It’s been fun to hear the phrase “deflated balls” repeated by athletes and and other personalities over the last few days as the #DeflateGate controversy has raged, but a question has been floating around since we heard that 11 of the 12 footballs used by Tom Brady and the Patriots offense were 2 PSI below NFL guidelines: “Does it really matter?”
According to former Patriots quarterback Hugh Millen — who threw his last NFL pass in 1995 — it matters a great deal. At least when we’re talking about a quarterback’s ability to handle a ball and how fast that ball can fly through the air.
“If you’re going to be challenged to handle the ball in either very cold conditions or wet conditions, then having the ability to grab the ball and squeeze it, you’re going to have more of a chance to remain in contact with the ball,” he said.
Deflated balls could also mean faster balls thrown by quarterbacks. Because of the softer grip, the index finger remains on the football a tad longer, allowing for faster spirals during a throw, especially for quarterbacks who like to keep their fingers on the seams, Millen said.
“We know from having put a football in wind tunnels, the faster the ball rotates, the more it cuts through the air. It has less drag, therefore more velocity on the ball,” he said, adding later, “most quarterbacks like to have less air than more air.”
Millen — who presently works for a sporting goods company whose footballs are used by high schools and football camps according to their website — also spoke briefly about the culture of football tampering in the NFL.
In his years in the NFL, Millen said it was common for quarterbacks to ask for balls to be deflated, within the league’s acceptable range, if the footballs felt too hard for their preference. It takes just a couple of seconds to lose 2 pounds of air pressure after inserting a needle. A team equipment staffer could have been careless.
“I’ve seen somebody say, ‘Hey, stick a needle in there for a second just to get the air right,'” Millen said.
As I said, Millen hasn’t put on the pads in 20 years, but it doesn’t seem like players are any less likely to push for their preferences to be respected when it comes to the inflation level and feel of a game ball nowadays.
We’ve already been reminded that in 2012, former Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson admitted that he paid two ball boys $7,500 to “get the balls right” before Super Bowl XXVII, and recently former Heisman winner Matt Leinart tweeted out that the problem (if we’re accepting that it is one) is widespread.
Every team tampers with the footballs. Ask any Qb In the league, this is ridiculous!!
— Matt Leinart (@MattLeinartQB) January 21, 2015
Now, I’m sure that, going forward, the league will pay closer attention to the condition of game balls and the chain of custody. But if this has been a widespread unacknowledged ritual within the game for years, and if Quarterbacks on both sides get to have their way with their footballs, then the “damage” is both incalculable and possibly moot to all but the purists. So, I suppose the question still is, “Does it really matter?”