By Jeff Reynolds
Before the biggest game of his life, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson paid $7,500 to guarantee the 100 game balls provided by the NFL were personalized to his liking before Super Bowl XXXVII.
Letting the air out of the ball before the 2014 AFC Championship Game is about to come at a much steeper cost for the New England Patriots, and specifically coach Bill Belichick.
The NFL is reportedly irate over the findings this week that 11 of the 12 game balls put into circulation by the Patriots were deflated by about 16 percent. The edge gained was in grip and catch-ability, or at least that is the prevailing theory.
While Johnson, who was 34 years old when the Bucs kicked the Oakland Raiders between the uprights 48-21, was going for a better grip, the answers to the questions of how and why with the Patriots are left unanswered at the moment.
Deflating footballs is to NFL rule-breaking what grape theft is to shoplifting. Maybe it's all too common, and the best coach in NFL history is the worst at not getting caught.
Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said Tuesday that this story is a non-story, and his team just wasn't good enough yet. Presented as one isolated situation, he is perfectly accurate.
Belichick's history of insubordination and intolerance for NFL policy add context to a bigger picture that must be considered when weighing his place in the pantheon of all-time great coaches. He is one. On Sunday, he leapt Tom Landry for all-time playoff wins with No. 21. He is going to his sixth Super Bowl. He is a Hall of Famer.
In a game of strategy and finding miniscule advantages that stack up to a sum edge over the opponent, Belichick's calculated risks generally pay off. But he isn't a fan of the league overlords and their many reasoned strategies, for years listing Brady on the injury report with a weary shoulder in what the commissioner's office must have read as a wink-wink middle finger from New England.
Johnson said before the team's 10-year reunion that "I paid some guys off to get the balls right. I went and got all 100 footballs, and they took care of all of them."
When and how the Patriots took care of the game balls used in a 45-7 whitewash of the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday is not as clear. The footballs provided by both teams -- 12 apiece -- were inspected by referee Walt Anderson on a humid night in Foxborough, Mass. The temperature at kickoff was over 50 degrees, though heavy rain was in the forecast and there is no situation for which Belichick is underprepared.
The footballs are returned to a team ball attendant before the game. While the NFL isn't commenting on the results of Anderson's inspection, the assertions the Patriots opened themselves to are not flattering.
Last week there was no response from the Patriots coach when Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula called him "Belicheat."
It's now his reputation, splashed on the banner headline of the New York Post and other non-tabloid print products. It's also one earned by the mastermind of 21 playoff wins, of Brady over Drew Bledsoe in the biggest game of his career -- his first Super Bowl victory -- of SpyGate, which led to the loss of a first-round pick and $500,000 fine. Players, including former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, have since said it's hard to see a major advantage being gained from filming a practice.
If there was one, bet Belichick found it.
In Super Bowl XXXVII, Rich Gannon of the Raiders threw five interceptions using the footballs Johnson claims to have mafaisoed.
In Sunday's game, Andrew Luck and the Colts, in all likelihood, played by the rules and were walked to the guillotine.
The pity about the afterparty for the Patriots is this was a game they likely would have won without any foul play.
Brady on Monday responded to the investigation into the under-inflated footballs by saying, "I've heard everything now." He called the angle "ridiculous."
Finally, some middle ground we can agree upon.
Brady is maniacally detail-oriented. While the common armchair quarterbacks among us would not notice the difference in a ball under-inflated by approximately two pounds, Brady lives it. In Indianapolis, Peyton Manning had his own "ball guy," who rubbed, scuffed, hugged and squeezed the pigskin until it had the perfect feel in Manning's massive mitts.
Johnson said he couldn't grip a slippery ball, and the week before the Super Bowl the Bucs won in Philadelphia in sub-freezing temperatures with Johnson wearing a glove on his throwing hand.
Brady had no issues with grip, nor did his receivers.
The Patriots' first score was set up by a fumbled punt return by Josh Cribbs -- for the record, both teams use the same brand new, well-inflated "K" ball on special teams plays -- and New England thrived on turnovers.
The biggest fumble is on Belichick, but there is culpability for game officials who handled the ball on every play, if only momentarily for placement at the line of scrimmage.
Belichick won't be banned from the Super Bowl or robbed of the conference championship trophy.
Some of the game's greats already have an opinion on where the coach some believe could be one of the best of all time in any sport could feel it -- in his deflated legacy.
Shula, Jerry Rice and other NFL dignitaries called Belichick on the carpet with a single word: Cheat.
Fair or not, Belichick's mastery from the sideline is being discredited by his team's actions, and the buck stops with the boss.
Until we have all the answers -- or primary evidence -- into the latest Belichick controversy, clouds darken and this time the coach cannot control the outcome.
In many ways, one of the game's greatest winners has already lost.