There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Mark Twain, attributing the quote to Benjamin Disraeli
Nearly two weeks ago the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts played each other in the semifinal football game and, during that game, a curious thing happened: It was found that the Patriots’ footballs (each team provides their own for a game, in hindsight a very stupid concept) were under-inflated.
This caused an uproar. The Patriots, who had already been fined heavily a few years back for cheating, were accused of the “same-ol’ same-ol'”. Others came to the team’s defense, alternately wondering if maybe the weather had an effect on the ball’s inflation (I suspect that was easily disproven as the Colts’ balls, all of them, were properly inflated while a whopping 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots provided were under-inflated) or saying that under-inflating the balls wouldn’t create any noticeable advantage for the team.
A few days back (you can read it here) I pointed out the research of Warren Sharp into what he felt was the “impossible” low numbers of fumbles New England has made since roughly 2007, when a change in rules favored by, among others, New England’s quarterback Tom Brady allowed individual teams to bring their own balls into games.
Since that article came out, there of course appeared counterarguments (hence the reason I posted the above quote). Some of the counter-analysis has been curt to the point of insulting both the research of Mr. Sharp and as well as the person and claiming he and his statistics are a scam.
Here, however, Jordan Ellenberg for Slate Magazine examines the pro and con points and comes up with a decidedly middle of the road reading: the low number of fumbles produced by New England might not be “impossible” as Mr. Sharp claims, but they aren’t meaningless:
Perhaps the payoff line in the article is this one:
New England may not be an all-time outlier in the history of fumbles. But no one disputes that they went from average to very, very good (with number of fumbles), and it happened suddenly, and it happened one season after the NFL allowed each team to provide its own game balls and the same season they were caught violating the rules in another controversy that had opposing fans alleging long-running wrongdoing. This might have happened because the Patriots acquired more sure-handed players in 2007 and moved to a spread offense, as Fustin suggests. Or it might have happened because the Patriots have had squishy balls for years, as everyone outside of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts suggests. The fumble stats alone are consistent with both theories.
For me, the proof lies in what happens from here on in. You just know the NFL will be a lot more careful about the balls being brought into games. There will be a level of scrutiny towards them as never before to make sure all the balls in any given game are exactly as they should be.
I’ll be very curious once that happens to see what New England’s fumble statistics look like and if the period from 2007 to 2015 will prove to be a statistical “aberration” and their fumbles fall more in line with your average team’s fumbles. If so, this should prove that under-inflated balls did prove to be an advantage.