The Beginner’s Guide to DEFLATEGATE

Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Look, I had every intention of ignoring this story all week. It all seemed too bizarre and irrelevant to warrant my attention. The Patriots would get fined, the controversy would pass in a day or two, and we could all move on to focusing on what should be a pretty fantastic Super Bowl. I’d feel smart for never taking the bait and worrying about balls or arguing about Spygate. That’s how it was supposed to go.

Then … Last night we found out this wasn’t just one or two balls the Patriots had possibly tampered with. According to Chris Mortensen, “11 of the New England Patriots’ 12 game balls were inflated significantly below the NFL’s requirements.”

I don’t know exactly why this changed things — 11 of 12 “significantly” deflated footballs is more than just a bizarre fluke?  but by late Tuesday night, I was reading everything I could find about DEFLATEGATE. It’s all too idiotic and insane to resist.

So for anyone curious out there, let’s all learn together. We’ll go through this with 20 questions.

1. When did this start? Sunday night, after most of you had gone to bed, thinking we would have two weeks looking ahead to one of the best Super Bowls of the 21st century, Bob Kravitz of Indianapolis’s WTHR came dropping bombshells.

At the time, it was hard to know whether any of this really meant anything. All of America had just watched the Patriots disembowel a helpless Colts team. One or two deflated balls couldn’t possibly have made that much of a difference. But then the questions started.

2. Hold up: Deflating the balls is a good thing? Yes. Apparently, deflating your offense’s footballs makes them easier to throw, and also easier to catch. It’s not the type of advantage that explains a 45-7 blowout, but it’s an advantage nonetheless.

3. Does this happen elsewhere in football? A little bit! Apparently it’s pretty common. All quarterbacks are OCD about footballs.

The Vikings, for example, were warned by the league after cameras showed their sideline using heaters to warm up footballs during a 12-degree game in November. And apparently Aaron Rodgers overinflates his balls, as detailed by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms during the Packers-Patriots game earlier this season:

Nantz: We talked to 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 it. 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.

Hey, speaking of officials checking those footballs sometimes …

4. How did the officials find out on Sunday? It happened when D’Qwell Jackson picked off Brady in the second quarter. If you study this Vine like the Zapruder film, you may notice that the ball bounces softly off his hands, allowing him to bobble it into an easy interception in the red zone. How’s that gamesmanship working out for you, Belichick?

Newsday and Bob Glauber take us through the next steps. Jackson hands the ball to an equipment manager, who notices it feels underinflated and notifies Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. The coach notifies Colts GM Ryan Grigson, who alerts NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil, who alerts the officials.

And thus, DEFLATEGATE was born.

5. Why didn’t the officials notice when they were spotting the ball on every play? And were the balls reinflated for the second half? Why was no penalty announced? If Marshawn Lynch can theoretically get ejected for wearing the wrong color shoes, what happens to the coaching staff that’s systematically deflating footballs to gain an advantage? These are all questions that remain unanswered.

6. Wouldn’t deflated balls help both teams? This was my fiancée’s question. My answer: “No, the Colts get to play with their own balls, and the Patriots bring their balls. Everybody plays with separate balls.” Note: It is impossible to explain this scandal without turning into a fifth-grader.

7. Does the NFL have procedures in place to regulate everyone’s balls? Yes. Again from the Mortensen report last night:

The game balls that each team received for preparation were required to be inspected and marked with a dot — signifying that they passed inspection — by referee Walt Anderson two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, then returned to a ball attendant.

That’s why this is all so suspicious. It would be one thing if one or two balls triggered an investigation, but if all the New England balls passed inspection, and then 11 of 12 tested footballs were found deflated by two or three pounds per square inch? That’s pretty bad.

8. What are the Patriots saying? “I can’t imagine,” Bill Belichick said when asked about DEFLATEGATE on his weekly radio interview in Boston. “I really don’t know what to say or know anything about what we’re talking about here. Whatever it is, we’ll cooperate with them the best we can.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Vince Wilfork said. “I don’t touch footballs. I tackle people.”

Julian Edelman is letting his fashion do the talking.

Tom Brady? “I think I’ve heard it all at this point,” he said. “That’s the least of my worries. I don’t even respond to stuff like this.”

9. What are the Colts saying? “Did not notice,” Pagano said. “And that’s something for the league to handle. It’s not my place to comment on it.”

10. What is the NFL saying? Nothing officially, for now. “We are not commenting at this time,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

According to NFL executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent in an interview with Pro Football Talk, an investigation is under way, and there could be an announcement later this week. “For a fan, you want to know that everything’s equal,” he added. “The integrity of the game is so important.”

Meanwhile, a source tells ESPN that the league is “disappointed … angry … distraught.”

11. What is Gronk saying?

12. Do we have to add the “-gate” suffix to every scandal? This is a popular question this week. Anytime there’s any kind of “-gate,” we have legions who come forward to sneer about our tendency to attach “-gate” to any kind of scandal. These people are not wrong.

Look at all of these -gates.

It may be time to switch it up.

On the other hand … Just embrace it for this week. It’s not like we added “-gate” to real, awful scandals in the past few years. Nobody called it Benghazi-gate. The -gate suffix comes with implied sarcasm now. So, a scandal that involves meaningless sports, air pressure, and, at any given moment, a million Americans giggling about balls? DEFLATEGATE is perfect, and it should be written in all-caps to maximize panic.

13. Does this scandal have a Wikipedia entry? Yep. Right there with the rest of the -gates.

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14. Does this scandal have truthers? And what will these truthers argue? Only time will tell. Does the NFL love the Patriots so much that it deflated the balls to help them win? Does the NFL hate the Patriots so much that it deflated the balls as a setup? What about the Ravens game? Were the Patriots also deflating the specially sealed balls the NFL uses for kickers? Were the Patriots deflating balls for the past 10 years? Can Tom Brady even throw a regulation football?

15. Are there any other explanations for the deflated balls? Some variation of this will be thrown out there a lot this week …

… but it turns out that is probably overstating what weather can do.

16. Who’s up for some physics? Nothing says playoff football like digging into a little Avogadro’s law!

If the balls were deflated by two pounds per square inch, that’s not something that could happen naturally. I learned this by following the conversation thread on that tweet while lying in bed at 1:30 a.m.:

Seems legit, right?

I don’t know. Follow the thread for yourself if you want. Clicking on that Twitter account is the most rigorous look into physics I’m willing to commit to at the moment. Finally, the big questions.

17. What will Roger Goodell do?


That image comes from a party that Patriots owner Bob Kraft threw the night before the AFC Championship Game. Kraft, you might remember, has always been one of the commissioner’s most vocal supporters and was one of the first owners to defend Goodell during the Ray Rice disaster.

“I’m in his corner,” Kraft said of the commissioner in November.  “I’ve worked with him for 20 years. He’s hard working, a man of good character and morals. And he’s a solid citizen. I really believe that. He really is a man of integrity. … He felt he made a mistake. He corrected it before anything came out. The good news is that we are a platform and we are so prominent now that the NFL has the ability to do a lot of good things and show leadership that we manage difficult situations properly.”

While we wait to see what the NFL does, the Kraft-Goodell friendship will be fascinating. On the one hand, their friendship could benefit the Patriots. Between Kraft’s support this year and his efforts to bridge the gap during the 2011 NFL lockout, Goodell owes Kraft more than just about any owner in the NFL.

On the other hand, that close relationship and the picture from Saturday are why I would be terrified if I were a Patriots fan. Throughout Goodell’s time in charge, he has been more concerned with how he is perceived to operate than how he actually operates. Now, after initially taking it easy on Rice and inspiring allegations of favoritism with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, Goodell’s loyalties are under more scrutiny than ever. Wouldn’t this be a perfect opportunity for Goodell to take things 100 yards in the other direction and suspend Belichick for the Super Bowl? It can’t be ruled out.

18. What should Bob Kraft do? Well now …

That seems a little bit extreme.

19. Is this really that serious? It’s definitely weird, sure. The Patriots have destroyed the Colts each time the teams have played the past few years, and they didn’t need any help from underinflated footballs. Furthermore, Belichick and the coaches had to know that Sunday’s game was going to be all about pounding the ball with LeGarrette Blount, which means it’s completely unnecessary to doctor footballs for the passing game.

Honestly, this is just like Spygate. You’ll see what you want to see. If you hate the Patriots, it’s proof they’ve been cheating all along. If you love the Patriots, it’s embarrassing and frustrating but ultimately overblown. Plenty of teams mess with their quarterback’s football. No amount of deflated footballs explains the beating the Colts took this week.

More than anything, I think this just reminds us how generally paranoid and OCD NFL coaches can be, and it proves that, even among a sample set of the most paranoid, OCD men on the planet, Belichick is on a completely different level. As much as winning and brilliance, that will be Belichick’s legacy when he leaves football. He was an amazing coach, and he was a weird guy.

20. Wait, maybe this is that serious? First of all, this is really Day 1 of the scandal. Now that we have the Mortensen report and the whole world knows that almost all of those footballs were underinflated, there’s a 100 percent chance this becomes the most insufferable story in sports for the next two weeks. That part is terrible, particularly because it overshadows what should be an awesome Super Bowl.

Beyond that, though, if it turns out that the Patriots did this consciously, isn’t this worse than Spygate? Doctoring actual footballs to make life easier for quarterbacks and receivers seems like it would be worse than filming an opponent’s defensive signals. If Belichick got caught Sunday, is there any way we should believe that was the first time the Patriots have done this?

For now I still lean more toward the “not that serious” conclusion, but anyone arguing this is a bigger deal definitely has a case. These allegations involve screwing with actual games, doctoring footballs after NFL inspectors approve them, and making the ball easier to throw in an offense that throws constantly with a 37-year-old quarterback. Some of the hottest takes on what should happen to Belichick and the Patriots might also be the truest takes.

Bonus: So how serious is this? Seriously, this might be the dumbest sports scandal of my lifetime. Keep an eye on the millions of people debating underinflated balls, Avogadro’s law, and what NFL rules say about pounds per square inch. No matter what happens from here, we will all look back five years from now and be baffled that any of this really happened.

This post has been updated to correct that Spygate concerned the filming of defensive signals, not practice.

Filed Under: NFL, New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Deflategate, Avogadro's Law, Bob Kraft, Roger Goodell, Rob Gronkowski, Indianapolis Colts, Chuck Pagano


Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp