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NFL Deflategate probe ongoing as scientists weigh in on controversy

Investigation continues amid report NFL determined 11 Patriots game balls were underinflated

Amid new reports Wednesday alleging the NFL has found problems with footballs used by the New England Patriots during the team’s blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts — which earned the Patriots a trip to this year’s Super Bowl — the league said it is still investigating the matter. 

The controversy began brewing after the Patriots defeated the visiting Colts in a rain-soaked rout at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Sunday.  

An ESPN report Wednesday, citing unnamed “league sources involved and familiar with the investigation,” said the NFL has determined that 11 of the 12 game balls allotted to the Patriots were inflated 2 pounds per square inch (psi) below NFL specifications, which require balls to be between 12.5 and 13.5 psi.

But NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, responding to a request for further comment, would only say that "our review is continuing and we will provide an update as soon as possible." 

The issue has sparked questions about what, if any, competitive advantage could be had by using under-inflated footballs — and whether this could have led to a different outcome for the game, which turned out to be a 45-7 blowout victory for New England. 

Under-inflating a football can affect how it is gripped and how it moves through the air when thrown. Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Mark Brunell has said that “most quarterbacks, like myself, want a football that’s easier to grip and you get that by having less air in it.” 

Some scientists also agree that altering the amount of air inside of a football can make an impact — for better or worse. 

“Deflating the ball does give a team an advantage … particularly during that game, which was very rainy, it's hard to hold the ball, it's hard to catch the ball,” Ainissa Ramirez, scientist and author of the book “Newton’s Football,” told NPR on Wednesday.

Physicist John Eric Goff, of Lynchburg College in Virginia, wrote on his blog that "water on the ball, after all, reduces friction between the ball’s surface and the quarterback’s hand," and so deflating a football slightly allows for better grip.

But Goff said deflating a ball can also have drawbacks, telling NPR, “If you reduce the mass of the ball — which happens if you let a little bit of air out — the ball can decelerate faster when you throw it,” ultimately making it more difficult to throw the football farther downfield. 

Chang Kee Jung, a Stony Brook University physics professor who teaches a course titled "physics of sports," told Al Jazeera that under normal conditions, with minimal wind and rain, “a properly inflated ball allows you to throw it the farthest."

However, given Sunday’s erratic weather conditions that featured wind and rain, an under-inflated ball — while making it tougher to throw long passes — could prove particularly useful if a team's game plan features short, tight passes, Jung said.

In Sunday’s game, the Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady's longest pass was for 30 yards, but most of his 23 passing completions were for less than 10 yards. 

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck hasn’t addressed the so-called Deflategate controversy directly, but told reporters after the game Sunday that he didn’t think the weather had affected his grip on the ball or his throwing ability.

According to NFL rules, before each game each team provides footballs to be used when its offense takes the field. They are inspected and marked for use by the officiating crew before being handled during the game by personnel provided by the home team, The Associated Press reported. 

Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson took note of a possible under-inflated football during Sunday’s game after he intercepted a pass by Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, Newsday reported. Jackson reportedly handed the ball to the Colts’ equipment staff member, who thought the ball may have been underinflated and informed Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.

When asked about the controversy two days ago, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady laughed it off, telling WEEI sports radio station in Boston, “I think I’ve heard it all at this point,” he said. “I don’t even respond to stuff like this."

For his part, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — who was hit with a $500,000 fine in 2007 for having his team’s video assistant spy on the defensive signals of the New York Jets during a game — has said that the organization will fully cooperate with the league, and that he didn’t know anything about the purported ball deflation.

Former NFL quarterback Steve Young seemed skeptical about any competitive advantage. "To me, it would make the ball a little easier to throw, but it doesn’t help you throw touchdowns versus interceptions,” he told ESPN. 

"There’s a rule and rules are made to be kept and make it fair for everybody," Young, a current ESPN analyst, told the network. "It’s outside the rules, but certainly it’s not like it’s going to win you a game because of it."

The NFL’s investigation is expected to be completed within a few days, and the league is likely hoping the media's focus on the controversy will go away and shift toward Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, where the Patriots will take on the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1.

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