I feel like I have to write about it. I don't really want to. I'm biased, can't really help it in this case. I've hated this iteration of the New England Patriots, with their smug coach and their Golden Boy QB for far too long. I don't think any team comes close to them. The St. Louis Cardinals did for a time, and I'll always have a nice piece of contempt reserved for the Carolina Hurricanes, but nothing was close to the Patriots. So of course, I should feel happy that their enveloped by a cloud of suspicion once again, that the medical scalpel is revealing sordid layers of deceit. Yet, I'm not that glad, or even mad. I'm truly just nonplussed, in the literal sense of the word.
I loved the Spygate scandal, as it came at a very different time, when they had won Super Bowls more recently, when people still spoke of the 'Patriots Way' in the sense that the Patriots were just underdog kids who outworked everyone. Their nefariousness back then was more direct, more open, and more mockable. That was a true perfect storm, and it became the throughline for one of the more entertaining NFL seasons ever, from the events after Week 1, through the 'Eff-You' Pats run at 16-0, and through a Wild Playoffs ended with them losing a perfect season.
This was more rushed, and it did the one thing that I was hoping to avoid for these two weeks before the Super Bowl: care. I didn't want to care about this games, about two franchises I don't much like playing for a Super Bowl that, regardless of who wins, will be full of some truly hot taeks, like "Russell Wilson is the next Tom Brady', and "The Seahawks are a Dynasty", or "Belichick and Brady are the best Coach and QB of all time." I wanted to avoid that given the events of the last two weeks, with my favorite team possibly ending the career of my favorite player, and then laying the worst of eggs. Then I saw that tweet by Bob Kravitz. Many people cried Colts' homerism, jealousy and revenge at the tweet, but as someone who has followed the Indianapolis media, I know Kravitz would probably rather bash the Colts than prop up fabricated excuses. This rang true, and it has kept on ringing.
Despite the NFL messageboards being filled with physics lessons, calls of NFL sting's, claims by the Ravens, and tons of different reports pointing when this actually started (was it D'Qwell Jackson's innocuous interception, or the Ravens game, or the regular season game?), I held firm to what I believed in. Now, despite both Belichick and Brady today saying they have no idea what happened, I still think I believe strongly in what did happen.
Here's what I feel like I know: the Patriots deliberately under-inflated, or more accurately, deflated, their game balls ahead of the AFC Championship. Given the NFL wouldn't have truly cared, they likely did it in the Divisional Round, likely did it in the Regular Season game against hte Colts. They may have done it for years and years and years, though there's no proof, or even player/coach/team speculation of that.
Here's what I don't believe: I fully disagree with Belichick and Brady's claims that they didn't know this happened. Tom Brady is a QB, a QB so connected, so mindful and so anal about the little things in his game, that he, along with Peyton Manning, essentially forced the league for allow teams to 'rough' up their balls to the QB's liking for each game. Given that, I find it absolutely hard to believe that this happened without him knowing, if not outright directing it. I don't think McDaniels, or the equipment managers who this may get ultimately pinned on, would dare do something, nevertheless something illegal, to the footballs that Brady uses every game.
I'm less certain Belichick knew, but I don't think that changes anything. Belichick is the head coach of that team, he is, essentially the COO of the team, the man running the day-to-day operations of their main product: the players and their performance. If he didn't know this was going on, he should. Roger Goodell has done many things wrong, but I hold that his actions after the Saints bounty scandal was not one of those things. Back then he said, about Sean Payton, that ignorance is not an excuse. That applies here too.
Also, are we really supposed to believe that someone who will turn over every rock to find a small pebble of an advantage, as evidenced as recently as the previous week with his formations against Baltimore, does not know the rule, as he claimed today? Are we really supposed to believe that someone like him, who is the emperor in New England, did not know this was happening? If so, he should be ashamed that some underling could have done this under his watch and under his nose.
That all said, here is what I also know: This isn't that big of an infraction in isolation, but with the Patriots, we aren't dealing in isolation. Deflating the balls certainly gives you an (unfair) advantage. They are easier to control, easier to throw, easier to catch, and easier to grip. Things that help in every game, but certainly a game in adverse weather like the AFC Championship in the rain. Still, on its face, this isn't as big as the Bounty Scandal, or Spygate. But this can't be judged on its own. These are the Patriots, who, and their fans will always so otherwise, are hated as much for their reputation as their success.
The Patriots have few friends in the league. Bob Kraft may be respected, Bill Belichick may be even more respected, and Tom Brady may be the most respected, but I feel like none (other than maybe Brady) are particularly liked. Belichick has made no friends by pushing the boundaries, again as evidenced as recently as last week. That's why we get rumors and swirls that other players, management and even owners around the league want the book thrown at the Patriots. I don't know what the book means, and the book, especially if it involves suspensions, will occur after the Super Bowl, but something is going to happen. You get the sense that if this was just going to be a slap on the wrist, that would have leaked by now.
I also have some thoughts on the reaction. Not the reaction of Patriots fans, because they'll understandably try to defend their Leader at all costs, and not of the reaction of Patriots haters that want to see them suspended for the Super Bowl. I do have some other general thoughts. First, for the people that say "What does it matter, they won 45-7", there are two obvious counters:
1.) Does that implicitly mean it would matter if the game was close? I have a hard time believing those people would be immediately condemn the Patriots if this broke in full form after the Ravens game.
2.) Why does that matter, it is the process not the result.
The result does not matter. They could have cheated and lost, too. They still cheated their opponent and cheated the sport.
The other area where I have issue with the reaction is those that other teams do it, or other QBs do it. I have never understood why people feel that this is a good, or even rational, defense. Isn't one of the first lessons society teaches kids that just because other people do it doesn't mean it is OK. I feel like many turn into five-year-old's when defending the Patriots, with the 'well... well... they did it too!" So what. If that is the case, either cheat better as this is the second time you got caught doing something 'everyone does', or don't belittle, show up and hate on teams and you won't get ratted out. There are tons of people that speed each day, far worse than you, but if you get caught going 77 in a 65, that doesn't really matter.
I have no idea what penalty the Patriots get, and assuming it isn't something franchise-altering, win or lose in the Super Bowl, people will likely forget about this come five years. When people look back at the Patriots dynasty, I'm still sure that Spygate will be the more infamous event; but it should be asked that here is a team always extolled as the class of the league, that has twice come out of shadows with blood on their hands. The only other institutional issue since Spygate was the Bounty case. 30 teams have, essentially, managed to steer clear of institution-wide controversy on-the-field, but the Patriots just seem to not be able to.
It doesn't matter that it would not have changed the outcome. It doesn't matter that Bill Belichick claims to not have known about this (his dumber lie - and this was definitely a lie - was claiming that he didn't know about anything until Monday, when the Patriots were forced to change balls at halftime). It doesn't matter that Brady pulled the same act and tried to distance himself, even bringing up ISIS for some reason. It doesn't matter that those two have a huge game to play in 10 days, and the Seahawks are sitting back. It doesn't matter if they did this once, twice, or have done it for every game since 2007. The Patriots did it, they attacked, embraced and finally exuded that beautiful shade of gray that they seem to permanently be attached to. I'll never feel bad for them, but I'll also never trust them again.