3 Things the Patriots and Deflated Balls Can Teach Us about Success

We have a little ball controversy on our hands. Instead of planning our Super Bowl parties, we are talking about deflated footballs.

In the past week, social media, along with every major news program, has been buzzing about “deflate-gate.” In the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots’ footballs were below the league-approved weight after the official pre-game checks. The referees were alerted and determined that 11 of the 12 balls were below regulation in the first half.

Speculation and mystery ensued. How did the weight of the footballs change? Did the Patriots cheat? Did their coach Bill Belichick know? What role did Tom Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, play? There were even scientific assessments on the impact of a slightly deflated ball in rainy and cold weather.

Sports personalities jumped in on the discussion, too. They said everything from, “No way it affected the outcome of the game” and “Everyone does it” to the bigger point—“They cheated.”

The Patriots have a history. In 2007 the Patriots and Bill Belichick were fined for videotaping the defensive signals during the game against the Jets. They lost an NFL draft pick as a result. Speculation began if they videotaped the opposing sidelines in other games as well. Deflate-gate only added to the Patriots narrative that many football fans already had in their heads.

If another team with much less success or a different history had deflated game balls, would anyone have noticed?

How we achieve success matters. And with success comes greater scrutiny. These principles apply to all of us—even if we aren’t in pursuit of a Super Bowl.

1. It’s the pattern that matters, not just one situation.

Other people draw conclusions based on their overall experience and history with you, not just one situation.

If you have a relative who for years has assumed you’ll hold and organize all family get-togethers, then you’ll have a built-in perspective on the relationship. What is your likely reaction if they have a great idea that requires time and work from you? You probably won’t evaluate the idea on its own merits, but, instead, you’ll just see the same pattern, the one you know from past experience.

Likewise, if you have a team member with a history of not working well with his colleagues and he wants to discuss a problem with a co-worker, you’ll likely have a preconceived bias before the conversation ever begins. Here we go again.

Whether you are making a recommendation or defending against unfair press, other people will see the pattern, not just this one isolated situation.

The Patriots had a history and it played a big role in the conclusions that were drawn.

2. Success brings expectations and scrutiny.

I don’t know what the Patriots did or didn’t do, but if this issue occurred in another game with no impact on the Super Bowl, it wouldn’t be the lead story.

Since Bill Belichick was named head coach in 2000, the Patriots have become one of the most successful teams in NFL history. They are tied with the greatest number of Super Bowl appearances at eight and have the most appearances in the last 25 years. They have not had a losing season since 2000.

They have had extraordinary success. And as a result, the spotlight is on them. People expect more from you at that point, and how you achieved it matters.

I always tell the leaders I coach that they are on a pedestal—and that brings good and bad. Expectations will remain high, and even seemingly small decisions and actions matter.

When you are successful, everyone will have an opinion about you, and every step will be noticed—it comes with the territory.

3. Shortcuts always come out.

Shortcuts, or worse, breaking the rules, will catch up with you. Policies and laws often can’t interpret every possible situation. In the most severe example, loopholes in the law were the very first steps in Enron unraveling. On a much smaller scale, if your companywide communication inflated your results and your leaders know differently, you’ve damaged your credibility.

In the recent hack of Sony emails, it came out that lead actresses, like Charlize Theron, were paid significantly less than even their lesser-known male co-stars. These decisions were likely made with the assumption that no one would ever know and the budget would benefit. Once it was common knowledge, Charlize Theron apparently corrected the situation.

Stay true to your values and principles. Do what you think is right. Make decisions that you are comfortable with and stand up in the light of day. 

No one yet knows what really happened with deflate-gate, and according to a recent NFL statement, we won’t know any more before the Super Bowl. Yet it remains a distraction.

The weight of a football seems like a small thing compared to the bigger challenges we face. The more interesting conversation is how we achieve success, the importance of a reputation and all that comes with being on top.

Success comes one day at a time, one decision at a time. But in the meantime, enjoy the game.

Check out 4 leadership lessons we can take away from the 2014 NFL season.


Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.

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