Bill Belichick played the rumpled dunce, wrinkled sweatshirt, rolled-up sleeves, the world's most detailed football coach shrugging and sighing and professing to have no idea about footballs.
"I had no knowledge of the various steps involved in the game balls," he said.
Tom Brady played the smiling fool, nifty ski cap, form-fitting sweats, slick and genial, one of the world's greatest passers claiming he wasn't always sure about the football he was passing.
"I'm not squeezing the balls, that's not part of my process," he said.
The two central figures in the New England Patriots football deflation scandal took two different approaches in separate news conferences Thursday, but the perception was the same.
They both came across like street-corner cheats.
Belichick was the old guy sitting at the card table with the shells. Brady was the young guy leaning against the wall with the dice. Their obliviousness was obviously orchestrated, yet they spun it in the cocksure manner of those who have done this before and know they will never get caught.
And, of course, they're right. The worst thing about the news that the Patriots allegedly deflated 11 of 12 footballs by two pounds per square inch during their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday — a clear violation of NFL rules — is that the league will let them get away with it.
You really think a league that has shrugged off domestic violence will actually care about pigskin poisoning? Oh sure, the Patriots might be fined a few bucks after the Super Bowl and, yeah, an equipment guy will probably eventually take the fall as with the USC deflation scandal, but the almighty duo of Belichick and Brady will remain untouched.
From the rule-breaking videotaping of opponents' signals to unethical last-second substitution deceptions, the Patriots have created such a culture of subterfuge that before games, some opposing coaches put locks on their locker room doors. Yet with owner Robert Kraft protecting them by serving as a mentor to Commissioner Roger Goodell — why do you think Goodell amazingly destroyed the "Spygate" tapes? — Belichick and Brady will proudly march to Arizona next week to stare down Seattle and attempt to win their fourth Super Bowl championship together, equaling records for both coach and quarterback.
The deflated footballs, which were less than their minimum weight of 12.5 pounds per square inch and generally improve grip on cold and rainy days, were certainly not the reason the Patriots wiped out the Colts, 45-7. In fact, once the deflated footballs were discovered, they were replaced at halftime with the Patriots leading 17-7.
The deflated footballs had little to do with that specific game, but they have everything to do with the rules. Even for just 30 scoreboard minutes, even with a dominant team that didn't need the edge, the rules were broken and an advantage was taken. We have to wonder: How often have the Patriots been doing this, anyway? Just saying, but the Patriots running backs did not lose a single fumble this season, and their team was the second-best in the league in ball protection with just four fumbles lost.
The weight of the football is governed by a rule, and how is breaking that rule any different from a baseball hitter's using a corked bat or a pitcher's throwing a ball covered in pine tar? Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs was once suspended seven days for the bat, and the New York Yankees' Michael Pineda was kicked out for 10 days for the pine tar. If a similar punishment were assessed in football, either Belichick or Brady would be forced to miss the Super Bowl. Yeah, and Janet Jackson is going to make a surprise appearance at the halftime show.
Quarterbacks have been scrambling out of the woodwork this week to claim that everyone alters footballs. Critics of the rule have quickly observed that the NFL fines teams only $25,000 with potentially more discipline for breaking the rule. But it's still a rule, and it was still broken by team that seems consistently to skirt the rules, and at what point does the NFL decide that fair play outweighs gross revenue?
In his news conference, Belichick described in detail how he doctors the practice footballs to make them as difficult to handle as possible. But when it comes to the 12 footballs from Sunday's game, he said he had no idea how they looked. Huh?
"I can tell you that in my entire coaching career, I have never talked to any player [or] staff member about football air pressure," he said, adding, "We play with what's out there."
No wonder that even the circumspect former Dolphins coach Don Shula refers to Belichick as "Belicheat."
In his ensuing news conference, the detail-oriented Brady said he likes footballs at exactly the 12.5-PSI minimum, but then he said he never really notices their size. Really?
"I get the snap, I drop back, I throw the ball," he said. "I don't sit there and squeeze it and try to determine that."
Meanwhile, on Dallas Sports Radio 1310, former Super Bowl champion quarterback Troy Aikman simply said, "For the balls to be deflated, that doesn't happen unless the quarterback wants that to happen, I can assure you of that."
The overall assurances from Belichick and Brady on another dark day in the history of the New England Patriots were far different.
Said Belichick: "I never touched a game ball. It's not something that I have any familiarity with on that."
Said Brady: "I have no idea what happened."
There is no questioning the football abilities of the greatest coach-player combination in NFL history. But sadly, their legacy will be stained with their belief that they are bigger than the league, bigger than the sport, big enough to stretch their entitled culture far beyond its rules.
Once again, when it comes to the integrity of the great Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, you can stick a pin in it.