The NFL season starts Thursday night with the Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Patriots have been mired in controversy even since the team was found to be using deflated footballs in last season's AFC Championship game. As WBFO football analyst Matt Sabuda reports, the practice of deflating game balls may have been a key factor in the Patriots' success over nearly the past decade.
As Bills fans know all too well, football is the ultimate game of inches. Whether it's Scott Norwood's missed Super Bowl kick or the imperceptible difference of a forward or backward pass that became the Music City Miracle, wins, losses and sports legacies are often determined by the thinnest of margins and the slightest advantages.
With this in mind, we take a look at the New England Patriots, who kick off the NFL season Thursday night and talk to an analyst with a new report on the Patriots latest scandal, Deflategate. His surprising analysis suggests that the systematic deflating of footballs was likely much more widespread than even a single game or season. Combine his analysis with this week's bombshell ESPN report on the Patriots previous cheating scandal, Spygate, it appears likely that we may be witnessing the most prolonged era of cheating in sports history.
For those who downplay the importance of Deflategate, it’s unlikely that Warren Sharp will be a familiar name. Sharp is an engineer by trade and the operator of the football analytics site, sharpfootballanalysis.com.
Sharp analyzed the Patriots fumble rate over the last eight years, along with how a seemingly unimportant rule change that occurred prior to the 2006 season coincides with the the Patriots going from a middling ball retention team to nearly fumble-proof overnight.
"Prior to 2007 when Bill Belichick was the head coach of the New England Patriots, the Patriots were basically league-average in terms of fumble rates. They sit right in line with all the other teams in the NFL. Starting in 2007 immediately after Jim McNally took over as the locker room attendant, as well as immediately after the rule was changed so that road quarterbacks control the footballs used in the game, the New England Patriots statistically moved off the page in terms of how well they held onto the football and did not fumble it," says Sharp.
"The odds that they were able to fumble it as least often as they were is statistically improbable, something like the odds of winning a raffle and approximately once in over 6,000 instances."
Since 2000, Sharp found that teams who won the turnover battle win the game 79% of the time, but are there any other explanations for this anomaly under the Belichick and Brady led Patriots?
"Nothing was abnormal during his first tenure there, up until 2007. So I thought if something had to start in 2007, perhaps it was a new technique for carrying the football or new equipment, anything that was introduced like that would have been disseminated around the NFL," said Sharp. "We really haven't seen that."
Sharp says his research has stood up to challenges.
"None of them were successful in actually refuting my two primary points -- that the Patriots changed dramatically starting in 2007 from what they were previously and the rest of the NFL," he said.
So there you have it, or at least you have something. I know we don't have the smoking gun or admission of guilt from Tom Brady and the Patriots. But as Sharp points out, "the bottom line is, something happened in New England. It happened just before the 2007 season and it completely changed this team.” It's worth noting that one of the chief lobbyists to the NFL to enact this rule change was, in fact, Tom Brady. It's likely just a matter of time before yet another whistleblower provides that smoking gun that this "something" was the result of seven years of illegally tampering with footballs.
When you take into account the increasingly sordid details of Spygate along with Sharp's analysis, what you have is a uninterrupted, 15-year campaign of the Patriots cheating. It's too bad because the Patriots were, by most accounts, a very good football team. But we'll likely never really know just how good they were or what the football landscape would have looked like over the last 15 years had they just played by the rules.
Whether wins and titles should be vacated will ultimately be a matter of fierce debate. And for the apologists who claim these accusations are a result of jealousy over the Patriots success, ask yourself this, whatever happened to the notion of fair play?
Aaron Adoff contributed to this report.