Deflategate: NFL quarterbacks doctoring footballs is nothing new

As conversations turn around the league to what is and isn't acceptable in terms of doctoring footballs, and the NFL continues to investigate whether the Patriots violated league rules on their sideline in the AFC Championship Game, this strikes me as a quest, more than anything else, for context.

This investigation may well determine someone did something that resulted in 11 of the 12 balls from the New England side in the first half Sunday being considerably below the regulation playing pressure. As of now, there are still many more questions than answers. But as the league moves forward and gathers more information about what exactly went on Sunday night, I struggle with how to put it all into perspective, how long and wide of a prism to view it through. And I wonder how much of a long view the NFL will take in determining what went on in this instance, in figuring out whether it is symptomatic of an ongoing process there, and in gauging how out of the norm any of these practices are compared to the rest of the league.

The more quarterbacks I talk to, and the more you read past stories and interviews that reference, however casually, the various degrees of inflation or distress many quarterbacks prefer from their game balls, the more it appears to me as a somewhat accepted part of the subculture. Is it in the realm of, say, a hitter using too much pine tar on his bat? And is this the George Brett moment in that regard, where all hell broke loose for a period of time, but then players more or less went on globbing on more pine tar than is technically allowed and umpires more or less let it go? Is this akin to pitchers rubbing and nicking, and in some cases getting a little pine tar on the ball, which after being caught on camera a few times last season was viewed by those outside the game as an atrocity but seemed to be generally accepted by those within?

And, if this is in essence quarterbacks doing what quarterbacks do, then is there an accepted norm about what is considered normal behavior and what is going too far? Is it the 2 psi -- upwards of 16 percent of possible ball weight -- that would strike those within the game, and this particular subculture, as bizarre? Could a hand -- even a trained and precise Hall of Fame hand like that of Tom Brady -- actually detect and notice in the difference of 1 psi here or there? And while I would agree this matter is one more of intent that scientific effectiveness, I can't help but wonder -- from a physics standpoint -- how little impact the extra deflation actually would have on one's ability to grip, navigate and pinpoint a football.

I spoke to someone who is very familiar with the Pats' practice and game-day handling of their game balls -- someone no longer a member of the organization who has no stake in the outcome of this investigation one way or another -- who was adamant that there had never been any sort of protocol about deflating balls in the rain or certain conditions.

"We would practice in the rain, Bill would throw water on dry balls during practice and there was never anything done to deflate them because of it being wet," the former Patriot said. "That doesn't even make any sense. As anal as Tom is about the balls, there's no way he'd let some ball boy or whatever try to deflate it to a certain PSI. 

"Tom knows a football, and the way he wants it, like you or I would know a kid. But there was never anything deflating or doctoring balls during a game. He knows how he wants the ball going into a game and he's not going to take any chances of someone else messing around with a ball to get it right. As anal as he is about the way he wants the balls to be, he's not going to able to tell the difference of 1 psi or whatever. 

"I'm just telling you, that's not how it works. He wants those balls to be right going into the game. But D'Qwell Jackson could tell after he intercepts a ball and is running to the sidelines? It just doesn't add up to me."

Onetime NFL MVP Rich Gannon dismisses the notion of wrongdoing, noting that trying to find the right game balls is nothing new for quarterbacks.

"Ask any quarterback, and this is a non-issue. Everybody does something to them. It's like a pitcher, he wants the ball a certain way. Take Tiger Woods, you wouldn't tell him after he's been hitting a 10.5 degree loft all week with a certain ball that, 'Hey, now we're going to switch your ball out.' That's his thing, and it's that specific feel that you want. That football is how we make our living and it sounds crazy, but it's a sacred thing. It's got to be a certain way."

As Boomer Esiason noted, in his day they took 24 balls out of the box before the game and that was it. Those were the game balls. "Quarterbacks have been complaining about that for years," said Esiason, who remains very close to the game as a CBS analyst and radio color commentator on broadcasts. Then, after superstars like Peyton Manning and Brady lobbied the league office to have more control over the balls, visiting teams eventually were allowed to supply their balls, while the home team supplied the rest.

"It really does seem totally ridiculous that this story has been blown so far out of proportion," Esiason said. "If you look at the footballs that the quarterbacks are playing with and throwing for the last six or seven years, just realize that everybody is doing the same thing."

With Brad Johnson, somewhat gleefully recounting how he bribed people $7,500 for Super Bowl game balls -- those should be even more secure because they're supplied by the league and not teams -- to be doctored to his exact specifications, are we really supposed to think this Deflategate is an anomaly? Or there's only a game of massive import when a club was searching for an advantage in the touch, grip or feel of the football? Gannon was on the losing end of that Super Bowl. He said both teams were trying to get balls to feel the way they wanted, because one thing QBs are unanimous about is that the old way of handling game balls -- pulling them out of the box, brushing them and then putting them in play -- stunk.

"This has been going on a long time," Gannon said. "It goes back to when we were playing and you go to a visiting team and the balls were terrible. I remember going to Pittsburgh and the balls were awful -- they were slick, you couldn't grip them. I don't know how [former Steelers quarterback] Kordell Stewart threw the ball there.

"And I remember having a conversation with Brad Johnson the Monday before that Super Bowl, and hey, we were both worried about the balls coming out of that box and the brushes they used made it even worse. I didn't know about him paying $7,500 to get them how he wanted them, but at the end of the day I could [not] care less. It didn't have anything to do with the outcome of the game and this kind of stuff has been going on forever. I talked to Brad Johnson this morning after all this stuff came out and I said, 'Brad, don't worry about it. I've got your back. It's not a big deal. Everybody does it.'"

Is Tom Brady allegedly getting a better grip an unfair advantage? (Getty Images)
Is Tom Brady allegedly getting a better grip an unfair advantage? (Getty Images)

Steve Beuerlein also played quarterback at a time, like Esiason and Gannon, when players did not have the ability to dictate game balls, with them provided by the league and not teams, so he would try to get a feel for them pregame to see which he preferred. "There would always seem to be two or three balls that felt really good, and two or three that were terrible," said Beuerlein, now an analyst on CBS NFL telecasts. "So I would go over to the ball boys and tell them to try to keep certain balls 'more prominent' in the rotation and they would usually try to accommodate ... all within the rules." Beuerlein believes the current system almost "encourages teams to push the envelope to see what they can get away with."

Clearly, any manipulation of the game ball, legally or not, would be quarterback driven. "The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the Patriots, and especially their quarterback, had to be comfortable with the under-inflated balls or they would have made an issue out of it," Beuerlein said. "I am not implying that Brady had anything to do with this ... I think very highly of him on and off the field ... but if he did not like, and prefer, the balls as they were, the issue would have been raised to the officials by the Patriots."

I understand this has become an international story driven to some degree by past transgressions of the team under investigation, with Spygate penalties still relatively fresh in the public's mind. So allegations against the Patriots during their remarkable run of success give them a jaundiced appearance to some. That backdrop, coupled with this being a championship game with the entire country watching, and with the issue of under-inflating footballs so outside the normal scope of anything we think about when it comes to this rampantly popular sport, has fueled this issue as part of a national debate. Timing, as they say, is everything.

What this will do, inevitably, assuming the Patriots are found to have broken the rules, is result in likely steep fines and/or the loss of a draft pick for New England. If the NFL takes the view of increasingly steep penalties for repeated on- and off-field violations for players, one could only assume a team that's a repeat offender would be face a similar fate. And, what this scandal will do, regardless of any discipline, is most certainly usher in some changes with NFL game-day practices.

I strongly suspect that come the 2015 season, all game balls will be the domain of the NFL even after officials inspect them. It wouldn't be difficult to install a locker on the sidelines for the balls, and put an NFL-sanctioned employee in charge of them, rather than have each sideline bring certain balls to the party and then seemingly have the ability to get at them during the course of a game. Take it even more out of the hands of the clubs than it already is and make securing them during the game part of the league's permanent responsibility.

In the meantime, I imagine we'll be left with more shades of gray than black and white. Much like the Bountygate investigation a few years back, which confirmed more than anything else that pay-for-performance schemes were pretty prevalent in NFL locker rooms, this inquest may end up shining a bright light on what has long been a dirty little secret of NFL sidelines in a sport where any edge, real or perceived, is coveted and where the line between cheating and gamefully obscuring or blurring the rules may come down to the position one plays or an individual code of ethics.

Plenty of players and coaches would, at least privately, admit searching for that advantage is inherent to their jobs. How far would they go may differ by the man or culture of the team. The Patriots aren't the only team to have done this, this much we know. With a few little adjustments by the NFL, soon enough, the entire notion of irregularly inflated game balls should be obsolete. Let the teams scuff and do whatever they want to do to bring the balls to the table, have the officials continue to test them pregame, keep them in a spot where teams do not have access to them during the game and move on knowing that future Deflategates have been rendered, well, deflated if not defeated.

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Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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