Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh responds to new reports that the Ravens “tipped off” the Colts about deflated footballs before the AFC Championship game. (Kevin Richardson)
It started back in January with an unconfirmed report that the Ravens warned the Indianapolis Colts about the New England Patriots' footballs not being properly inflated during their AFC divisional round playoff game.
More than six months later and with the regular season just five weeks away, the Deflategate controversy remains at the forefront of the league, and the Ravens have once again been thrust into the middle of it.
A year after Ray Rice's domestic violence incident was the predominant topic of training camp, the Ravens' involvement in the league's latest controversy stems from a seemingly innocent and established practice in the NFL: coaches and players calling friends and former colleagues to request information and scouting reports on future opponents.
What had been a drama-free start to training camp was interrupted Wednesday, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh aggressively defending the organization, saying that team officials have been honest in response to their alleged role in Deflategate.
Harbaugh's comments, along with a series of statements released by the team, came a day after the NFL Players Association released more than 400 pages of documents and testimony about the investigation. It included an email exchange between Colts officials that alleged Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg warned Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, one of Harbaugh's former assistants, about the conditions of the "kicking" footballs used at Gillette Stadium.
The exchange sparked interest in Baltimore and Boston because Harbaugh in February had emphatically denied that anyone in the Ravens organization was in contact with anyone in the Colts organization regarding the condition of Patriots footballs.
"We've answered questions directly and honestly and straight forward from the start," Harbaugh said following the Ravens' training camp practice. He reiterated that nobody from the organization talked to Colts officials about deflated footballs in the days leading up to Indianapolis' AFC conference championship game loss to the Patriots. The Patriots went on to win Super Bowl XLIX.
Some have said that an underinflated football is easier for players, and especially quarterbacks, to grip.
"I haven't cared at all about deflated footballs or whether [the Patriots] did something wrong," Harbaugh said. "We're on to 2015. We stand by every word we say."
According to the Ravens, it was Pagano who reached out to Rosburg to ask about a formation the Patriots used on a kicking play in their 35-31 win over the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Ravens acknowledged, though, that kicking consultant Randy Brown told Pagano in a text message to watch the use of kicking balls by game officials.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick said such conversations regularly happen in the league.
"With the transitory nature of the NFL, whether it's players or coaches, whatever crosses over, you're going to have those conversations," said Billick, who attended Ravens practice Wednesday as an analyst for NFL Network. "You help me, I help you. It happens all the time. People talk around the league. It's silly not to. I don't think there's anything improper about it."
The league's investigation into the Patriots' handling of the game footballs resulted in a four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady, one of the NFL's marquee players, and New England being fined and forfeiting a draft pick.
The case has moved to federal court, where Brady is seeking to have his suspension overturned. If upheld, the suspension would begin Sept. 10 in the NFL regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens, meanwhile, will open their season three days later against the Denver Broncos.
Harbaugh did not back down from questions Wednesday. At one point, he took the rare step of playfully encouraging reporters to ask more about the situation.
"We're not running from any of it," Harbaugh said. "I'm not going to stand up here and say we're not talking about it. We've been honest from the beginning, so whatever you got, I'm more than happy to answer it. There's got to be some more [questions]. I'm asking for more questions. ... The email is very clear cut. The guy got it wrong.
"Jerry Rosburg did not talk to Chuck Pagano about deflated footballs if that's what the email says. I'm not sure the wording on it. Jerry Rosburg came out and said it [and] I promise you I believe what Jerry Rosburg said, and I believe what Chuck Pagano said."
The "guy" is Colts equipment manager Sean Sullivan, whose email to Colts general manager Ryan Grigson before the AFC championship game alleged that Rosburg contacted Pagano about the kicking balls used at Gillette Stadium. Attempts to reach Pagano were not successful.
"The beauty of it is ... from the very beginning, we turned it over to the league and let them handle everything. Now, it's in the hands of the court and, you know, let them work out the facts," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said Wednesday on ESPN 1070's The Dan Dakich Show in Indianapolis. "I don't see what, you know, there even is to say. ... Any little snippet turns into an atomic bomb."
Harbaugh said he spoke to Pagano Tuesday night after learning of the email and Pagano said it was "totally false." In a statement released by the team, Rosburg said "There was no conversations regarding footballs."