They cheated. Plain and simple. The New England Patriots cheated. • They deflated footballs so their golden-boy quarterback could throw them better. • They cheated and now they have to pay. • Forget fines, forget docking draft picks. If you want to stop a cheater, you punish the cheater. Severely. • The NFL should suspend coach Bill Belichick for the Super Bowl. • Maybe then the man who is already a proven cheater (remember Spygate?) will finally learn that you can't thumb your nose at the NFL and play by your own set of rules. • "The league is based on fairness in competition, so this is a huge, huge issue — a huge issue,'' said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager who used to serve on the league's competition committee. "This is at the highest level of the league because it is competitiveness of the game and fairness of the game.''
Did taking a little air out of a football really impact an AFC Championship Game that the Patriots won by 38 points? Does taking out a little air make one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history that much better? The game officials didn't even notice, so how much could it have even helped?
The answers don't matter. That's not what this is about.
This is about a team and a coach who know the rules then purposely break them.
The Patriots can deny it all they want, and quarterback Tom Brady can laugh about it, and Belichick can plead ignorance. But when 11 of the 12 footballs they used were illegal, you can't tell me there wasn't funny business going on.
They cheated, and now they have to pay.
"There should be a punishment,'' Casserly said. "Draft choices should be the punishment. That's the most severe punishment for a team. Clearly, there has to be a penalty. To me, this cannot be a warning.''
This strikes at fair play and level playing fields and, doggone it, doing what's right. The Patriots should pay the ultimate price just shy of making them forfeit. The man most responsible for the team (and is there any coach who controls every aspect of his team more than Belichick?) should not be allowed to coach.
That will not happen, of course. That's too extreme for the NFL, and it's doubtful that commissioner Roger Goodell is going to do that to his good buddy, Pats owner Robert Kraft.
Besides, it's going to be next to impossible to prove who was responsible for altering the footballs. My guess is some equipment flunky will fall on the sword and accept blame to keep Belichick, Brady and the Pats out of trouble.
The NFL might decide that messing with the air of a football is one of those rules that, wink-wink, really isn't enforced because everybody does it. Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson told the Tampa Bay Times two years ago that he paid an NFL employee $7,500 to scuff up the footballs that were used in Super Bowl XXXVII because that's the way he preferred them.
Well, as far as the Johnson story goes, both he and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon used the same footballs. And as far as the everybody-does-it excuse, not everybody was caught. The Patriots and only the Patriots were busted. And for those who think that taking air out of the ball doesn't make that much difference, answer this: If it doesn't make a difference, why do it?
Certainly, Belichick's checkered past does play a role in considering the severity of the punishment. Several years ago, Belichick and the Patriots were found to have videotaped the opposing sideline to steal defensive signals. He's a repeat offender and cannot be given the benefit of the doubt for his team breaking the rules again.
ESPN reported that the NFL is "distraught." It should be. Belichick and the Patriots have put the league in an impossible situation. If it gives the Patriots a slap on the wrist, the league will be accused of going soft and trying to bury the story to save its own image. If the league were to suspend Belichick or take an entire draft away from the Pats, it would be accused of being heavy-handed and unfair.
It also points out how incredibly inept the league is. How in the world does the NFL have specific rules about its footballs then allow teams to be in charge of those footballs? As it stands now, the teams give their footballs to the referee a little more than two hours before the game. After the balls are inspected to make sure they fall within league standards, they are given back to the teams!
Shouldn't a league that is worth billions be able to afford a few neutral people to be in charge of footballs for an entire game? My guess is the NFL expects its teams to have a little integrity, a little ethics.
But Belichick doesn't care about such things. He cares about one thing: winning. And he will do anything within the rules and, as we have seen, outside the rules to achieve that.
Belichick won three Super Bowls before he was busted for Spygate but has not won any since. What's so interesting is this Super Bowl could have added legitimacy to the Patriots' dynasty, proof that they didn't win because of spying.
Well, even if the Patriots go on to win the Super Bowl, Belichick's image and career and achievements will always be tarnished because of Spygate and now Deflategate. There will always be a mental asterisk next to his name.
I wish I could say that was punishment enough for what he and his team have done.
Tom Jones can be reached at (727) 893-8544 or [email protected]. Listen to him from 6-9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.