Whenever I travel to Boston, America’s most European and historical city and a personal favorite, I can’t resist the clam chowder and Sam Adams on tap and tweaking Patriots fans about Bill Belichick’s “evil empire.”
Their response is always something like this: “Everybody cheats. It’s just that we get caught because of our championships.”
There’s an element of truth to that. Belichick doesn’t try to be likable, and nobody’s monitoring the Jacksonville Jags to see what they’re getting away with. Losers are seldom accused of cheating.
In 2007 the NFL found the Patriots’ coach guilty of spying on opponents to decipher their signals. Belichick haters point out that his three Super Bowl victories came prior to Spygate, as if he can’t win a ring without cheating.
Roger Goodell was happy to see 2014 end, with all its scandals regarding concussion and domestic violence, some happening simultaneously. Now comes Deflate-gate.
And at the worst possible time: the run-up to Sunday night’s Super Bowl, the No. 1 sporting event in the USA.
The defending champions, the Seattle Seahawks, play Belichick’s sixth Super Bowl team, but the hypesters are not saluting the Patriots. Instead, they (we) are impugning their integrity, accusing them of using underinflated footballs, easier to grip and catch, in the AFC Championship Game in cold, wet Foxborough, Mass.
In the second quarter of that game, Indianapolis linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass and took the ball to the sideline to keep as a souvenir. Someone on the Colts’ equipment staff felt the ball was softer than it should be. Some say coach Chuck Pagano was tipped off by his former boss, John Harbaugh, coach of New England’s previous opponent, Baltimore.
The game officials were summoned. At halftime they weighed the 12 balls in the care of the Patriots, and 11 turned up a couple of pounds shy of the required minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch. The balls used by the Colts had proper air pressure.
So we ask: Could the great, omniscient Belichick be unaware of any deflating of the footballs? Or is this another case of his trying to cover up something?
Even before this lamentable episode, Hall of Fame coach Don Shula referred to him, as others have, as “Beli-cheat.”
No sooner had he paid a $500,000 fine for Spygate – actually before that – Belichick was making a mockery of the league’s attempt to inform the public – especially the betting public – about injuries. He sometimes reports 20 players as injured when all end up playing.
Ex-Pat Aquib Talib said the team repeatedly listed him with a hip injury when it was a quad that was hurting. “That’s how they do things,” he said.
So one problem for Belichick is that he has more baggage than a jumbo jet.
What he has going for him: First, Pats owner Bob Kraft is one of the Goodell’s closest friends. Seattle’s All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman predicted the Patriots will not be punished “as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are taking pictures at their respective homes.”
Under Goodell’s watch, this is a league with a low bar for moral behavior. It’s probably enough that Belichick has never beaten up a woman, which, granted, in the NFL is no small thing. Check the accusations against Seattle’s O-line coach, Tom Cable, when he was head coach at Oakland.
So let’s not cast this 49th Super Bowl as Good vs. Evil.
The Seahawks since 2011 have led the league in number of players found ingesting forbidden substances. Sherman himself faced a four-game suspension in 2012 but won an appeal because of a leaky collection cup. He later said half the players in the NFL are using the outlawed adderol, a prescription drug that’s dangerously addictive and can be disorienting.
You can balance all that on the scales of justice against Belichick drafting a tight end with a rap sheet who last year was indicted for murder, with Belichick and his employer, Kraft, on the list of potential witnesses.
But hey, that’s another story. There are too many of them. And the two press conferences in which Belichick tried to explain deflation did not close the chapter on this one.
While claiming ignorance of what was going on with the game balls, he showed he’s an expert on the condition of those he uses in practice: “The balls we practice with are as bad as they can be: wet, sticky, slippery, cold. However bad we can make them, I make them.”
He denied having any concern “about football air pressure,” as if this should be of interest only to a physicist. He then referred the matter to his quarterback, Brady. Throwing him under the bus, as we like to say in America: “Tom’s personal preference on how he likes his balls, footballs, is something he can talk about in much better detail. . . ”
And so it happened that Belichick and Brady entered a minefield of explosive double entendres.
Brady, like most NFL quarterbacks, massages the footballs he will use, rubbing off the wax so they adhere to his hand. In discussing this process he delivered a regrettable quote that was displayed across the back page of The New York Daily News, a tabloid that’s never afraid to be cheesy.
There was Brady’s smiling face next to soaring type: ‘My balls are perfect.’
The ongoing, if snail-paced, probe by the NFL concerns how they became so perfect. Brady said he “didn’t alter the balls in any way.” And he “would never have someone do something that was outside the rules.”
But when asked point-blank if he was a cheater, he smiled and hedged. “I don’t believe so” means, “I’m not certain.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said on Dallas radio 1310: “For the balls to be deflated, that doesn’t happen unless the quarterback wants it to happen, I can assure you of that.”
The footballs at Gillette Stadium were weighed two hours before game time by the officials, who returned them to the Patriots ten minutes before kickoff.
NFL investigators viewed surveillance video that shows an unidentified Patriots employee entering the officials’ locker room and emerging with footballs that were taken to another room in Gillette Stadium. The investigation, headed by Ted Wells, should solve the mystery of who did what to the footballs, but this won’t be known until after the Super Bowl.
In his first press conference upon arriving in Phoenix on Saturday, Belichick blamed the loss of air pressure on atmospheric conditions. But that doesn’t explain why footballs used by the opponents held their weight.
At this point we might give a shout-out to Goodell’s office for indulging a system in which each team – rather than the league’s officials — is entrusted with the footballs after they’ve been weighed.
The Patriots are not the only team that takes advantage of its opportunities to break the rules on inflation.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers said he requests inflation beyond the maximum allowable 13.5 PSI. Overinflation produces a tighter spiral and may add control on deep throws. While the Packers have a vertical passing game, the Patriots prefer to throw short to All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski charging through traffic and hoping for a strong grip to prevent fumbling.
At any rate the Patriots drubbed Indianapolis 45-7. They played better in the second half with the balls re-inflated by the officials to the proper level. The decisive factor was surely not PSI.
But it does make you wonder if he’s known as All Weather Brady partly because he’s so adept at prepping footballs. And you might wonder if underinflation is one reason the Patriots continually rank among the NFL teams that fumble the least.
So what effect does this distracting controversy have on Sunday’s game?
Former Patriot Rodney Harrison told ESPN: “This is the last thing Seattle needs. Those guys in the New England locker room are pumped. After all the hard work they’ve put in, after all they’ve accomplished, after all they’ve done, to have people doubt them? They’re taking that stuff personally.”
Count on more Belichick trickery. Why stop now?
His 38-year-old offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, is the perfect prodigy – as creative and ruthless as the mentor. And just as perceptive. It took McDaniels about three minutes of coaching the Denver Broncos to see he had to rid the team of Jay Cutler: on to Chicago.
Now McDaniels and Belichick are devising plays that appear to be illegal but are actually permitted by the rulebook. They’ve been running – to stunning success – formations with four offensive linemen, a tackle eligible and a wide receiver who’s not. They create so much deception that Brady always finds an open receiver before the defense can diagnose and adjust.
Chances are we will be seeing Belichick at both his best and worst. And that’s likely to be a little too much for the plucky Seahawks.