As we deal with the unfolding Patriots scandal, we seek context. And it's unclear precisely how common the practice of illegally doctoring footballs actually is among quarterbacks. But it's obvious that the urge to do so is universal, because the benefits are real and significant. Ask Brad Johnson, who paid off "some guys" (who are these guys?) to rough up all of the footballs before leading the Buccaneers to a championship in 2003.
Johnson told the story before, but the Tampa Bay Times brings it up again today, for obvious reasons.
At 34, Johnson had developed a few compulsions during his career. He changed his socks and shoes every quarter, and over the course of a game he replaced everything but his pants. Johnson always sweated profusely, and he liked the clean, dry feeling.
This was particularly true when it came to footballs. He had trouble gripping a wet football, a cold football or a new, out-of-the-box football.
At the Super Bowl, the NFL had 100 footballs. They were new, slick and supposedly under the league's watchful eye. But not leaving anything to chance, Johnson made sure the balls were scuffed and ready well before the Dixie Chicks sang the national anthem.
"I paid some guys off to get the balls right," Johnson now admits. "I went and got all 100 footballs, and they took care of all of them."
How much did it cost Johnson? "Seventy-five hundred (dollars)," he said.
"They took care of them."
The obvious takeaway here is that Johnson revealed his black-ops and bribery years ago, and nobody cared; it was just a funny backstory to a forgettable Super Bowl. There are any number of reasons why potential Patriots tampering is such a huge story, but the biggest is surely that it's the Patriots.
Johnson's tale is instructive, too, to explain what quarterbacks hope to get out of softening or scuffing their footballs. They're just easier to grip, no big thing when it's cold and your fingers are numb, or it's raining (like it was in Foxboro on Sunday), or even just because you're going to be holding that thing with one hand and you damn sure don't want to drop it. Leather, especially, it's tough to manipulate when it's new. A baseball player would never take the field without spending days breaking in a new glove, and NBA players nearly revolted when the league introduced a synthetic ball that proved to be unplayably slick.
It's much more than just putting the leather through its paces. A couple extra psi let out of a ball can make all the difference, says former NFL QB Danny Kanell:
So! It's worth investigating if Tom Brady did anything illegal to his footballs, but there's no need to wonder why he would have wanted to.