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
Tom Brady and Controversy
With commissioner Roger Goodell refusing to reduce Tom Brady's four-game suspension for his role in the Patriots using deliberately deflated footballs in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, here's a look back at Brady and controversy.
Tom Brady drew a $10,000 fine for a cleats up slide late in the first half of the 2013 AFC Championship Game. Brady slid to avoid a hit from Ravens safety Ed Reed with his right foot high and cleats exposed to Reed, almost like a baseball player breaking up a double play. "You've got to keep the legs down," said Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. "We all know and understand what's going on there. When you come sliding, and your leg is up in the air trying to kick somebody, that's bull crap."
A triumphant Richard Sherman taunted Brady after Seattle beat the Patriots on Oct. 14, 2014. Sherman intercepted Brady in the third quarter, which prompted Brady to tell the second-year cornerback to "see him after the game when they win," Sherman said. When the Seahawks came out on top, Sherman called the Patriots "a gimmick offense" and posted a photo of himself with a dejected Brady, along with the caption "U MAD BRO?"
On second-and-11 with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker found some space on a go route but couldn't haul in the pass from Tom Brady. Although Brady's throw was high and to Welker's outside shoulder, the pass hit Welker in the hands, leading to a debate weeks after the game over who was more at fault, Brady or Welker. The New York Giants took advantage of the miscue to come back and defeat the Patriots 21-17.
Following the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants, Brady's wife, Gisele Bunchen, vented her frustrations with the play of her husband's receivers. After being heckled by Giants fans while waiting for an elevator, Bundchen told people in her group, "My husband cannot f-----g throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times." Bundchen's remark was caught on video and posted to the insider.com, a gossip website.
Before New England's 2011 home opener, Brady had a message for Patriots fans to ensure the team has a strong home-field advantage. "Start drinking early," Brady said. "Get nice and rowdy. It's a 4:15 game, a lot of time to get lubed up." Quick to avoid promoting heavy drinking, the Patriots attempted to clarify that Brady meant "Stay hydrated, drink a lot of water. Be loud, drink responsibly."
While it may be no surprise Brady wouldn't have fond feelings for the rival New York Jets, the quarterback made clear how he felt about them when asked if he was watching their season of the HBO series "Hard Knocks" in 2010. "I hate the Jets," Brady told WEEI 93.7 FM, a Boston sports radio station. "So I refuse to support that show."
Brady expressed his disappointment with the Patriots faithful after New England's 2010 home opener. "The road environment is very different than our friendly home crowd who, when I looked up, half the stadium was gone when we were up 21 points in the early fourth quarter -- which I wasn't so happy about," Brady said after the game. "I don't think Jets fans leave early. They're going to be loud the whole game."
Brady had a little fun with his least favorite team in 2010, when the Patriots dominated the Jets 45-3. The New England quarterback jawed at the New York sideline after two touchdowns, including once in the direction of Jets head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan was not amused with Brady's taunts. "[Brady] took a shot at me by his antics on the field," Ryan said. "He always points [to everybody] after he scores."
In the last of Brady's memorable dustups with Gang Green, the quarterback took some added satisfaction in the success of Danny Woodhead because the running back had been released by the Jets prior to joining the Patriots. "We saw him [his first week] in practice, what he was capable of doing, and said, 'Why did the Jets release that guy?'" Brady said after Woodhead scored two touchdowns against the Bills on Nov. 11, 2012. "They had him playing receiver, and he was a running back in college."
Never has the distinction between "attempting to tuck" and "has tucked" been more controversial than in the AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Raiders on Jan. 19, 2002. With the Patriots driving toward a game-tying field goal, cornerback Charles Woodson knocked the ball from Brady's hands, and linebacker Greg Biekert recovered it. The game-sealing fumble was overturned however, when upon review the referees ruled that Brady was still in the process of tucking the ball even though it had already made contact with his non-throwing, left hand. The Patriots won the game in overtime, while the Raiders fumed.
It may be hard to recall now, but Brady wasn't always the quarterback icon he is considered today. Head coach Bill Belichick had quite the quarterback controversy in 2001, when the second-year quarterback Brady shined while filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe. After Brady led the Patriots to a 5-2 record following their 0-2 start under Bledsoe, Belichick stuck with Brady even after the three-time Pro Bowl incumbent was healthy again. Perhaps controversial at the time, the move clearly paid off for the Patriots.