"Everybody Messed with the Ball": A Former NFL Star Speaks Out on Deflategate
Jeff Blake was a star quarterback in the NFL and he says that ball deflation is both commonplace and a distraction from the NFL's real problems.
As the sentencing phase of the investigation into Tom Brady's improper treatment of NFL footballs begins, consider the following:
"It's something everybody did. It's something they've been doing since I got in the league. This was something that was passed down from generation to generation. This shit didn't just happen yesterday. Nobody just said, 'I'm gonna wake up and just start taking air out of the balls.'"
This is not Brady saying what he probably should have during that Super Bowl week press conference that is already haunting him. It's former Cincinnati Bengal Jeff Blake, and he would know. As a quarterback for 13 years in the NFL, he was the star, and he was also the backup. He ran the show, and he also saw how other people ran it. So you'd think his testimony would have some weight in assessing the moral fiber of Brady.
But in the middle of January's ball-deflation coverage, when Blake appeared on a radio station in Nashville to say much the same—that manipulating air pressure was long common practice in the NFL—it didn't seem to move the needle. Brady's attackers needed the Patriots quarterback to be uniquely terrible, and Brady's defenders were too busy denying he'd done wrong at all to welcome a little mitigating evidence.
Now, it's hard to deny that Brady—or at least his underlings—did cheat, and so it's worth checking in with a fellow signal caller who isn't moved to tears by the idea but rather finds it all pretty silly. As a quarterback, the football was the tool of Blake's trade, and he was going to get it how he liked it, without a second thought.
"If they were too hard, I was like, 'Hey man, this one's a little hard. Just take a little air out of it,'" Blake said. And so the equipment manager would "put the pin in it, take a little air out of it, and that's it. And I'd squeeze it, I'm like 'Okay, yeah, that's good,' and then we'd keep movin'. It was just that simple. It was nothing that was did under the table or did sneakily. That's just what we did. Everybody did. I played on six different teams. It was the same everywhere."
After beginning his career with the Jets in 1992, he had his greatest success throwing bombs to Carl Pickens for six seasons with the Bengals, reaching the Pro Bowl in 1995. Then he had stints with the Saints, Ravens, Cardinals, Eagles, and—a seventh team in 2005 he probably forgot about—Bears.
Taking air out of the ball, he said, was as routine an adjustment as a player changing his spikes to get the right feel on the grass. "Back then it wasn't a rule thing. Ten years ago, that wasn't a rule thing. It might be a rule thing now. But when I first got in the league in '92, that was no rule thing. Nobody cared."
Well, yes and no. As NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino said of the air pressure standards in January, "I have rule books going back to 1940 in my office, and that was in the 1940 rule book." So it was against the rules when Blake tweaked the footballs, but it wasn't against the rules in that nobody seemed very interested in these rules. When he began his career, the home team prepared the footballs, and everybody knew they were breaking rules left and right.
In January, some retired kickers told VICE Sports that, just like Blake, they were inaugurated into the process of manipulating footballs as soon as they entered the league. In 1994, the NFL threatened to put a stop to these practices by fining equipment managers $20,000 for any instance of ball tampering. But this did nothing to stop things; it remained common knowledge that footballs were still being tweaked, and nobody appears to have been fined. The NFL finally tried to put a stop to things with the K-ball in 1999, but even after that some players admit they kept on breaking the rules.
"Everybody messed with the ball," Blake said.
The culture has changed. If it was an open secret for a long time that every team broke the rules to get the ball just how they wanted it, now the same practices have to be kept hidden. Brady's equipment guys clearly knew that what they were doing was a scandal in the making. Jim McNally, the self-described "deflator" who prepared the footballs for Brady, jokingly threatened in May of last year that he might be "going to [ESPN]" with the details of his doings. Although Brady later denied knowing the guy, a text from fellow Patriot employee John Jastremski reveals Brady knew he was putting McNally through "a lot of stress" to get the footballs just right.
Blake said he's not interested in the report, which is just the product of a league office that has "nothing else better to do. It's just that simple. They got to get paid to do something. They can't just sit in their offices and not do anything."
After making his initial comments on this controversy in January, Blake signed on as a spokesman for a brand of deer antler spray, and so it's not surprising that he thinks the league which has banned the substance tends to overreach. But he's also a youth football trainer who sees a lot of problems that make it hard for him to believe some ball-tampering seriously weakens the social fabric: "I worry about these kids, and I worry about where their heads are. I worry about some of them eating sometimes. 'Hey Coach Blake, you got a dollar so I can get me something to eat?' That's the kind of shit that worries me. I'm not worried about how much air is in a freakin' football when I got kids out there that when they get home there's no food. See, y'all don't see this stuff. I'm out here in it. I see it all the time."
Going in, there was fear he'd sidetrack the conversation to push the spray. Instead, he questioned my priorities: "You guys need to take your time and go out and start doing some of this stuff with these kids. And stop this bullshit about air coming out of balls.... 'Cause our next generation is gonna be really messed up. See, I understand why they're breaking people's houses or breaking people's cars. I understand why they do it. You don't. You just see a bad kid, but you don't understand how he got there."
While Blake will readily dispel myths about Brady's singular misdeeds, he says, "I just think it's a waste of time. They got other stuff they can talk about, other issues, like domestic violence and the integrity of the league, things the NFL needs to really focus on, or the media needs to focus on as far as helping these young men become better men, quality men, and that have character, integrity. That should be the story, not about some air out of the football."