One of the footballs above has a PSI (pounds per square inch of pressure) of 12.5. The other has a PSI of 10.5.
To the naked eye, it’s just about impossible to figure out which is which. But to an NFL player, it could mean the difference between winning and losing a game.
By now, you’ve probably heard of DeflateGate. The NFL scandal involving the New England Patriots using under-inflated footballs during their 45-7 win last week has been the center of attention in the sports world. Heck, even media like CNN and people like Ellen DeGeneres are talking about it — and now we are, too.
Whether or not the Patriots cheated is up for debate. All we know is league sources told ESPN that 11 of New England’s 12 game balls on Sunday — each team provides their own balls — were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below the NFL’s minimum regulations during the first half.
But if the Patriots — who deny any wrongdoing — really did take air out of their balls, why would the team do such a thing?
To find an answer, we paid a visit to Baden, a 36-year-old sports equipment manufacturer based in Renton, Wash. Hugh Tompkins, director of research and development, explained why a football player may prefer a lighter ball.
“There are obvious reasons,” Tompkins said.
For starters, a softer ball allows fingers to depress the leather more easily. This lets players cover more surface area, and thus get a better grip on the football itself — particularly when it’s rainy and wet outside, as it was in Foxboro, Mass., during New England’s win last week.
“It makes the ball smaller in your hand,” Tompkins said. “You can definitely squeeze it and hang on to the ball better.”
Having an under-inflated ball also allows quarterbacks to throw the ball farther, Tompkins explained. When developing the grip for Baden’s footballs, the company’s R&D team found that by adjusting the RPM of a spiral from 5,400 to 7,200, it made a difference of four feet in distance traveled. Thus, a higher spin rate equaled more distance.
Tompkins noted that when an NFL quarterback wants to throw the ball farther, they’ll often not think about using more arm strength, but rather snapping the wrist with more force to increase spin.
“When you deflate a ball, you allow that finger to depress even more into the ball, which allows a quarterback to spin it faster and throw it deeper with more accuracy,” Tompkins said.
There are also reasons for why a wide receiver might prefer a less inflated ball, too.
“It’s a lot easier to grip and stop the ball when it comes to you if it isn’t as hard,” Tompkins said. “If you get a ball at 13 PSI, that thing is hard as a rock and is slipping through your hands when it’s wet. A little bit softer, and you can press the ball in a little bit, and it’s easier on your hands.”
There are clearly scientific advantages to having less pressure inside of a football. But what if the Patriots really didn’t employ any under-inflating tactics and perhaps it was the weather that caused the PSI decrease, as some experts think.
Baden actually just tested this possibility and inflated footballs inside a 70-degree office, then let them sit in a cold warehouse for a few hours. There wasn’t any change that the company noticed.
Tompkins pointed out another problem with the weather argument.
“Both teams had their balls inflated in the same environment,” he said. “The fact that one teams’ balls lost a bunch of pressure because it was colder and the other teams’ didn’t — that doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belicheck both say they have no idea how their footballs became deflated. Some argue that it could have been an equipment staff member on the sidelines. Tompkins used a small digital gauge to show how quick and easy it is to deflate a football.
“This just fits in your hand and you can very easily just stick the device into a ball and take the pressure down to what you want in seconds,” he said. “It would be a very easy thing to do.”