PHOENIX - Has the NFL found the smoking deflator?
A Patriots locker room attendant has become a "person of interest" in the NFL's investigation into the use of deflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, according to Fox Sports.
The unnamed attendant already has been interviewed by league investigators, according to the report, which emerged Monday afternoon. Fox Sports cited unnamed sources saying the NFL is "trying to determine whether any wrongdoing by this individual occurred" and reported that there is surveillance video showing the attendant taking the footballs from the officials' locker room into another room at Gillette Stadium before bringing them to the field.
If the Fox Sports report is true and the video shows the footballs entering another area of the stadium between the officials' inspection and the field, there is a chance they could have been tampered with at that point.
The report emerged while the Patriots were in the air traveling from Boston to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX. The Patriots were scheduled to have their first media availability of the week Monday night.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have professed their innocence publicly. In a radio interview Monday morning, Brady was asked if he ever asked any member of the Patriots' staff to deflate footballs below the threshold set by NFL rules of 12.5 pounds per square inch. "Absolutely not," he said on WEEI. "No, I didn't. And I haven't. And I never will. I think that's obviously how I feel and the kind of person that I am."
Brady said last week that he questioned members of the Patriots' staff himself about the footballs to try to find out why they were deflated. He said they told him they had no knowledge of anyone deliberately taking air out of footballs. "And I believe them," he said.
Belichick said Saturday that the Patriots re-enacted their process of selecting and prepping game-day footballs in an effort to find out how they could have become deflated. Belichick said the handling of the footballs along with atmospheric conditions indoors and outdoors could have led to a decrease in pressure.
The league found that the footballs supplied by the Patriots for use in the first half of the AFC title game against the Colts at rainy Gillette Stadium were deflated. ESPN reported that 11 of them were at least 2 psi below the league minimum of 12.5 psi. According to the NFL's statement last week, the footballs were reinflated to proper specifications at halftime and returned to the game for the second half. At the end of the game, the balls had retained their proper pressure.
There have been reports that the NFL was aware of the Patriots' use of deflated footballs in the past -- the Colts suspected it when they played them in the regular season, Newsday and others have reported -- and that the league was prepared to inspect the footballs at halftime of the AFC title game even if the Colts had not issued a challenge during the game.
The NFL's investigation is being led by NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash and Ted Wells of the law firm of Paul Weiss. The league also has retained Renaissance Associates, an investigatory firm with sophisticated forensic expertise to assist in reviewing electronic and video information.