THE FIGHT OVER game balls has been going on for decades. The fact is, most fans—even some coaches and players—aren't aware of the issue because, unless you're a quarterback (or a punter or a kicker, I suppose) you aren't a part of the discussion.
Here's some context. When I was in the NFL, between 1984 and '97, games were played with 24 brand-spanking-new balls, right out of the box. They were as hard as rocks. Wilson packs a great football with a beautiful sheen, but if it's a cold, rainy day or a humid afternoon and your hands are sweating, that sheen becomes slippery and you have less control. I know Aaron Rodgers says he prefers his footballs as hard as can be, but you won't find a quarterback in the world who'd prefer playing with a brand-new football. All of us quarterbacks are insane people with very particular routines, and throughout the league there grew a battle for control over what balls would feel like going into each game.
In 2006, Peyton Manning and, ironically, Tom Brady (right) finally lobbied the Competition Committee to give QBs more control over game-day balls. Visiting teams were allowed to supply 12 of their own, prepared however they liked; home teams supplied another dozen. And that's why it's been surprising to me to see Deflategate blown out of proportion: Quarterbacks have had a say in what their game-day balls look like for almost 10 years. This is nothing new. But I get it; deflating or manipulating beyond league standards is troublesome, and that's why the Patriots' reputation is on the line.
As I watched Bill Belichick's press conference last Saturday, I couldn't help but think he's really moved all of his chips into the center of the table. His absolute confidence that the Patriots did everything according to code adds another layer of intrigue; it puts his entire legacy on the line. Perhaps even more important: He's putting his owner, Bob Kraft, on the plank as well. Integrity shouldn't be taken lightly in this case.
To me, there are plenty of little things like this in sports that fall outside a coach's realm. This issue is between the referees, the equipment guys and the QBs. To suggest that Belichick had something to do with this? Absurd. After Spygate, and considering New England's continued success, people are trying to jump on anything that could implicate this team as cheaters.
Ultimately, everyone is looking for an edge in football. Sometimes that involves pushing the envelope within the rules. Other times it falls outside the rule book—like PEDs, which I don't put on the same level as this. Some linemen coat their arms with Vaseline. Other guys, back in the day, used Stickum. I don't see any asterisks by their records.
The control over and tinkering with footballs isn't cheating. This is a battle that's been going on, behind the scenes, for years. And counting.
CHAD MATTHEW CARLSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ESIASON)