team's equipment manager to the head coach to the general manager and then landed in the lap of Mike Kensil, who is the NFL's director of football operations. This was, from the moment of that interception, taken extremely seriously.
Why so seriously?
Because it's the Patriots. They're the best organization in football. They're good. They're hated. And then there's Spygate.
You have to understand that Spygate is the core of all of this. The Patriots, as an organization, aren't cheaters. Spygate, as I've explained before, didn't help them in any way. Yet this is the problem for New England. They were busted for cheating before, and because of that, they won't get the benefit of the doubt in this new matter.
There is also something else at play here. The NFL wants this investigation to appear thorough and transparent. You may have noticed the NFL wasn't…um, transparent in the Ray Rice case. It severely damaged the credibility of the sport. The NFL wants no such credibility-shattering chatter this time around.
From what I can tell, the NFL is not taking this as a laughing matter, ball jokes aside. Roger Goodell and Co. are being deliberate and methodical.
So when does Ray Lewis chime in about a conspiracy?
Any minute now.
What's the reaction from around the NFL?
This is from an NFC general manager: "Patriots don't get benefit of the doubt here."
From an NFC assistant coach: "The NFL needs to really nail them."
Keep this in mind: The Patriots have beaten the brains out of a great many teams. There is an abundance of bitterness and jealousy about the team. Any time they are in trouble, there is a degree of glee. Some of that is at work here.
I can tell you the feeling around football is that if the Patriots did this, because of Spygate, they should be absolutely hammered.
Do you believe the NFL can prove the Patriots deflated footballs?
What, no more balls jokes?
You told me they were forbidden.
You're learning. To answer your question, I don't know. I just don't know. Part of me believes that Bill Belichick, after Spygate, would never cheat again. We all make mistakes. I know I have, but the smart people don't repeat them. I believe Belichick is extremely intelligent and would not do anything again to tarnish his reputation and the reputation of the Patriots. I believe Belichick will push the envelope—to the wall—but not cross the line.
But I have to say this: One thing I'm told is the Colts felt the Patriots have done this before and that is why Jackson, a source says, reacted so quickly about the football. The Colts may deny it, but they have told other teams this.
Doesn't mean the Patriots did it. In any way. And a very important point must be reinforced: Deflating the ball, if it happened, had no bearing on the game's result. The Patriots were going to win.
This is exactly the same as Spygate. It was unneeded. Belichick took that risk for nothing. If this latest controversy is true, he did the same thing.
If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin', right?
That's the motto, but in this environment—this social-media, everything-mushroom-clouds environment—cheating can destroy a franchise. But also, I don't believe the Patriots have a cheating culture. I believe they have a push-the-envelope culture. That's different.
Can I say "balls" just one last time?
You just did.
So if this happened, how did the Patriots pull this off?
This is the big question and why I don't believe it happened. NFL rules require each team to give game officials 12 in-game footballs. The officials examine each one two hours before kickoff. Each team provides its own footballs when its offense is on the field. (Pay attention to that last part. I've been asked repeatedly on Twitter why deflated footballs wouldn't work for both teams. The answer is no, because each offense uses its own footballs.)
The football has to be between 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch.
Three important things here:
First, teams do provide the ball officials. We call them ball boys. They wear the maroon league NFL shirts. Ball gets thrown to them on the sideline, they hold it and keep it in their pouch.
For this story to be true, the ball official would have to be totally corrupt. Is that possible ? Yes, it is. Is it likely? No, it isn't.
It's more likely, if the ball was underinflated, it was a mistake. This leads to my next point.
Second, an NFL kicker told me this week that it's highly common for footballs to be flat. He said he's switched out footballs many times in his career not because of cheating but because of inflation problems to begin with.
Third, how in the hell would the Patriots be able to deflate a football during the game or secretly switch one out without anyone seeing it? I guess it's possible, but seems very Area 51-ish.
We need Mulder and Scully to check footballs.
It just seems a bit outlandish this could happen. But stranger things, you know?
What's the bottom line here, besides an abundance of balls jokes?
I don't believe this happened.
There is one way I could be wrong. It came in the form of context from the broadcast by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. The conversation, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, went like this:
Nantz: We talked to [Aaron] Rodgers about 'How do you like your footballs?' Because, you know, you can rub them up before the game. [Phil], you really kind of created that for everybody else in the league.
Simms: I don’t know if I did, because the quarterbacks got tired of them complaining. But he said something [that] was unique: 'I like to push the limit to how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take air out of it.' Because he thinks it’s easier for him to grip. He likes them tight. Of course, he’s got very big hands and you can tell that by watching him play.
Nantz: You’ve never heard of a guy really desiring a football to be fat and overinflated before, have you?
Simms: Everybody wants it smaller and soft, so they can dig their fingers into. He’s such a feel thrower. You can tell. The one touchdown he threw down the field to the tight end is such feel; then he flicks it. That shows you he just has great control of it, with his fingers and hand.
Nantz: He said, 'God gave me big hands and a strong grip.'
Simms: You know, the officials do check those footballs and sometimes maybe even get lucky and put an extra half pound of air in there to help Aaron Rodgers out.
So it's possible the Patriots did the opposite of Rodgers. They underinflated footballs and hoped the officials wouldn't catch what they did.
The other thing: The longer the NFL's investigation goes on, the more the Patriots should be worried. But it looks like this thing could be wrapped up in two to three days.
Look, I get the cynicism when it comes to the Patriots. But I also know there is a great deal of jealousy. Jealousy is the fuel here, to me at least, when it comes to fans whose teams get housed by the Patriots every season. I get that.
So here we are. Another alleged Patriots controversy.
And balls jokes.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.