By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Tampering with potential free agents is such a common occurrence in the NFL that the league went ahead and created a “legal tampering” period. That’s akin to the police setting a speed limit of 65 mph while posting a sign that says, “But feel free to cruise at 75 mph, and we won’t say a thing.”

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And when teams have been found to be in violation of the tampering rules, the punishments have been slaps on the wrist. A fine here, a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick there, but certainly nothing substantial. After all, a player’s going to do what a player’s going to do, and there’s only so much that another team’s coach or GM can really do to change the course that player’s career.

At least, that was the case until now, because the Kansas City Chiefs got walloped by the NFL for tampering with then-free-agent-to-be Jeremy Maclin last year.

The NFL stripped the Chiefs of a third-round pick in 2016 and a sixth-round pick in 2017. In addition, they fined the team $250,000, fined head coach Andy Reid $75,000 and fined GM John Dorsey $25,000.

Much like the “DeflateGate” punishments, these were handed down not by Goodell himself but by Troy Vincent, a man whose job responsibilities include maintaining the integrity of the game, preserving the integrity of the game, protecting the shield, posting graphics of his own quotes on Twitter, keeping up integrity, managing integrity and supporting integrity. Think of him as the NFL’s integrity farmer. He plants an integrity seed, waters it with an integrity-infused cocktail and makes sure it gets 12 hours of integrity light per day, before the integrity sprouts from the 50-yard line of every NFL stadium around the country.

But, of course, this is Goodell’s league. If Vincent is actually free to determine an appropriate level of discipline and issue it on his own, then the commissioner is completely useless as the leader of the league. Vincent’s role, therefore, has essentially been to carry out Goodell’s wishes while creating a layer of separation between the discipline and the commissioner.

“[In] assessing discipline, the goal is to balance the seriousness of the violation of an important and longstanding competitive rule, with appropriate recognition of the club’s history (no prior offenses), and the cooperation shown by both the club and individual employees,” Vincent wrote in the announcement, adding that the Chiefs were “fully cooperative and forthcoming” during the league’s investigation.

If the Chiefs hadn’t cooperated fully, then they would have been punished even more harshly, according to Vincent.

And the Chiefs, rightfully, are wondering what in the world is going on.

Here’s a brief history lesson:

–Last year, Jets owner Woody Johnson made what was essentially a public contract offer to Darrelle Revis, who at the time was under contract with the New England Patriots. The NFL ruled that Johnson had tampered. The Jets ended up signing Revis. The Jets were fined $100,000 and lost zero draft picks.

–The Jets countered the Patriots’ tampering charge with one of their own, accusing Robert Kraft of expressing public interest in Revis after the cornerback had already signed with the Jets. That charge was dismissed by the NFL and the Patriots were not penalized.

–In 2011, after a Lions coach said he’d be happy to sign some players that were going to be cut loose by the Chiefs, Detroit was stripped of a seventh-round pick, which had originally been acquired in a trade. Additionally, the Lions were forced to swap spots with the Chiefs in the fifth round, a penalty which moved them from picking ninth in the fifth round to 23rd in the fifth round.

–In 2008, the NFL ruled that the 49ers tampered with Lance Briggs by contacting the player’s agent . As a result, the 49ers were stripped of a fifth-round pick and forced to switch spots with Chicago in the third round. That was a relatively minor shift, with the 49ers dropping five spots lower in that third round. Both teams cooperated in that investigation, per news reports from the time.

Clearly, the third-round pick plus the sixth-round pick, plus the more than $300,000 in fines was certainly a much more severe punishment than Kansas City rightfully could have expected to receive.

“The discipline should be sufficient both to deter future violations and encourage cooperation in future investigations,” Vincent wrote.

But what Vincent did not write is that there’s absolutely no precedent for such a heavy punishment. Yet … that seems to be the M.O. of the NFL front office these days: drop nukes on member clubs and dare them to fight it.

(Also, if the NFL really wanted to discourage tampering, they could have made this ruling … last week … before this year’s “legal tampering” window opened. Taking a full year to come to this decision, and then announcing it after it might actually dissuade teams from tampering, is a most-typical NFL way of operating.)

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The Patriots, obviously, will feel the effects of that heavy-handed NFL attitude this April, when the first round comes and goes without a selection from New England. (Though, still links to, a site which continues to be updated, so the chance remains that a fight is still bubbling beneath the surface.)

The Chiefs, meanwhile, will certainly fight … though they don’t have much time before the draft if they want to save that third-round pick.

“While we respect Commissioner Goodell and the process, we believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline enforced in similar matters – particularly given the league’s inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents,” Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said in a statement, which noted the Chiefs would explore their avenues for an appeal.

If they appeal, it would have to be settled before the draft begins April 28, and really in the interest of fairness in terms of planning out a draft strategy, it should be decided several weeks prior. If the decision were to be reversed after the draft and the team were given an extra pick next year, there would be no way for the Chiefs to ever account for that lost draft pick. It is no insignificant thing.

The interesting wrinkle in this “tampering” violation is that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is the man who drafted Maclin in 2009 and coached him for four years. The “legal tampering” window allows teams to contact agents but not the players themselves prior to free agency officially beginning. Considering Maclin and Reid had an already-established relationship, it stands to reason that perhaps the two were in direct communication.

Maclin openly admitted that his prior relationship with Reid played a major role in shaping his free-agent decision.

“In the back of my mind, it was either I was going to stay in Philadelphia or I was going to come to Kansas City,” Maclin said at his introductory press conference last March. “Both of those situations made sense and Kansas City made more sense. That’s kind of my personality and the way I am. I think it fits me a little better. I know Coach Reid. I know [David] Culley, Doug [Pederson]. There are a lot of guys I had a chance to build relationships with in Philadelphia and they’re here. It just felt like home. It is home. I’m excited about that.”

Obviously, the four years Maclin spent working with Reid played a much more significant role than any one text or phone call could have made last winter. Yet … the NFL thinks otherwise.

It’s important to note that the Chiefs gave the NFL “full access to all of the information requested, including electronic and telephone records, and unrestricted access to all club people whom we sought to interview.” So maybe Brady and the Patriots had it right all along to resist some of the requests made by a league investigation. Vincent and Goodell stressed after the “DeflateGate” punishments were issued that three factors — the team’s history with Spygate, Brady’s refusal to hand over his phone, and the team’s refusal to produce Jim McNally for a follow-up interview — influenced the harshness of the ultimate ruling. But if the punishment was going to end up at an unprecedented level, why bother cooperating?

And it’s that message that may resound loudest in NFL front offices this week, as the NFL has proven that precedent will play absolutely no role in the commissioner deciding to exercise an extreme amount of power if he feels like doing so. The Chiefs may have violated a minor role that in the past has resulted in very minor punishments, and throughout the investigation they played along and handed over every bit of communication the league wanted, and they had no prior history of violating such rules. And yet, they still got hammered.

Mind you, over the past few days, we saw countless agreements reported by the Ian Rapoports and Adam Schefters of the world, all of which were technically not allowed but will presumably go unpunished from Goodell.

This is the same Goodell who was accused by Judge Richard Berman of dispensing “his own brand of industrial justice.” And this ruling should serve only to alert the other 30 clubs that Goodell is a ruler whose decisions can’t be predicted and thus cannot be trusted. If there’s no set system in place for determining appropriate punishments, then there’s no guarantee to the rest of the teams that the next over-the-top punishment won’t come down on them.

Tampering during a “legal tampering” window and then fully cooperating with the ensuing investigation? Let’s hammer ’em! If they don’t like it, we’ll see ’em court! That’s the Goodell Way.


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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.