Embattled New England Patriots Head Coach and Official NFL-adjudicated cheat Bill Belichick took to the podium this morning to address the now-roiling controversy of his team's alleged use of under-inflated footballs in Sunday's AFC Championship 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. For about five minutes, Belichick gave opening remarks in which he pleaded ignorance of the NFL procedures for verifying game balls, made carefully-worded denials, and tried his level best to avoid using the word "balls" in sentences that would be funny with the word "balls" in them (which is most sentences). That's no mean feat in a press conference that is specifically about balls, but Coach only slipped up once:
"Tom's personal preferences on his ball.. footballs are something that he can talk about in much better detail."
As well as Belichick did avoiding juvenile titters from the full-grown adolescents of the world, though, he could not escape telltale symbolism worthy of a 21st Century Edgar Allen Poe: throughout his press conference about tampering with footballs, Belicheck stood in front of a backdrop that featured the hashtag #flexball, intended to promote Gillette razors. And just like those razors, Belichick's press conference was designed to give him the wiggle room to escape this kerfuffle with nothing worse than a close shave.
In case you missed it, allegations surfaced on Monday that the Patriots may have used under-inflated footballs, which would be easier for offensive players to grip, in their victory over the Colts. Further reporting by ESPN showed that 11 of the Patriots' 12 game balls had to be re-inflated at halftime when they were tested and found to be "significantly below" the 12.5 psi level required by the NFL.
When asked about the allegations on Monday, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady laughed them off, but like Belichick, left himself lots of wiggle room by not actually denying them:
"That's the last of my worries... I don't even respond to stuff like this."
That was before ESPN reported that almost all of the Patriots footballs were under-inflated, which might make Brady less likely to fake-laugh quote so hard. Now Belichick, who never actually denies the allegations either, is throwing the onus onto Brady. After referring reporters to Brady during his remarks, Belichick refused to answer questions about any conversations he'd had with his quarterback, but Brady's ball preferences are already a matter of public record:
Asked if he spikes the ball after a (rare) rushing touchdown, Brady added: "Yeah, which happens like once every three years. But when Gronk scores -- it was like his eighth touchdown of the year -- he spikes the ball and he deflates the ball. I love that, because I like the deflated ball. But I feel bad for that football, because he puts everything he can into those spikes."
It's still unclear what action the league will take, but anything short of disqualifying the Patriots will leave an irrevocable taint on this year's Super Bowl, just as it will on the Patriots. There are Pats apologists who try to point out that Brady and the Patriots were actually better in the second half, when presumably the balls were properly inflated, but that's a silly point to anyone who knows anything at all about football.
The fact that whatever advantage the offense had in the first half would naturally carry over into the second half by virtue of an over-taxed Colts defense is almost beside the point, though. Football is a game of inches, and final scores notwithstanding, any or all of those 16 games can turn on a single moment here or there. If the Patriots were cheating to gain an advantage during regular season games (which is supported, not just by common sense, but by actual reporting), there's no telling how their season might otherwise have turned out. There's no telling how other teams' seasons might have turned out. like the Jets, who lost to the Pats by margins of two points and one point this season.
Of course, the NFL won't disqualify the Patriots from the Super Bowl, but the media and fans should not take this lightly. There is a principle at stake here, that's true, but it's more than that. Of course, no one should cheat, but especially not a team like the Patriots. Why is it that the people least in need of an edge are often the ones who break the rules to gain one?