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AEI’s debunking reportedly gets debunked

More than five months after the AFC Championship, the question of whether the Patriots deflated footballs used in the first half of the game polarizes like no other NFL issue of the last generation. The best evidence: (1) the number of comments each #DeflateGate story generates; and (2) the number of emails PFT receives from folks on both sides of the issue.

The latest battle of the bulk electronic mail centers on the work of American Enterprise Institute, which ripped apart the science of the 243-page Ted Wells report. After an initial flurry of emails pointing out the AEI report -- and others alleging (incorrectly) that the Krafts who own the Patriots run the same Kraft Foundation that funds AEI -- the emails are now noting that someone has taken issue with AEI’s work. Specifically, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe has countered the AEI report countering the Wells report with the opinions of University of Vermont biostatistician Mike DeSarno.

The latest fight centers on AEI’s claim that Ted Wells and Exponent employed “an unorthodox statistical procedure at odds with the methodology the report describes.” DeSarno disputes that.

Whether the Wells report did or didn’t use an unorthodox statistical procedure doesn’t really matter to the question of whether Wells got it right. Ultimately, Wells and Exponent concluded that there had to have been tampering because the footballs used by the Patriots showed more of a drop in air pressure than the footballs used by the Colts, ignoring the fact that the footballs used by the Colts sat in a warmer environment while the 11 footballs used by the Patriots were tested twice and reinflated.

Perhaps that’s why DeSarno added, “I still don’t place any faith in [Wells’s] conclusions.”

I continue to place no faith in the conclusions, either, for one very important reason. During the 95-year history of the NFL, the question of whether air pressure inside a football changes during game conditions never registered as even a faint blip on the league’s radar screen. Officials inflated the footballs before kickoff and then they played the games, oblivious to the fact that footballs at the high end of the 12.5-to-13.5 range on a warm day would quickly rise above the limit, and to the fact that footballs at the low end on a cold day would quickly shrink below it.

Then, suddenly, the NFL gave the topic of air pressure an extreme degree of importance, treating any deviation below the minimum not as the result of atmospheric conditions but as presumptive proof that someone was cheating. The stage was set for the strings of the Commissioner to be manipulated not from above but from below, with one or more league office employees able to kick-start a process that resulted in the Wells investigation -- thanks in large part to the unrebutted leak of blatantly false PSI information to ESPN.

The mere fact that Wells needed such detail and nuance to reach a conclusion shows that the results of the air pressure testing and analysis should have been deemed inconclusive for proof of cheating. Instead, Wells and Exponent massaged and tinkered and assumed and disregarded the best recollection of referee Walt Anderson just enough to find that the Patriots cheated.

The far better approach would have been to get Patriots employees John Jastremski or Jim McNally, authors of troubling text messages, to confess under aggressive questioning. The fact that neither did suggests either that Wells and company didn’t do a very good job of interrogating them, or that there was nothing for them to confess.

Regardless, an abruptly scientific approach to a topic the NFL never regarded with an eye toward science isn’t the way to find a smoking gun, especially when the science is in any way flawed.