So, at what point did you start believing this deflated football controversy? Were you home from an early Monday morning walk, expecting an easy MLK Day full of NFL highlights and entertaining Internet memes featuring various Patriots beating dead horses in Colts uniforms? Did you see the telltale question mark on the sports ticker, something like, “Pats Under Investigation?” when you first felt the elation of their AFC conquest sag a bit?
Did you not want to believe it? Do you yet?
Coach Bill Belichick’s subsequent meeting with the press offered no reassurance. He bookended answers with “We’ll do whatever the league asks us to do,” giving two separate “The first I heard of it was this morning,” responses. Nary a straightforward denial among them.
He did it. Of course he did. Because Bill Belichick – like most NFL coaches, to an extreme – is different from you and me.
Some with only a cursory understanding of these topics would say that Belichick ignores the rules. On the contrary, he obsesses over them. Think about his most consistent teacher over the years, his father. The man played professional football in 1941. Can you imagine the stories he could tell? Can you imagine what was thought of as “legal” for the 1940s Detroit Lions? Back then, considering the lack of protection, “helmet-to-helmet” resembled a head butt. Water breaks were for the weak. Just a completely different mindset of what was considered fair.
The younger Belichick knows the rules so well that he ensured quarterback/living B.C. statue Doug Flutie’s final play was a history-making drop kick for an extra point back in January 2006. At the time, very few knew whether a drop kick was still legal. Hell, not a lot of people knew what a drop kick was. Flutie became the first player to score a point by that method since Scooter McLean kicked for the Bears’ championship win in – surprise – 1941. (A fact Belichick knew, by the way: just read his post-game interview here.)
Imagine an SAT-type test involving NFL rules. Some multiple choice, some true/false, a couple of essays (haven’t taken the SAT in about 30 years, so apologies if it’s completely different now). He’d come out doing pretty well, right? Now imagine Roger Goodell taking the same test. Unless there’s a section on what cocktails to serve while sitting at the club waiting for the staff to service an owner’s yacht, hard to say ol’ Rog nails it.
That’s Belichick. He knows more than you. He knows he knows more than you. It seems he wants people to just leave him alone and let him do what he has been groomed to do since he watched game film with his dad as boy: to try to understand and prepare that much better than his opponent. And, in a sense, the rules makers and enforcers have become his opponents, too.
I mean, press conferences must feel like agony for this guy. The same questions, over and over, to people who don’t understand or have failed to put in the work to understand the game on the same level. At times, especially with the out-of-town media who show up week-to-week, it’s got to seem like he’s trying to explain Memento to someone who started watching near the end. It’s why, when he gets a question with specific historical context, he puts on his metaphorical suspenders and lectures about the history of the great game of football. It’s why, except at outdoor practices, he rarely sees sunlight during the season.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. His work is his fun. He’s not like you and me.
Make no mistake; these don’t qualify as excuses, just potential reasons. Belichick cheated. He knew the proper inflation for footballs, and – after watching his team put the ball on the ground three times the week before – he decided to soften the spheroids to make them easier to hold during a driving rainstorm.
“But you don’t know that,” you are saying. “You weren’t there. Maybe he knew nothing about it.” Do you actually believe Bill Belichick knew nothing about 11 footballs inflated two pounds less than required? Come on. You have to give him more credit than that.
So now fans must either turn a blind eye or, as WEEI.com’s Jerry Thornton does well in this piece regarding Eli Manning’s ball ritual (yup, sticking with that phrase), start playing the “everyone does it” card. It’s a strong card to play here: more and more examples have arisen of doctoring footballs, including a jocular on-air exchange between announcers Phil Simms and Jim Nantz regarding Aaron Rodgers’ preference for overinflated footballs and a piece on Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson having footballs doctored before the big game vs. Oakland.
(On that last one: Raiders fans get all up in arms over the Tuck Rule – an actual, albeit silly, rule – but they don’t go totally bat-guano over this? Pick your battles, Oakland fans!)
I can’t argue against the accusations of rampant hypocrisy in the NFL. Linebacker Ray Lewis used a banned substance to help him recover from a triceps injury during Baltimore’s championship run. The Seahawks had several players suspended due to PED use leading up to last year’s Super Bowl season. Were they cheating? Sure seems like it. Do we care? Not much, apparently.
Why should we? Goodell didn’t seem to care about taping defensive signals until he heard numerous complaints. He didn’t seem to care about brain injuries until it became a money issue via lawsuit. He didn’t seem to care about domestic abuse until video of a violent assault made its way onto the Internet for all to see. He made up punishments as he went along. Now he’ll have to do the same.
I’ll skip the joke about inflating the balls of NFL owners and head straight for the obvious: this was not an issue Goodell expected to deal with this week. That’s part of what gets Belichick into trouble: his understanding of the rules and his efforts at circumventing them make Goodell and the league higher-ups look bad. After all, what is the punishment? There’s mention of a minimum $25,000 fine. Goodell will increase that, because he’ll want to send a message. But by how much, and why? More work for him. More to hammer out and nail down before the Super holiday.
In any case, it doesn’t seem like Belichick will get the message Goodell wants to send. The coach will go back to the rule book, studying, deconstructing, looking for language that could potentially give him an advantage. The coach does this as well as anyone else in the league. It’s a fan’s choice whether to embrace this line of thinking or not. We know he didn’t need to tinker with air pressure to beat the Colts. We know he preps his players for on-field situations with awesome meticulousness. We can’t ignore his greatness. We can’t ignore his faults, either.
We know this about Bill Belichick: he has cheated; he will probably figure out a way to cheat again.
And, Heaven help me, I’ll be rooting for him.