Deflategate and the Sustained Success of the New England Patriots

A new Harvard Business School case study by Marco Iansiti challenges students to explain the continued success of the New England Patriots football team and the dynamics behind the Deflategate episode.
  • 14 Dec 2015
  • By Roberta Holland

Deflategate, the pro football controversy that spawned a media frenzy, Twitter war, even a presidential joke, has a new claim to fame as a Harvard Business School case study.

At the heart of Deflategate is the question of whether the New England Patriots cheated in their 2015 conference championship win over the Indianapolis Colts by tampering with the footballs. Accusers, which included the National Football League’s head office, said someone with the team underinflated the balls to make them easier for quarterback Tom Brady to throw.

“It was probably one of the most passionate case discussions that we’ve had”

The case study, written by HBS’s Marco Iansiti, the David Sarnoff Professor of Business Administration and head of the Technology and Operations Management unit, focuses on the data analysis used by the National Football League in its investigation and looks into the organizations involved.

But Deflategate isn’t the only issue examined by the case. “What started essentially as an analytics exercise ended up as a much broader analysis of the data, the sport, the NFL, and how it’s organized and how it’s structured. So combining both the analytics angle and the organizational angle, you get a full understanding of the problem,” Iansiti says.

Iansiti and colleagues Michael Toffel, Ariel Stern, Joel Goh, Kris Ferreira, Shane Greenstein, Robert S. Huckman, and Willy Shih taught the case study, Deflategate and the National Football League, last month in their core course Technology and Operations Management. The case was rolled out to the entire first year of the MBA program comprising close to one thousand MBA students.

“It was probably one of the most passionate case discussions that we’ve had,” Iansiti recalls. “We had lots of Jets fans, lots of Patriots fans, lots of Colts fans. Their initial hypotheses correlated quite a bit with where everybody was from and what teams they liked, but I have to say, at the end of the day, the truth prevailed.”

That truth will remain undisclosed for the benefit of future students discussing the case, but one thing Iansiti does reveal is that their analysis pointed to “a complete lack of understanding” of the actual physics involved with football by those who make their living off the game. The lessons to be learned from that stretch beyond Deflategate.

“I don’t think this is about football at all. I think this is about human nature and organizations and performance,” Iansiti says. “The case shows that in any kind of environment, you’ve got to know your stuff. So from this perspective you can’t go ahead and accuse somebody of deflating a football without having a deep understanding of what pressure in those footballs should be.”

“I don’t think this is about football at all. I think this is about human nature and organizations and performance”

As Iansiti watched the AFC title game in January 2015, and the ensuing uproar, he was hooked. As an author of expert reports from time to time, Iansiti also was interested in the Wells Report, an NFL-commissioned probe into the alleged cheating, which was led by New York attorney Theodore Wells (HBS MBA’76).

“We were looking for great examples in which to try out some analytics and analysis capability building exercises, and I thought this would be an interesting one,” says Iansiti, who describes himself as more of a soccer person. “The more I got into it, the more I read about it, it became more and more interesting and more and more fascinating, so it kind of drew me in.”

Iansiti read the Wells Report, the rebuttal by the American Enterprise Institute, and scores of other expert opinions and articles. He condensed the information and wrote the case study with help from case researcher Christine Snively.

There was plenty of fodder to choose from, with everyone from Bill Nye the Science Guy to curmudgeonly Patriots head coach Bill Belichick weighing in on the Ideal Gas Law and its effects on a football’s pounds per square inch (PSI) of air pressure.

TRADITION OF SUCCESS

The class discussion evolved from whether the Patriots were guilty of doctoring footballs to the larger issue of how the team sustains such a high, “astounding” performance rate year after year. For the latter, Iansiti used data on the Patriots’ wins and playoff record over the last 15 years, as well as their very low fumble rate since a 2006 rule change.

After 2007, the New England Patriots became league leaders in not
fumbling away the football—a prime reason for their sustained success. Source: “Deflategate” HBS case study;
image created by Micaela Brody

“Whether they take the air out or no you will have to do the analysis for yourself…but what we can say is that this is an organization that’s taken a sleepy and essentially mismanaged industry and really done tremendous things,” Iansiti says. “If you go after a static, traditional environment and drive a new model of competition, you’re going to do really well. Take Google and advertising, or take Amazon and retail, and you can see organizations that have applied a fundamentally different model to a very old and relatively static industry with great reward.”

Iansiti says it would be fascinating to study the Patriots organization in more depth to analyze the team’s success.

“When you see an organization that’s so much better than the rest, it usually is not explainable by a simple factor,” he says. “It’s like what drives the performance of the Toyota production system. It’s not just one thing; it’s a lot of things. And this is what I would expect to find.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF ANALYTICS

Deflategate also underscores the importance of analytics to any type of organization, on or off the gridiron, in order to correlate the data to success and find out what works, Iansiti notes.

“It’s kind of like saying, does Google know what drives the effectiveness of its ads? You bet it does. Does Amazon know what drives people’s propensity to click ‘buy’ on a specific item? You can bet that they do, and they have all sorts of models and approaches to understanding the answer to that problem,” Iansiti says. “In this day and age, as an organization, you have to possess the capabilities to build those systems. There’s no excuse for not doing it.”

Iansiti hasn’t reached out to the Patriots or other protagonists in the case yet, but would welcome someone involved to join the class for its discussion. There are several with HBS ties from which to choose. In addition to Wells, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft is an HBS grad (’90) and former Patriots COO Andrew Wasynczuk is now a senior lecturer at HBS.

For case study purposes, it doesn’t matter that Deflategate is still unfolding, he says, with a judge overturning the NFL’s four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at the start of this season, and the NFL mulling an appeal.

“The data are the data. A lot of the proceedings are now frankly more about the power relationships between different stakeholders in the whole environment, and less about what actually happened with the bloody footballs,” Iansiti says. “So from that perspective, the problem is relatively well preserved.”

About the Author

Roberta Holland is a writer based in Boston.

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