DeflateGate seemed at first like an irrelevant breach of code and an excuse to make jokes about Tom Brady talking about his balls. “I’m not squeezing the balls. That’s not part of my process.” But evidence is gathering that Ballghazi matters. The main evidence comes from a brilliant piece of blogging-wonkery, by Warren Sharp, who fivethirtyeight should hire up immediately. He shows just how rarely the New England Patriots lose fumbles compared to other teams in the NFL and it’s not even close. Although he hasn’t sliced and diced the numbers to control for all variables–as a journalist, the raw numbers are so glaring that, you’d want to pitch a story about New England’s secret for avoiding fumbles.
At first, when the media focus was on throwing and catching, the idea of a deflated ball influencing one or two catches a game, didn’t seem like a huge deal. But when you consider its potential impact on fumbles, i.e. turnovers–probably the most decisive event in football games–it really matters. If New England had fumbled in the first half against Indianapolis and it was picked up and run back for a touchdown–that’s a whole different football game. The momentum would have turned and maybe New England wouldn’t have been able to run the football as much as they did. Indianapolis probably still loses that game. But that’s just one game. If New England was gaining an advantage in other games, perhaps just enough to swing one close game in their direction–that would determine whether they had home field advantage in the playoffs and that could have been enough to swing their game with Baltimore.
But did they do it? This ESPN video (with a hilarious cameo by Aaron Rodgers) and this article make clear that NFL teams put in a lot of time and preparation to make sure their balls are in top shape. It seems beyond plausibility that Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady, known for their circumspect preparation, would leave the quality of the balls to chance. A great coach undoubtedly would stress ball protection–and Belichick is notorious for benching running backs who fumble–so some of New England’s success can probably be attributed to good coaching. But the magnitude by which they are better than other teams at holding on to the football is suspicious. Belichick has reverted to the phrase that every sensible Republican candidate tries to hew to in order to not piss off their climate change-denying base–“I am not a scientist”–i.e. giving off the scent that he’s more on message than honest.
Mike Pesca makes the argument that teams should be allowed to inflate their balls however they choose, to promote more offensive scoring. Whether this is true or not is beside the point here: the rules in place are clear about how much balls should be pumped up. If the Patriots were purposefully circumventing those rules while other teams were not–gaining small but what appears to potentially be statistically significant advantages–then Ballghazai matters. A lot. It matters because it would be another instance of New England not just preparing well but exceeding what the rule book allows.
So what should be done? I actually think truth is more important than justice in this case. There should be a small window where the league allows teams to come forward and admit what they’ve been doing with their balls without penalty, so the league can get an honest handle on the situation. If it turns out that this is relatively common practice in the NFL, then we can treat BallGhazi as the unimportant media blip it should have been and the league can set some more clarifying penalties and rules next year. But if it turns out that New England was about the only team doing it, then it will be another serious mark on their record and to me, that kind of stigma has proven punishment enough for the likes of Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong. How many home runs would Barry Bonds have it if he wasn’t juicing? How many Tours could Lance have won without his doping? Will we have to ask for football now too: how many championships would New England have won if they hadn’t been cheating?