Sunday, May 17, 2015

Plausible deniability and the Patriots

We’ve all heard of plausible deniability, no doubt. That’s when you put about six layers of buffer between you and a questionable deed so that there’s no way it can be traced back to you.
Plausible deniability relies on a few givens. One of them is that nobody from the top of the chain down to the bottom talks. Whatever you do stays within the chain, and regardless of what happens, and that include unwanted discovery, the chain doesn’t break. Listen to Fleetwood Mac if you have any doubts.
If you want a good example of plausible deniability, you have two wonderful examples. One is the American Mafia, which shielded the big dogs at the expense of the grunt soldiers; and American government (and probably other governments too) where it happens pretty much all the time.
But here’s the rub: the practice of plausible deniability has always relied on the absence of a smoking gun. Richard Nixon got tripped up because he recorded Oval Office conversations that ended up incriminating him. And why do you think everyone’s so reluctant to turn over their cell phones to investigators? It’s not because of family pictures or semi-nude playmates. It’s because there could be incriminating emails and texts on them.
Of course, this leads us back to the Patriots, Tom Brady and “Deflategate” (this is the last time you’ll read this term here).
Do I think there was skullduggery involved in taking some air pressure out of footballs? Yes. Do I think it’s uncommon? No. Do I think it makes that much of a competitive difference? Yes, because otherwise why would you do it? It must make a difference, even if it’s nothing more than a mental binkie for Brady, or whoever else feels it necessary to doctor footballs.
So let’s cut to the chase. The Patriots doctored up the footballs. The question is to what extent is Brady at fault? Here’s where the whole plausible deniability aspect comes into play. I seriously doubt Brady went to two shlubs on the lowest end of the chain and taught them how to deflate footballs. I just think he’s way too smart to do anything that blatant.
However, I do see a scenario where Brady passes the word down the chain that he doesn’t like his footballs rock hard, especially in bad weather, where they can either be slippery in the rain or too difficult to grip in the freezing cold. The word is duly relayed to the proper people, through the usual layers of buffers, and voila. Tom Brady has a football that feels good in his hands.
Here’s the thing though. Brady is a superstar, perhaps the single most glamorous figure in pro football today. People who work with him and for him desperately want to make sure he’s happy, especially the lower minions within the organization – those who see it as a feather in their caps that they can accommodate Tom Terrific in this unique way.
So they take it too far. They don’t just deflate the football to the lowest allowable limit, they take it lower. They don’t get caught. So they take it even lower … as low as they can without it being obvious.
This goes on for who knows how long. Then, they get real sloppy.
What is Brady’s role in this? To be honest, if he’s such a fussbudget about his footballs, he should be able to tell that there’s some skullduggery going on. I cannot absolve him on this count. Sure, he probably didn’t tell these guys to under-inflate the footballs to the extent they did, but he had to know – and still let it go.
This, to Ted Wells, the private eye who investigated this thing constituted “general knowledge,” and I cannot disagree with him.

That much we can pretty much conclude. What's left, though, is comical -- partly due to the number of theories about what happened, and how (including, probably this one) because of the lengths to which the Patriots and their fans have gone to rationalize some of the Wells Report's findings.

The best, by far, is the one where Jim McNally, one of the two aforementioned shlubs at the bottom of the chain, claimed -- after he was found using the term "deflater" -- he only meant he was trying to lose weight.

Yeah, right. Where's that pin. I want to try that.

McNally and cohort John Jastrzemski (rhymes with Yastrzemski, as in Carl, as the Red Sox Hall of Famer) traded texts back and forth, ostensibly complaining about Brady and all they had to do to get his footballs ready. There were also references to Brady giving them autographed paraphernalia in the days after the story broke, and expressing concern about McNally's stress level in the face of all this. No direct communication with the Terrific One, but there were allusions.

 Apparently, McNally and Jastrzemski never watched CSI, because if they had, they'd have known that computer and cell phone records tell the tale on you. You may think you've deleted them, but they live in some vast cyber warehouse just waiting to incriminate you. Silly people. Don Corleone could have told them "if you want to do stuff like this, you leave no traces. None. Zip. Nada."

Those texts provided Wells with something he certainly wasn't going to get from Brady: evidence that this situation was not a coincidence, and that there was a conspiracy on the part of someone to doctor the footballs, and that if Brady didn't give the order, he certainly was complicit in it by his lack of action, not to mention his lack of cooperation with Wells.

 So now, at least according to me, we have our genus and we have our weak link in the deniability chain broken.

Now, all we need is our motive. Let's see. Who could have been motivated to wipe the smirk off Brady's, Bill Belichick's and the Patriots' faces?

The line forms to the right and goes around the corner.

The Patriots have always given the NFL the figurative finger. And once Roger Goodell became commissioner, in great part due to Bob Kraft's influence, Belichick et al felt even more empowered to flaunt NFL rules and taunt the league all at the same time. 

The 2007 spygate scandal certainly gave the league plenty of reasons to keep an eye on them thereafter, but skullduggerers (don't know if that's a word, but it ought to be) have been one or two steps ahead of the law since sports became organized. 

There are spitballs, excessively manicured infields, stick'um on hands, piped in noise, turning up the temperature in domed stadia ... in the NHL, if there's too much action around the net someone will surreptitiously knock net off its moorings ... which is supposed to result in a penalty but never does ... Michael Jordan took enough steps to participate in a walk-a-thon on his way to the basket, but never got called; whereas Kelly Olynyk can move his pivot foot a half-inch and get called for traveling.

When I was a kid, the Patriots never got a break. Whenever they played teams like the Dolphins or (especially) the Raiders, they couldn't buy a call that went their way (ironic, now, since Raiders' fans are the worst when it comes to bitching about how the NFL shows favoritism toward Kraft and the Pats).

Obviously, the worm has turned there. Now it's the Patriots who get every break ... every call. We in New England feel that's only right, considering all the times it went the other way. And those of us with exceptionally long memories recall 1976, when referee Ben Drieth took a playoff win away from them with a horrible roughing-the-passer call, moments after letting a blatant pass interference call against Oakland go. And we were giddy with happiness when we finally tasted revenge ... on a snowy Foxborough, Mass., night in 2001, when the officials -- at no proven behest of New England or the Krafts -- invoked the obscure "tuck rule" to rob the Raiders of a playoff win en route to the Patriots' first-ever Super Bowl win.

Anyway, this is the NFL in 2015. The Patriots, even after having been unmasked as cheaters eight years earlier, are the anointed ones. And nobody, except the Patriots and their fans, likes that very much.

 This isn't exactly the "they hate us 'cause they ain't us" chant. But it does provide some context for what happened prior to that Colts game -- again, only my theory but certainly not set in stone anywhere.

The week before that Patriots-Colts AFC championship game, the Patriots were about to go down to defeat to the Baltimore Ravens -- the one team that has consistently had their number, especially in marquee games -- in the divisional playoff round. Belichick came up with a slew of funky formations that confused everyone on the other side, including the referees. John Harbaugh -- who, as coaches go, doesn't seem to be all about himself, the way Don Shula was, and Rex Ryan is, and Belichick will always be -- squawked to the referees about it, to no avail.

When asked about it after the game, Brady offered that he knew what he was doing, and that if the Ravens didn't know, maybe they should read the rulebook better.

For a guy as smart as he is, that was pretty dumb. That was the equivalent of waving the red flag in front of a bull. 

It's a funny thing about people who play hard and fast with the rules. They think nobody notices, but they do. Supposedly, the Colts had their suspicions the last time the Patriots were in Indy that they were messing with the footballs. Coaches talk to each other. There's almost always a common link between teams ... an assistant coach, or GM, or a player who's been traded. These are not 32 totally separate and impregnable entities. 

There are certainly those bonds between the Ravens and the Colts, and I wouldn't be at all shocked if there was some communicating going on between the two teams, with the objective being to shove the rulebook up Brady's, well, you know.

Or, it could simply be a case of the Colts knowing they had a trump card and waiting for the right time to play it.

At any rate, it's "more probable than not" that general, overall disgust with the Patriots and their flaunting, tauntinig ways had as much to do with how this all played out. And those who think that if this were the Jacksonville Jaguars who did this, nobody would have cared are right. But since it was the Patriots, and since they're serial cheaters, and since they're not exactly humble in the way they flip off the NFL every chance they get, it's only natural that when the time came to get them in the vice grip, the NFL wasn't going to pass up the chance.

The rest is mundane. It probably was a sting, designed to catch the Patriots rather than warn them. Brady got too cocky at the end of the first half of the Colts game and thew a pick, which gave the Colts the perfect opportunity to put their plan in action (I'm certainly not alone in my thinking here). 

The sad thing is that Brady didn't have to do this. He torched the Colts for 28 points in the second half,, in miserable weather, which was after the bogus footballs were discovered and, presumably, properly inflated. Two weeks later, he led a fourth-quarter comeback to win the Super Bowl, again with balls that we can only hope, after all the hullabaloo that preceded the game, were properly inflated.

So you have to wonder what the advantage was? Or, at least, what he thought it would be. 

This is another in a long line of lessons we should learn: that the coverup is always worse than the crime. The Patriots might have ended up with a fine over this, but the penalty would be nowhere as severe as it ended up being (four-game suspension for Brady; $1 million fine; loss of first- and fourth-round draft picks over two years) had they not devoted most of their time to stonewalling the NFL, and going way over the top in denials.

The supreme loser is Brady, whose once-impeccable reputation is in shreds. He's unmasked as just one more guy who chose to evade the truth rather than face up to it, and, from all appearances, it doesn't look as if he's ready to change any of that.

Too bad. He's had one of the best careers a player could possibly have. He's going to have to work long and hard to rebuild his reputation now.

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