Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever

In the past week or so, we have learned that there is no consensus among NFL quarterbacks concerning the ideal amount of air in a football. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers--arguably the best quarterback in the game today--prefers that his footballs are "overinflated," while other quarterbacks prefer that the footballs are not inflated past the NFL's prescribed air pressure range. The New England Patriots are being accused of deriving some supposedly great advantage by allegedly deliberately underinflating the footballs that their offense used during the first half of New England's 45-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. The NFL is investigating the matter and all that can be confirmed at this point is that New England's 12 footballs were properly inflated before the game, that 11 of those footballs were deemed to be underinflated by halftime and that the footballs New England's offense used in the second half of the game were properly inflated at halftime and after the game. New England led 17-7 at halftime before blowing the game open in the second half and Tom Brady's worst pass of the game was an underthrown attempt late in the first half that was intercepted by the Colts' D'Qwell Jackson.

According to an Indianapolis writer who perhaps thinks that this is his chance at snagging a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, Jackson immediately detected that something was wrong with the football and Jackson submitted the football to Indianapolis' trainer for further investigation. The problem is that this is not true. Shockingly, a member of the mainstream media wrote something that is false (forgive the sarcasm but the mainstream media is completely out of control and if writers cannot even get their stories straight about footballs then why should we trust what they say about matters of global importance?). Jackson emphatically states that he noticed nothing wrong with the ball that he intercepted. Jackson kept that ball because he wanted a souvenir of his first postseason interception. He could not tell the difference between that football and any other football. Ironically, thanks to this media driven "scandal," Jackson does not even have possession of his souvenir, because the NFL is keeping it as some form of evidence.

It is bizarre to believe that the Patriots would tamper with footballs on game day after the footballs have been inspected and fully realizing that officials and opposing players are going to handle those footballs. Every time the Patriots see the Colts, the Patriots beat the Colts like the Colts stole something and the Patriots generally accomplish this by running the ball down the throats of the soft Colts defense. So how would underinflating the footballs even fit in with New England's game plan?

I have a theory about this. I think that the Colts knew that they were going to lose and that they sent an undercover operative to New England's sideline to tamper with the footballs. That tampering resulted in the Brady interception that helped to keep the score reasonably close at halftime and the subsequent "scandal" has diverted focus from how poorly the Colts prepared for, coached and played this game. Of course, I have no proof whatsoever to support this theory but why should that stop me from writing about it? Lack of proof does not stop anyone else from coming up with asinine theories and then lying about the facts in order to bolster those theories. I demand an NFL investigation into the Colts' tampering with New England's footballs!

I don't believe a word that I wrote in the last paragraph. The point is that it is easy to make stuff up and create a tempest in a teapot. Let's try to apply Occam's Razor here. Instead of coming up with conspiracy theories and looking for underinflated footballs under grassy knolls, wouldn't it make more sense to believe that footballs that are thrown, squeezed, spiked and otherwise handled during wet, cold weather will probably lose some inflation during the course of a game? Has anyone from the NFL tested footballs at halftime of cold weather games prior to last weekend? The only reason that this is a national story is that some doofus writer in Indianapolis has an ax to grind with New England and/or he wants his 15 minutes of fame. So why didn't the second half footballs become underinflated? Maybe the outside conditions that affect inflation changed. Maybe fewer footballs were used during the second half. Maybe the second half footballs were slightly overinflated to make sure that even if they lost air they did not become underinflated.

It is reassuring to know that the NFL and the mainstream media are right on top of this story, though. This is a lot more important than PED use, concussions, domestic violence, fatal DWIs, etc. ESPN's Mike Wilbon wants the NFL to throw the hammer down on New England Coach Bill Belichick because Wilbon considers Belichick to be a habitual rules breaker. Does Wilbon have an opinion he would care to share with the world about his fellow ESPN employee Ray Lewis, who led Baltimore to two Super Bowl wins after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in a still-unsolved double murder? If you just want to cover sports, bloviate during a half hour TV show and make up controversies, then stick to that. If you want to be some kind of commentator and social crusader, then don't pick and choose your issues--unless you think that "Spygate" and some allegedly underinflated footballs are more important than a double murder. Before someone throws out "innocent until proven guilty" concerning Lewis, keep in mind (1) Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder so he is, by his own admission, at least guilty of obstruction of justice and (2) just because Lewis has not been proven criminally guilty of double murder that does not mean that the NFL and/or ESPN must hire him or glorify him.

Media members have been on Belichick's case for more than 20 years. They hated him when he mumbled through his press conferences in Cleveland, they mocked him when he did not take the head coaching job with the Jets and they have looked for every reason to discredit/belittle his success in New England. That is the real story here. This deflated football controversy has provided a great opportunity for grandstanding media blowhards to revive the so-called "Spygate" case. If we are going to stomp over that well-trod ground yet again, let's at least stick to the facts:

1) The Patriots did not "spy" on anyone; they conducted their filming out in the open, using a team employee who was dressed in full Patriots regalia. In a May 2008 article, I explained how ludicrous it is to suggest that the Patriots conducted some kind of covert, nefarious operation:

I have not been able to find the "Spygate" videos online but SportsCenter had a great clip of someone--presumably Matt Walsh--standing under a huge stadium scoreboard in full Patriots regalia openly filming the field. The only way he could have been more visible is if he had worn a Bozo the Clown nose and started waving giant semaphore flags. There is no way that any objective person could watch that tape and conclude that the Patriots were trying to hide what they were doing. They committed a technical violation of an NFL rule and were heavily punished for that but to call them "cheaters," to imply that this was some kind of covert operation or to suggest that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins are in any way tainted is absurd--and for Specter to call for a Congressional investigation of the violation of an NFL rule is ridiculous. Should Congress investigate holding penalties and pass interference calls, too? Any analogy made between "Spygate" and the performance-enhancing drugs problem is bogus because PED usage without a prescription is illegal and represents a potential public health problem, particularly for young athletes who look up to stars like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

2) Some sore losers and some New England haters are resuscitating the unproven allegation that the Patriots secretly taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before New England's 20-17 victory over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI; the Boston Herald irresponsibly--and without any evidence--published that unfounded rumor just two days before the Patriots lost 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, a terrible accusation to make at any time and particularly before such a huge game. The Boston Herald subsequently published a retraction of that article, admitting that there is no factual basis for their original story and that they never should have published it.

3) Two-time Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson publicly stated that his teams and many other teams did the same kind of filming that the Patriots did.

4) The Patriots won 69.3% of their regular season games prior to "Spygate" and they have won more than 75% of their regular season games since "Spygate." The Patriots have the best regular season record in the NFL since "Spygate." "Yes," the man wearing the tinfoil hat while listening to alien communications from Area 51 says, "but New England won three Super Bowls before 'Spygate' and New England has not won a Super Bowl since 'Spygate.'" The answer to that is simple if you understand probability and sample size; the best NFL team wins the Super Bowl less than 25% of the time. That is why even when Tiger Woods was by far the best golfer in the world it was smart to bet on the field over Woods in any one particular event. The Patriots are in contention to win the Super Bowl almost every year, just like the San Antonio Spurs are in contention to win the NBA title almost every year--but even the best team cannot realistically expect to win every game or every championship.

5) If people are going to persist in declaring that New England's pre-2007 success is "tainted" by "Spygate" then let's take an unjaundiced look at some other Super Bowl champions. The New Orleans Saints figured, "If you can't beat 'em, maim 'em," and their ownership/management/coaching staff/players put out bounties on opposing players. The Saints mauled their way to the 2010 Super Bowl title before the NFL suspended GM Mickey Loomis, Coach Sean Payton and several other coaches and players after discovering the long paper trail proving the existence of the bounties. The San Francisco 49ers violated salary cap rules during the 1990s. Any time you hear the iconic "This one's for John" audio, keep in mind that John Elway failed miserably in his first three Super Bowl appearances before the Denver Broncos circumvented the salary cap in order to put enough talent around him to help him win the big game that he was never able to win while following the rules. The Broncos were twice fined nearly $1,000,000 for those salary cap violations. The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers are considered the pioneers of NFL steroid usage, which could explain why so many players from those squads have experienced mental and/or physical problems before dying young.

If you believe that a guy sitting in the stands wearing Patriots regalia and filming signals that anyone could "intercept" by carefully watching a TV broadcast committed a sin against football remotely equivalent to the actions of the Saints, Broncos, 49ers and Steelers then there is nothing I or anyone else will be able to say to help you think more clearly.


Anonymous said...

Hi David, this is Vednam.

It's good that someone has been able to inject some sanity into the discussion. I can't believe how much people have been obsessing over this "scandal." Even if the Patriots did tamper with the footballs, I suspect that the rules are routinely bent in many little ways by virtually every team. It doesn't seem like a big deal to me. (Think back to the "cheating is encouraged" attitude of Al Davis' Raiders, and how it's celebrated in NFL Films footage.)

I must say, however, that I am a bit surprised that you invoked probability and sample size into the discussion. You pointed out that "the best NFL team wins the Super Bowl less than 25% of the time." I actually do not have any problems with such a statement. But haven't you consistently been an advocate of "ring counting" when it comes to assessing the place in history of a player or team? For example, after last year's Super Bowl, you compared Peyton Manning's Super Bowl record of 1-2 against other great quarterbacks to show how he fell short. You rightly point out how ridiculous it is to make a big deal out of the Patriots having won three Super Bowls before spygate and zero after spygate. A few plays go differently, and the Patriots could have won three (or more) Super Bowls since 2007, and they might not have won any of the three they won from 2001-04. The point is, the Patriots have consistently been among the very best teams in football. So why make so much of Manning's Super Bowl record (for example)? In some hypothetical world where each Super Bowl could be replayed 100 times, how many times would Peyton Manning come away with a 1-2 record? How many times would Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana end up going 4-0?

David Friedman said...


It is nice to hear from you.

Yes, I do think that "ring counting," as you call it, is important, but I try to put "ring counting" in a larger overall context. If I did not do that, then I would corner myself into saying that Robert Horry is a Pantheon-level player and that John Paxson is greater than Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, etc.

I look at Manning's Super Bowl record in a larger context; many of the other candidates for greatest quarterback of all-time have better overall playoff resumes than Manning does. That should count for something. Also, even though it made sense to bet on the field over Tiger Woods in a given event during Woods' prime, Woods won more events during his prime than any of his rivals did--and that is the point: at the end of the day, the greatest players/teams are going to win more championships than their rivals in most cases.

The statistical point that I--and others--are trying to make regarding "Spygate" is that New England's "failure" to win a championship in the years immediately following "Spygate" does not somehow prove that New England's three titles are in any way tainted.

However, unless one believes that the titles are tainted, I think that it is worth noting that Brady has won three rings and Manning has only won one ring. The comparison/discussion does not end there but that is at least a good place to start and certainly something that must be considered.