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Patriots alerted NFL to issue with special-teams ball


Tuesday night’s confusing report from Kelly Naqi of ESPN regarding alleged efforts by the Patriots to introduce a non-special-teams football into the AFC title game was followed by Wednesday afternoon’s confusing report from Adam Schefter of ESPN regarding the termination of a league official’s employment for removing footballs from the AFC title game for private sale.

And now comes the point where we try to un-confuse the situation. (And quite possibly fail.)

Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, here’s what happened. After the opening kickoff, a league employee named Scott Miller called for the football that was used. It was the football marked “K1" by the game officials before the commencement of the contest. According to the source, video shows Miller getting the football.

It’s not unusual for footballs to be removed from play for later sale in support of charitable endeavors. Typically, however, the teams are informed of the fact that footballs will be removed -- especially when the “K” balls will be taken out of service. If the team is told that a “K” ball will be removed, the equipment staff prepares multiple “K” balls for use in the game during the limited time teams have to get the new, out-of-the-box footballs ready for use.

In this specific case, the Patriots weren’t told that the ball marked K1 would be removed from play. After the Patriots scored the first touchdown of the game, the Patriots noticed on the extra-point attempt that the ball had not been prepped the same way that K1 had been prepped. So the Patriots raised the issue with the game officials, and the process commenced of trying to track down the K1 ball.

In-stadium video, according to the source, shows Miller later bringing the ball back toward the playing area. In-stadium video also shows Patriots part-time, game-day employee Jim McNally giving a football to the game officials. Video does not exist of Miller giving the football he had taken to McNally, but it’s possible to infer that Miller gave the same football to McNally that McNally then tried to give to the game officials.

Scott Miller, per the source, is the employee who was fired. It’s unclear whether the termination arose solely from the incident during the AFC title game, or whether investigation by the league unearthed other evidence of Miller removing footballs from play and selling them on the side. Predictably, the league declined PFT’s request for comment on Miller’s termination or the reasons for it.

So what does all of this mean? As it relates to the question of whether footballs intentionally were deflated by the Patriots, nothing. As it relates to whether the NFL will be able to generate sufficient proof of tampering, plenty.

As we gradually learn more about the manner in which footballs are handled, it’s becoming more clear that the NFL doesn’t secure footballs in the kind of way that would allow a presumptive finding that deflated footballs necessarily means a team employee intentionally deflated them. Apart from potential atmospheric conditions, too many people have too much access in too many different ways to the footballs to ever conclude that evidence of deflation is per se evidence of tampering.

Absent a confession or other smoking-gun evidence of tampering, the challenge for the NFL will be explaining this in a way that seems at least plausible to those inclined to believe the league office will simply brush the entire matter under the rug. Then again, some will always believe that the Patriots tampered with footballs no matter what the evidence indicates. Which means that maybe the league should have considered how hard it would be to prove tampering before pulling the pin out of the integrity-of-the-game grenade.