If you don’t like Tom Brady, you won’t believe a word he had to say Thursday. The problem is that I do like Brady, and I still don’t believe what he said.
Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, wants us to believe that:
Before games, like most quarterbacks, he makes sure the footballs meet his precise specifications. He likes them to have 12.5 pounds of pressure per square inch. Presumably, he also likes them worked in so they are not too shiny, too slippery, too waxy, or covered in maple syrup. Then -- he made this point multiple times Thursday -- he doesn’t want anybody touching them. They’re perfect the way they are.
And yet, during the first half of the Patriots’ AFC Championship win over the Colts, Brady was playing with balls that were well under his preferred 12.5 pounds of PSI. At least 11 of the 12 were under-inflated.
But guess what? He didn’t notice. He had nothing to do with it. He has no idea how it happened. Maybe a manager did it on his own, maybe there was a porcupine in the ball bag. But Brady -- Tom Brady, the same extremely competitive, detail-oriented man who helped lobby the league to allow quarterbacks to supply their own footballs -- didn’t notice they were under-inflated.
Then, at the start of the second half, Brady started using new footballs that were properly inflated and he said he didn't notice the difference.
That was Sunday. Now it’s Thursday. The story has dominated the media cycle since Monday morning. Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, have been pilloried in the media all week. People are questioning their integrity. Yet Brady, who is completely innocent, still hasn't figured out what happened here. Only a few people could know, and you would think the most popular player in team history could shake the truth out of them. Immediately after watching the press conference, I wrote that Brady had not asked anybody on the sideline; as it turned out, he said he did ask them and they didn't know. I missed the question and I apologize. Still, if he is innocent, he should be angry at whoever did this to his reputation. Instead, it's a mystery, as baffling as those guys who didn’t vote for Pedro Martinez for the Hall of Fame, and by the way: Let’s go Bruins!
Again: I want to believe. I really do. I know many people who think extremely highly of Brady. But this story was simply not believable. If you watched the press conference on ESPN, you could see former stars Jerome Bettis, Brian Dawkins and Mark Brunell admit afterward, with varying degrees of anguish, that they didn’t believe Brady.
This looks a lot like a designed misdirection play by the most successful organization in the NFL. It looks like Belichick passing the buck to Brady, who exchanges it for a quarter, then hands it to the NFL.
Thursday morning, Belichick gave a seemingly heartfelt plea of innocence. He doesn’t know what happened, he was “shocked” to find out, he is “cooperating” with the NFL investigation, as opposed to sending hate mail to Roger Goodell or something, and he has never, ever, in his four decades in the NFL, talked to anybody about the pressure in the football. He doesn’t even put air in his own tires, OK? He lets the mechanic do it while he draws blitzes on his fogged-up windshield.
But ... but ... but: Surely, Belichick said, Brady likes his footballs a certain way. Ask him.
Even the most ardent Belichick-hater must admit that he was at least a little believable. Sure, many people in football think he violates the spirit and sometimes the letter of rules. This is not a secret. Maybe they're jealous, maybe they're right, and maybe it’s a little bit of both. But in this case ... well, Belichick did put himself pretty far out there by saying he didn’t know. It’s possible, right? Coaches are never as particular about the conditions of the football as their quarterbacks.
Then came Brady, a few hours later, and he was as baffled as anybody. And because he is Tom Brady, All-American, Genuinely Good Guy, people would be more inclined to believe him. But in this case, I don’t think anybody impartial believed him. And then you realize:
Belichick has to stay as far away from this as possible, because he has the Spygate cheating scandal on his resume, and many people in the NFL will go absolutely nuts if they think he is cheating again.
But Brady was not personally found culpable for Spygate. Sure, he has to admit that of course he likes his footballs to have a certain firmness and feel. But he can deny specific knowledge, and hope that while the NFL will find the Patriots guilty, it can discipline the organization and not the individuals.
This way, nobody gets suspended. No individual gets labeled a “cheater” by the league. The Patriots would get slapped with an enormous fine and probably lose some draft picks, but that happened in Spygate, too, and the Pats will happily take the sum of the last 15 years, thank you very much.
The New England Patriots cheated. Reasonable people understand this. Eleven out of 12 (or possibly 12 of 12) footballs do not get deflated like that by accident. (The Colts’ footballs did not deflate like that, so please send your angry “it was the elements!” e-mails to the Weather Channel. Nobody else wants to read them.)
What the Patriots did in their romp of the Colts is the very definition of cheating: altering the game to give yourself an unfair advantage. I know some people in the sport who think it’s a large advantage. Maybe you think it’s a small advantage. But it is still cheating.
I suspect that Brady sees this as a misdemeanor, but he knows the country has charged him with a felony. And commissioner Roger Goodell is so unpopular now, can he really go against public opinion in a case like this? Will Goodell charge Brady with a felony, too?
I think that is why Brady sold this story. He also said that the NFL has not contacted him yet. Brady can delay a verdict until after the Super Bowl as long as he doesn’t enter a plea beforehand. Take the hit from the media now, go win the game, and deal with the consequences afterward.
Brady laughed off these allegations Monday, but Thursday he said that this is no longer a joking matter. It’s serious, he said. It’s about the integrity of the game. That was one of the few things he said that I really believed.
GALLERY: TOM BRADY CONTROVERSIES