Have you been following the latest developments in the investigation into the use of shady balls during the AFC Championship? Probably not, because you're normal and football's over and it's all so confusing. But listen a second: this new stuff is weird.
It started on Tuesday night with a frustratingly vague report from ESPN's Kelly Naqi, was given new legs when Adam Schefter broke into Outside the Lines yesterday, and is spelled out in much more detail by PFT's Mike Florio today. But it's all still really, really confusing. So let's bulletpoint where things appear to stand.
- After the opening kickoff of the AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, an NFL employee named Scott Miller got his hands on the kicking ball—or "K-ball"—that was used. This is normal; the K-balls are prepared and kept separately from the game balls.
- Among Miller's responsibilities was removing from play balls destined for sale. (Many game-used balls are auctioned off by the NFL, with proceeds going to charity.) But in this case, this specific K-ball was not earmarked for auction, and was not supposed to have been permanently removed from the game.
- According to reports, Miller kept that ball for himself, to sell privately.
- After New England scored a touchdown, the on-field officials sought that K-ball for the point-after try. At some point, Miller allegedly gave a second, different ball to Jim McNally, the officials' locker-room attendant at Patriots games. This was not a K-ball.
- When McNally tried to bring this non-K-ball into play for the PAT, someone noticed it wasn't properly prepared and didn't have the right markings. PFT says it was the Patriots who realized something was up; ESPN says the officials. Either way, red flag.
Still with us? If not, that's OK. But here's the thing to take away from the Mystery of the Disappearing K-ball: It is entirely different from the question of whether the Patriots were using underinflated footballs.
I will state that again, because it's really incredible, and I feel like no one's making a big enough deal of this. In the course of its investigation into Ballghazi, the NFL discovered a wholly separate case of someone introducing non-regulation footballs into play.
I get that you have deflation fatigue. But this is important, because it's turned what was in danger of becoming a boring, technicality-based scandal into yet another NFL Keystone Kops routine.
Remember how, when Ballghazi first broke, the NFL emphasized the sacrosanct routine and rigorous, almost military-style preparation of its game balls? How each team has a specialist whose job it is to get those balls exactly to their quarterback's liking while staying within the rules? That the Patriots could have gained some immeasurable, championship edge from a few extra tenths of PSI?
Bullshit! All of it! No one knows anything about the balls. No one's keeping track of them. Random doofuses are roaming the sidelines, pocketing game balls and swapping in random ones they found in a closet somewhere. Non-approved balls are showing up on the field in a conference championship game, and no one knows why or how or where the real ones went. How often does this happen? We wouldn't even have known about this one if the NFL hadn't been investigating the other ball-related maybe-shenanigans.
This happens every time. Every NFL controversy—think Ray Rice, or the replacement refs, or the Saints' bounty scandal—starts off with a chest-thumping, self-important "We must protect the shield!" routine and a sworn oath to make things right. And then it quickly devolves into another shining display of the NFL's incompetence, with the answer invariably being that someone who was supposed to know what they were doing didn't.
And now this league, which portrays itself as a Park Avenue office building full of control freaks but can't even establish a chain of custody for its footballs, is going to presume to chastise New England when it has its own employees going rogue? This latest mess has nothing to do with Ballghazi. It's also completely exonerated the Patriots.