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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Did Colts Ineptitude Contribute To Football Deflation?

No one knows for certain what happened to the footballs at Foxboro last Sunday. The NFL investigation continues, as unnamed “sources” leak dribs and drabs of information. The Patriots ran their own testing this week and released the results yesterday. And fans and media are locked in an argument death-spiral about the vagaries of air pressure, cold weather, and how much quarterbacks control footballs.


One factor no one seems to take into account is maybe the most obvious: the Patriots offense used their footballs a lot more than the Colts offense did last Sunday. With the Colts pathetic first half performance, they ended up with 30 offensive plays to the Patriots 41. But it wasn’t just the number of plays; it was how often the football got hit by defenders and how often it was crushed under the ball-carrier as he was tackled.


A review of the first half tape showed a significant difference between in how often defenders hit the football or offensive players landed on the football (the two plays that are the most likely to squeeze some air out of the football). The difference owed both to the number of offensive plays run by each team -- but also to poor tackling by the Colts, which led to more hits on Patriots backs and receivers.


When Patriots players possessed the football, it was hit more than twice as often as it was when Colts players possessed the football. And when the ball-carriers from each team were tackled, the Patriots landed on their footballs more than twice as often as the Colts landed on theirs. Here is how the first half numbers break down:


Times football was hit by an opponent3917
Times a team's runner landed on the football2210


On its own, the impacts of the… er, impacts might not explain the 2-psi drop from specifications. But the punishment a football takes clearly has some effect. And the NFL rule about removing under-inflated footballs probably owes to the fact that 22 huge men take their best shot at it every play, and sometimes the football itself comes out worse for the wear.


(And if you don’t think doubling the hits makes any difference, try this experiment. Pump up two footballs to 12.5 psi. Then run over one with a Toyota Matrix (2,900 pounds) and the other with a Cadillac Escalade [5,800 pounds]. I’m guessing one will bounce back nicely and the other will be flat as a pancake.)


Most importantly, the entire picture might be coming into focus. The Patriots inflate their footballs to the minimum acceptable number: 12.5-psi. And their testing this week showed that the footballs dropped from 12.5-psi to 11.5-psi in the hours after their football-preparation regimen (link)  -- meaning they would test as normal by the officials but be down 1-psi before the game even started.


Add in the cold weather and the number of impacts each team's footballs sustained, and there is enough to explain a 2-psi drop in air pressure. Nothing nefarious, nothing underhanded, just the physics of the game.


As for the Colts, if they want to ensure the Patriots footballs stay properly inflated next time, here’s a novel strategy: play better. Don't drop so many passes, don't fumble the Patriots first punt, and don't allow the Patirots to move the ball at will.


That way, leaking a report about supposed rules-violations won’t sound like sour grapes.


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