By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The massive punishments handed down on Tom Brady and the Patriots never had anything to do with the “integrity of the game.” They had everything to do with competitive balance, with handicapping a perennial powerhouse, and with wiping the smug smile off Bill Belichick’s face.
This effort by NFL owners via Roger Goodell has failed. Miserably.
The New England Patriots are 3-0, guaranteed to be in first place after Week 4 when the greatest quarterback of all time returns to work. In the meanwhile, Belichick is receiving praise from all corners of the earth after coaching a team quarterbacked by a fresh-faced rookie in prime time to a thoroughly dominant 27-0 victory over a 2-0 football team on Thursday evening.
“Well,” a victorious Belichick said upon strutting to the podium late Thursday evening, “this is a really satisfying win.”
Satisfying indeed, and for more than just the immediately obvious reasons.
Furthering the damage for the small men who determined the over-the-top punishment to be fair is the fact that, realistically, the Patriots are much better off at this point in time than they were four weeks ago. Even if Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t take another meaningful snap for the rest of the year, he’d be guaranteed to net the Patriots at least a first-round pick in a trade this upcoming offseason. Or, the Patriots could decide to keep him. At this point in time, it sure seems as though the team transitioning from Brady to Garoppolo just might keep the franchise on track for the next decade or so.
Talk about a backfire.
Think about it — if Brady hadn’t been suspended, the Patriots would still likely be 3-0. Yet aside from a few disgusted eye rolls around the country, hardly anyone would pay attention. Garoppolo would remain an unknown commodity with only a moderate value on the trade market. Jacoby Brissett would largely be an unknown. Belichick beating Arizona, Miami and Houston would be seen only as a man doing his job and nothing else greater.
Now, the owners who intentionally chose to overlook blatant instances of misbehavior from NFL officials and the commissioner, owners who were happy to see one of their own fall on the sword all for some poppycock credo about “integrity,” these owners are all feeling a sense of dread on this early autumn Friday morning.
And the Patriots? They’re 3-0, which is a better record than they had to start their Super Bowl-winning campaign in 2014. They know with a fair level of confidence that they have a backup quarterback who can play. Heck, they know their rookie isn’t too shabby, either. They know that, when needed, the defense can win a game on its own. They know that even without Tom Brady, without (an effective) Rob Gronkowski, and without even Garoppolo, teams will still come into Foxboro in nationally televised football games and repeatedly make critical mistakes for all the world to see.
Look, were the Patriots guilty of the charges in the first place? I don’t know. You don’t know. The NFL surely doesn’t know. But this punishment — a four-game suspension to Brady, the forfeiture of a first-round draft pick and a fourth-round draft pick, a $1 million fine — was never about the alleged offense. A drop in air pressure of 0.2 PSI has a less-than-zero effect on a football game, and everyone in football knew that. That’s why the Vikings and Panthers weren’t punished for manipulating footballs in plain view, why the Chargers weren’t punished for the stickum towels, and why nobody in the history of the sport at any level ever faced so much as a slap on the wrist for taking air out of footballs.
This punishment was about trying to catch an organization that wins more than anyone else doing something that could conceivably be interpreted as nefarious. It worked — in theory. Until now.
Theoretically, Brady does stand to have withstood some damage by the time his suspension ends. Some folks will blather on about “legacy” or some other word that sounds lofty but doesn’t actually carry any meaning. Still others will see the short-term success of the team under two inexperienced rookies and believe that the wins are somehow indicative that anybody can win games as the Patriots’ quarterback.
The reality is this: anyone who genuinely believes that a fraction of a PSI had anything to do with Brady’s historic greatness and unparalleled ability to read defenses, shuffle in the pocket, and throw a football on target for 16 years … those people’s opinions simply don’t matter. They don’t understand the sport. Brady’s “legacy” will be that of (at least) a four-time Super Bowl champion, three-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time league MVP, first-ballot Hall of Famer and the winningest person to ever play the most important position in team sports. Tom Brady’s “legacy” remains very much intact among those who matter.
The Patriots are still the Patriots, despite the best efforts of the petty NFL owners and the commissioner.
The DeflateGate punishments failed everybody except for the very people it intended to hurt.