Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Deflate-Gate and the Super Bowl Preview

  The New England Patriots are under investigation by the NFL for using underinflated footballs in their 45-7 AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts. No one is claiming that the underinflated balls were the reason the Patriots won the game. They were ahead of the Colts 17-7 at halftime when the balls were noticed to be inflated less than the minimum 12.5 pounds per cubic inch and replaced with properly inflated balls whereupon the Patriots outscored the Colts 28-0 in the second half. I don’t think any other team would have been drawn as much attention as the Patriots had their footballs been underinflated but the Patriots are the most successful pro football team this century (three Super Bowls and 14 straight 10+ win seasons) and they have had the patina of cheaters ever since they were found guilty of videotaping opposing defensive coaches signals during games. The videotaping was the infamous ‘Spygate’ scandal which cost Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 in addition to the forfeiture of their 2008 first round pick.

  Belichick and Tom Brady claimed ignorance of purposely underinflating the balls in separate news conferences last Thursday. Belichick said he had no idea of how the footballs got underinflated and intimated that Brady would have more answers by saying “I think we all know that quarterbacks, kickers, specialists have certain preferences on footballs. They know a lot more about it than I do. They're a lot more sensitive to it than I am” and “Tom's personal preferences on his footballs is something he can talk about in much better detail …”

  In the same interview, Belichick also talked about how he makes his team practice and train in all manner of weather conditions “Again, anyone who has seen us practice knows that we make it harder, not easier, to handle the football. Our players train in conditions that a lot of people would recommend that we not drive in. That’s what they do. … And I know that because I work them every day.” I find it hard to believe that a football coach so driven to detail wouldn’t have any understanding of what kind of football his quarterbacks and kickers like so if anything Belichick is likely guilty of some deception in his press conference.

  Brady’s press conference was after Belichick’s on Thursday and Brady claimed that not only didn’t he have anything to do with underinflating the balls but that he pays no attention to the balls in play as long as he can grip them properly “From the first half to the second half, I didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t put one thought into the football at that point. Once I approve the ball, like I said, that’s the ball that I expect out there on the field.”

  I don’t think the issue is whether the Patriots deflated the footballs in the AFC championship game. After all, the footballs were replaced after halftime and it didn’t seem to affect Brady in the slightest. I think the problem most people have is the perception that the Patriots have been cheating by underinflating the balls for years and only got caught this past weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots inflated the balls at the minimum pressure and then figured out a place to store the footballs where they would deflate further, much like the Colorado Rockies store the baseballs for their home games in a humidor (with the blessings of Major League Baseball) to counteract the effects of the mile high air in Denver allowing baseballs to travel further. I doubt they would be knowingly breaking the rules but I would have no doubt they would push any rule to its absolute limit in order to gain the slightest of advantages.

  The Patriots don’t win 10+ games every year and get to the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl more often than not because the balls are underinflated – they have their accomplishments because as an organization they are just smarter than most other football teams. They drafted a Hall of Fame quarterback in the sixth round but when Brady was hurt on the opening weekend of 2008 and missed the year they still won 11 games with seventh round pick Matt Cassel and then traded Cassel (who has since failed to hold onto a starting job in Kansas City and Minnesota) to the Chiefs for a second round draft pick. The Patriots picked up Randy Moss in 2007 for a fourth round pick, kept him for four seasons (including a record setting 22 touchdowns in 2007) and in 2011 traded him to the Vikings for a third round pick. The third round pick was used on backup quarterback Ryan Mallet who stayed with the team for three years and was traded to the Houston Texans for a seventh round pick. The Patriots are masters at picking up players other teams don’t want, getting production out of them, and then trading them for draft picks or players when their usefulness is at an end. Compare this to the Colts trading a first round pick last year to get running back Trent Richardson from the Browns and one year later Richardson wasn't hurt but also wasn't active for the AFC championship game.

  Not only are the Patriots masters at personnel management, Belichick has long been at the cutting edge of game management. There was the famous game against the Broncos in 2003 when the Patriots were facing a 4th down from their own one yard line trailing 24-23 with less than three minutes left. Belichick intentionally gave up a safety to trail 26-23. The Patriots got a free kick after the safety to put the Broncos at their own 15, got the ball back with 2:15 left and drove for the winning touchdown in a 30-26 victory. Sometimes the decisions don’t work out so well like in 2009 when he went for the first down on a fourth and 2 play from his own 28 yard line with 2:08 left and a 34-28 lead over the Colts. The Patriots failed to get the first down and the Colts scored a touchdown for a 35-34 win. The point I’m making is that the Patriots and Belichick know more about their sport than the rest of the league combined. In their playoff game against the Ravens last month, Belichick exploited a wrinkle in the rule book to allow him to have multiple receivers and running backs at the line of scrimmage and confuse the Ravens as to which players were eligible to receive passes and which weren’t. The loophole will likely be closed by this time next year but it may have been the deciding factor in their 35-31 Patriots victory.

  One thing I learned through this entire scandal was that each team prepares the footballs its offense will use in the game while separate balls are prepared by the league for kicking plays. I understand why each team would want its quarterback to throw a ball he is comfortable with but isn’t this just asking for someone to doctor the footballs? A billion dollar operation like the NFL should be able to have games balls made to their exact specifications for game use and if a quarterback doesn’t like a particular ball they can ask for it to be replaced just like a baseball pitcher can. I expect the NFL to prevent this situation from recurring by taking control of all the game balls in the near future. This 'deflate-gate' controversy is much ado about nothing and has only served to distract the football public from the long term excellence of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization and kept the attention away from what could be a Super Bowl for the ages. And speaking of the big game...

Super Bowl 49 – Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots.
Thanks to some shrewd money management and a Green Bay Packers choke for the ages, I find myself heading into the Super Bowl week $40 mythical dollars to the plus side on this years playoff predictions after gaining $90 from splitting my AFC and NFC championship wagers. I have no idea who will win this game and neither does the betting public as the game is very close to a 'pick 'em' (the Patriots are currently a 1 point favorite). If I had a gun to my head I would pick the Seahawks since I predicted them to win the Super Bowl but since I don’t have a gun to my head I will bet $100 that over 47.5 points will be scored using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page . Please keep in mind that while I am serious about my predictions I am not betting any real money and the picks are for entertainment purposes only.