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Must-see sports photos of the week

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The most interesting sports shots from around the globe this week include a 120-kilometer race through the Peruvian desert, NASCAR stock cars spinning donuts in Nashville, Tenn., and a gold-medal-winning takedown in the Philippines.

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What really happened during Deflategate? Five years later, the NFL’s ‘scandal’ aged poorly

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Hey, baseball world: We here on the NFL side are sorry to see your game engulfed in a cheating scandal. It’s truly awful to know that the Houston Astros swindled their way to the 2017 World Series title. But I’ve got to laugh and remind you that five years ago today, the NFL produced a scandal that was chess to your checkers.

Deflategate was a Jedi mind trick to your multiplication tables. It was HD digital to your analog. In its zeal to preserve the perception of credible outcomes, the NFL scandalized itself with an investigation that produced far more suspicion, ill will and accusations of impropriety than the original allegations themselves.

At its core, Deflategate suggested that the New England Patriots used an illegal process for lowering the inflation of game footballs at the behest of quarterback Tom Brady, who preferred the grip of softer balls. The NFL thought it found proof during a surprise and unprecedented inflation check at halftime of the 2014 AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts. It then spent upward of $22 million over the course of two years to investigate, litigate and discipline Brady and the organization.

At best, it was a relatively minor rules violation that no rational person would link to the Patriots’ victory two weeks later in Super Bowl XLIX. At worst, Deflategate was a retroactive framing of the league’s most successful franchise and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a clumsy and forgettable endeavor and an unfortunate reminder that the NFL’s standard for discipline demands only that an event was “more probable than not” to have occurred. Brady ultimately served a four-game suspension because the NFL believed he was “generally aware” of the scheme.

The Astros’ cheating scandal has proved tidy by comparison. It began in November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers explained how the team used video cameras to steal signs and communicate them to batters. In swift order, nearly everyone involved acknowledged, or at least accepted, the basic veracity of the story. Ten weeks later, baseball suspended Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch and fined the Astros $5 million, the maximum allowed under baseball’s constitution. Astros owner Jim Crane accepted the discipline and promptly fired Luhnow and Hinch. Former Astros bench coach Alex Cora lost his job as manager of the Boston Red Sox, and former Astros player Carlos Beltran agreed to step away from his job as the New York Mets‘ manager.

Additional information could add to the fallout. But if anything, the Astros got off easy for measures that could have substantively contributed to a championship. Crane retained ownership, the franchise kept its World Series title and none of the players involved faced discipline.

The Patriots? They paid dearly for a far less consequential allegation, in part because the NFL considered them repeat cheaters after the 2007 Spygate affair.

In this case, however, the Patriots denied nearly every aspect of the NFL’s allegations, including Brady’s involvement, and took extraordinary steps to defend themselves. That effort included a website to dispute the NFL’s Wells Report on the scandal, one that included multiple scientists pointing out that footballs can deflate naturally based on weather conditions.

The Patriots even submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Brady, who filed a federal lawsuit against the league to overturn his suspension, straddling the line between NFL stakeholder and whistleblower. (Brady got his suspension overturned in 2015 but ultimately lost on appeal and served the punishment in 2016.)

Yet when it was all over, no one could say for sure if Deflategate actually happened. A reasonable person could be left thinking that the investigation itself was the true scandal.

The Wells Report was based largely on a series of text messages from an equipment assistant who referred to himself as “The Deflator,” and the unexplained pregame detour of a locker room attendant who brought the game balls into a bathroom with him before the game. There was no direct evidence that the equipment assistant removed air from the footballs, or that Brady asked him to do it. And the halftime inflation measurement was a rushed and haphazard effort, one that would never pass scientific scrutiny to confirm accuracy.

In the end, it is nothing more than an opinion to suggest that it was “more probable than not” that Deflategate happened. In the terms of advanced statistics, the NFL was saying there was a 51% probability that Deflategate occurred but a 100% necessity to issue discipline. It’s not outlandish to think that someone connected with the Patriots might have tried to help Brady, or that Brady had tacitly accepted that help, but there’s no direct evidence of it.

And when an MIT professor explained that weather conditions could do the same thing, based on the ideal gas law, who could argue? The NFL wouldn’t have known either way, because it did not regularly record pounds-per-square-inch readings to that point. For all we know, football deflation occurred naturally every week.

The ensuing rule changes only further undermined the investigation and punishment. They brought structure to pregame measurements, game ball security and compliance, a tacit acknowledgment that there was little objective basis to the 2014 readings.

The shaky connections and the preposterous conclusions of Deflategate have allowed it to slip quietly from the NFL consciousness. The legacy of Deflategate is the complete and utter lack of one, other than the brief entrance of the ideal gas law into the football lexicon — and as grist to limit the benefit of the doubt in the ongoing investigation into the Patriots’ illegal videotaping last month from the Cincinnati Bengals‘ press box.

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Sean McVay gives up a piece of Rams’ offense, grows as a head coach – Los Angeles Rams Blog

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Coach Sean McVay often sounded like a broken record when he spoke this past season about the Los Angeles Rams‘ offense.

The unit needed to play with more consistency. The players needed to develop a rhythm. The Rams needed to solidify their run game, be less reliant on their passing game.

Although the offense appeared efficient, if not outstanding at times, it ultimately did not perform to standard. The unit’s down season was a major contributing factor in a 9-7 record that failed to earn the Rams a third consecutive playoff berth.

“Our inconsistency as a team ended up hurting us,” McVay said following the Rams’ elimination from playoff contention in Week 16. “We saw what we were capable of when the things were going well, and we saw how it can look when they’re not going well.”

McVay wasted little time making staff changes following the season. He replaced veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with newcomer Brandon Staley, and hired Kevin O’Connell as offensive coordinator, two moves the team has yet to announce. He remains in search of a new running backs coach and special-teams coordinator after firing Skip Peete and watching John Fassel move on to the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s uncertain whether O’Connell and Staley will make additional changes to their offensive and defensive staffing.

By hiring O’Connell, McVay signaled that he’s aware the offense’s status quo must be improved and that he can’t resolve the issues alone.

That’s not a bad thing.

As head coach, the offense-minded McVay must continue to evolve, focus on the entire team and most of the dealings that surround it — including matters beyond X’s and O’s.

“You get to go through a lot of good and some bad this season,” McVay said as the year came to an end. “I think that’s forced us to learn a lot about ourselves. I know it has for me personally.”

By hiring O’Connell, McVay returns to having an offensive coordinator — a position he went without the past two seasons after current Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur left the post in 2018 to take the same role with the Tennessee Titans, where he could also call plays.

Even as he prepares to delegate offensive game planning, McVay is expected to maintain his role as the playcaller next season. But preparation throughout the week and even in-game adjustments will now include the helpful eye of a dedicated coordinator.

“The one thing, for myself in this role, is that you’re constantly evaluating all the elements that this role entails and you always want to continue to do it at a high level,” McVay said before the season ended, when asked if he was comfortable with the offensive staffing. “The way that you do get better is you surround yourself with people that are better than you. We’ve got a lot of good people here, but I think it’s always continuing to find that good balance of, what does it look like structurally, really, for our organization, in terms of that setup. Want to be able to get the best people here.”

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When Andy Reid coached his first conference title game, where was his competition?

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It’s NFC championship weekend, Jan. 27, 2002. There’s Andy Reid, head coach and offensive guru for the Philadelphia Eagles, mustache a little darker than it is now. The Eagles are facing the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams in what would be Reid’s first appearance in an NFL conference title game.

Reid’s Eagles, led by Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, went 11-5 and won the NFC East during the 2001 season.

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