By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Everyone in America has personal opinions as to what happened (or didn't happen) in the bowels of Gillette Stadium on the night of Jan. 18. Some people believe that Tom Brady ordered some equipment guys to stick a needle in the footballs to take out some air. Some people believe not only that Brady did no such thing, but that no air was ever taken out of any balls. And still many more believe something that falls somewhere in between those two extremes.
But one thing that most reasonable people can agree on is this: The NFL went overboard in its punishment of Brady and the Patriots.
A $1 million fine, the forfeiture of a first-round and fourth-round draft pick, as well as a four-game suspension for the quarterback who was never actually proven to be guilty was an objectively excessive penalty, especially considering most every comparable violation in NFL history has resulted only in a small fine and a stern warning. (See: The Carolina Panthers in Minnesota last year.)
Well, as it turns out, such a statement no longer requires the suspension of one's disbelief. That's because, for one reason or another, a Los Angeles Times story from 2007 bubbled to the surface of Twitter on Thursday afternoon, and the story shows exactly how the NFL handled a situation nearly identical to "DeflateGate" eight years ago.
To ensure the footballs aren't switched during the game, the officials mark each of them using a rubber stamp. ... Yet, with all the care, teams still occasionally try to switch out a ball. It happened once to [Tony] Corrente's crew and back judge [Don] Carey confiscated the ball, turned it over to league security, they sent it to headquarters, and the team was punished.
To recap: A team was caught red-handed putting an unapproved, and therefore uninspected, football into a game. That team was punished, but certainly no first-round draft pick was taken away, and no quarterback was suspended for a quarter of a season.
There was no multi-million dollar, "independent" investigation. There was no eight-month firestorm in the national sports and news media. There was no instance of the commissioner doling out punishment, declaring himself to oversee the appeal hearing, and then ultimately ruling that he was right all along. There were no 10-hour appeal sessions and there were no battles in federal court.
There was, simply, a punishment, issued behind closed doors, likely with an attached warning that the offending team would be watched closer in the future, and that was that.
It was, dare I say ... competent.
The LA Times story, published in September 2007, references the incident as something that took place in the past. Considering Goodell took his job prior to the 2006 season, it's more probable than not that the incident took place during Paul Tagliabue's tenure. Hence, the competence.
The example stands, obviously, in stark contrast to just about everything that took place at Gillette Stadium in January. That night, no fewer than five important employees of the NFL knew ahead of time to be on the lookout for someone messing with footballs -- senior VP of football operations David Gardi, director of game ops James Daniel, VP of officiating Dean Blandino, senior director of officiating Alberto Riveron, referee Walt Anderson.
Despite the forewarnings from the suspicious Colts, NFL officials nevertheless lost track of the footballs before the game. That's when, according to the "independent" work of Ted Wells, Jim McNally tiptoed into a bathroom and let the air out of those footballs. Anderson was, according to Wells, losing his mind in an effort to find the footballs. (That's even though McNally was only in the bathroom for 100 seconds, which isn't much time for a referee to notice a missing bag and lose his mind immediately, unless that person has a very short fuse. But that's a story for another day.)
Anderson claimed that in his long NFL career, the footballs have never once gone missing from the officials' locker room, so you'd think the combination of the pregame warnings and the missing footballs would prompt him to put the 12 backup footballs into action (those footballs remained in the officials' locker room the entire time). But no, Anderson found the footballs on the field and allowed them to be put into play for the AFC Championship Game.
And, of course, it was during that game when, as the story goes, Colts GM Ryan Grigson alerted Blandino and Troy Vincent, and the wheels of the NFL's Integrity Machine began to churn at once.
You know what happened next. Somebody leaked news of the situation to Bob Kravitz, and the cat was out of the bag. "DeflateGate" was born, and now, nearly 11 months later, it still lives.
So why were things so different back in 2007? It's a question worth asking.
Some people will say, immediately, that it is evidence that "DeflateGate" as we know it was a sting operation from the get-go, intended to attack the Patriots and tear them down in some way. And given how much of the melodrama has played out this year, those people may be right.
On the flip side, there is the possibility that the team which got busted for the football malfeasance by Tony Corrente's crew was ... none other than the New England Patriots. If that were the case, and the Patriots had years ago been caught and warned to stop this practice, then it would certainly add a fresh angle as to why Goodell and the NFL might have gone about things the way they did this year. After all, the lingering belief from "Spygate" is that the Patriots weren't punished so much for the actual offense of filming coaches from the wrong locations but for obstinately disobeying memos from the league.
Some minor digging into that theory: In 2004, the Patriots were caught using their own footballs in a game. This was before teams supplied their own footballs. The Wells report noted that the Patriots explained it as "an honest mistake." A.J. Feeley said he saw the Patriots use their own footballs in a Dolphins-Patriots game in 2004.
But the trail runs cold there, as Corrente's officiating crew did not work either meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins that year. So that's a dead end.
Pro-football-reference.com lists the game logs of all NFL officials, and according to those records, Carey did work four Patriots games with Corrente (Steelers-Patriots and Jets-Patriots in 2002; Patriots-Cardinals in 2004; Raiders-Patriots in 2005). So it is possible, if not statistically likely, that the incident spotlighted in the LA Times article involved the Patriots.
That, really, might be the only reasonable explanation for Goodell's treatment of the alleged minor offense this year. (The idea that he treated them harshly because he "went easy on them with Spygate" is an odd theory, considering the Spygate penalties were unprecedented.)
But let's say the case described in that 2007 article did not involve the Patriots, because really, don't you think Mr. Wells or Goodell might have mentioned that once or twice over the past 10-plus months? If it involved any of the other 31 NFL teams and was simply treated for what it was (an equipment violation, rather than a grave threat to the "integrity of the game"), then the contrast in situations shows that the NFL unquestionably went too far with its punishment of the Patriots.
As with most questions we have for the NFL, it's unlikely that we'll ever know the truth.
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