Any guesses as to how many times the word “Deflategate” will be used Thursday night when the NFL’s 96th regular season kicks off with the Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the defending champion New England Patriots and Tom Brady, the once-suspended but now-reinstated Super Bowl MVP?
Vikings backup quarterback Shaun Hill didn’t venture a guess. But he does know he reached his saturation point on that particular word a while ago.
“I can’t believe it’s gone on this long and we’re still talking about it, to be honest with you,” Hill said. “It’s crazy. I guess it’s a huge story, but, I don’t know. I just try to stay in my lane.”
The NFL’s offseason has been dominated by the titanic struggle between a wobbling commissioner (Roger Goodell), a model owner (Robert Kraft), an all-time megastar (Brady) and the league’s most successful and some would say tainted franchise of the millennium (Patriots). The fracas stretches back to January when the Patriots were accused of intentionally deflating their footballs below the legal limit in the AFC Championship game win over the Colts.
The controversy was deftly sidestepped by all parties before the Super Bowl, but the figurative fist fighting began when the NFL found two Patriots ball boys guilty of purposely deflating the balls. The Patriots were fined a record $1 million and stripped of first- and fourth-round draft picks.
Meanwhile, Brady was suspended four games for what the league described as being “generally aware” of the footballs being deflated. After appealing to no avail to Goodell, the man who suspended him in the first place, Brady and the NFL Players Association took their battle to court and won.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman criticized Goodell for dispensing his “own brand of industrial justice” while rejecting the suspension last week. Goodell, whose power continues to be usurped in the courtroom, appealed the decision, but Brady will play in the meantime.
So what kind of impact does all of this have on the rest of the league, particularly the quarterbacks who make their living throwing inflated or deflated pigskin?
“None,” Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “None at all.”
The NFL did establish new procedures on the inspection and handling of footballs on game day.
The key difference: A member of the officiating crew that handles the six “K balls,” or kicking balls, will possess all of the footballs from the time they’ve been approved by the officials until 10 minutes before kickoff. A security guard will escort the officiating crew member and the 24 game balls to the sideline replay station, where each team will receive their 12 footballs.
The NFL also will randomly test and record the PSI (pounds per square inch) in footballs at halftime and after games. The Patriots, who argued that cold weather was responsible for the natural deflation of footballs in the AFC Championship game, believe the random testing will exonerate them once enough data is compiled.
Footballs still will be required to measure between 12.5 and 13.5 PSI.
Bridgewater was asked if he knew anything about the new procedures for inspecting and handling footballs on game day. The 22-year-old second-year starter smiled.
“No,” he said. “Not at all,” he said.
Then he emphasized the point.
“If I have to play this game with a rock, I’ll throw that around,” Bridgewater said. “It won’t faze me at all. Our equipment staff, [manager] Dennis [Ryan] and those guys, do a great job.
“I talk with Shaun Hill, and he said Dennis is one of the best in the league. And Shaun has been multiple places. So it doesn’t matter what they give me to play with. Whether it’s a baseball, a rock, a Frisbee, I’ll just go out and play.”
But surely you had a preferred PSI before all this “Deflategate” hubbub, eh, Teddy?
“No,” he said again. “Not at all,” he said again.
“I just go out there and however the ball feels that day, I play the game with it. I’m a simple guy. Whatever ball is in the bag, toss it to me and let’s go play.”
Asked what Ryan does so well to make new footballs feel game worn before their used, Bridgewater smiled again and reminded a reporter that this is “Teddy Two Gloves” we’re talking about.
You remember the gloves, right? Bridgewater didn’t wear them during the poor pre-draft workout that helped drop him from the top of the draft to the bottom of the first round.
“I don’t know what Dennis does specifically,” Bridgewater said. “Throwing with a glove, I can’t tell how the ball feels with the ball in my hands. Just give me any ball and I’ll go out and throw it.”