Deflategate: Soft balls causing a feeling of deflation before Super Bowl

New England Patriots accused of underinflating balls to reach grand final

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The Independent Online

Accusations of wilful neglect of head injuries that have destroyed players’ lives, lurid tales of off-field violence and domestic abuse by some of its biggest stars: after its annus horribilis of 2014, the last thing the NFL needed was another scandal.

But now, in the build-up to its showcase annual event, when American football’s various recent sins might be expected to be put to one side, it’s got one – over, of all things, underinflated footballs, which allegedly helped New England Patriots win their place in Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle Seahawks.

The two teams meet in Phoenix a week Sunday, a tantalising clash pitting the Patriots, the pre-eminent NFL franchise of the first decade of the 21st century, against the holders of the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the team who now threaten to similarly dominate the century’s second decade.

But suddenly calculations of whether the game’s most potent offense (the Patriots) can overcome its most stifling defense (the Seahawks) are moot. Only one question matters: did New England deliberately use squishy balls in their 45-7 steamrollering of the Indianapolis Colts in last weekend’s AFC championship game?

Under NFL rules, the pigskin should have a pressure of 12.5lb to 13.5lb per square inch. According to ESPN, 11 of the Patriots’ 12 balls had a pressure of 11.5lb, until the discrepancy was discovered and corrected at half-time.

At the centre of the storm are two of the game’s legends: the Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady, widely considered the finest quarterback of his era. If fix there was, one or both were surely involved: Belichick because he’s the boss, Brady because he was the one throwing the ball, and a softer one is easier to grip, especially in the wet, slippery conditions of Sunday’s game in Boston.

Both have held up their hands in innocent disbelief. “Ridiculous... I didn’t alter the ball in any way,” said Brady on Thursday, professing himself “shocked” by the revelation. Ditto Belichick. “I have no explanation for what happened,” he declared. The reaction, others contend, is akin to the synthetic outrage of police captain Renault in Casablanca when he shuts down Rick’s Bar: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

Belichick’s problem is that, when it comes to bending NFL rules, he has form – as when he arranged to steal an opposing team’s signs, earning himself a record $500,000 fine, or when radio communications between coach and quarterback of the visiting team in Boston mysteriously broke down.

At another level, however, the “scandal” doesn’t add up. A 45-7 win is a rout in any language, and the Patriots probably would have slaughtered Indianapolis if the game had been played with a beachball. Oddly, though, after the first half, with the dodgy balls, the Patriots led by a mere 17-7; in the second, using properly inflated balls, they racked up 28 unanswered points.

But, readers will ask, wasn’t it the same for both teams? Well, no. The NFL allows each team a dozen balls which they use when they have possession. These are inspected by the referees two hours before kick-off before being handed back to team custody. During this period, one presumes, the Great Deflation took place.

What happens now is unclear. The Patriots, by common consent, are not the first to have used underinflated balls and are unlikely to be disqualified. But Patriot-haters (who are many) are screaming for Belichick’s head, that he at least be suspended for the Super Bowl. For others, Brady – who with victory would become one of just three quarterbacks in history with four championship rings – is the real villain of the piece.

In the meantime a sense of shame pervades parts of New England.