There is enough circumstantial evidence in the long-awaited 243-page Ted Wells report released Wednesday that footballs used by the Patriots were improperly deflated before the AFC Championship Game. It’s impossible to read the exhaustive document without suspecting that four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, had some idea—or more than just some—that Patriot minions were doctoring the footballs to Brady’s liking.
Now the question is: Will the league, which is expected to hand down discipline in the case in the coming days, find enough sins in the consistently equivocating Wells report to come down hard on Brady and sanction the world champions for the second time in eight years?
I counted 23 examples of equivocating in the Wells document. Phrases like it is “more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware” of Patriot staffers John Jastremski and Jim McNally plotting to take air out of game balls. The report uses “reasonable to infer,” “most plausible,” “most likely,” “more probable,” “we think is likely,” “unlikely,” and other phrases that fall short of “certain” to describe multiple events and people’s actions in the report. According to The MMQB legal mind Andrew Brandt, this language is common to trial lawyers in civil litigation (Wells' background), but let's not miss the overriding point here. The NFL has a momentous decision on its hands. Is the league willing to hand Brady the kind of suspension or significant fine to mar his career and legacy, based on the weight of the circumstantial evidence in the report?
Think of it: With no smoking gun, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will have to rule on one of the NFL’s all-time golden boys. If he bans Brady at least from the NFL’s marquee Pittsburgh-New England season opener on Sept. 10, Goodell will be taking the Patriots’ best player off the field. And either a suspension or heavy fine will forever mark Brady as a cheater in the eyes of the NFL—with strong suspicions but not incontrovertible proof that he, in essence, ordered the deflated-football version of a code red.
If Goodell hands down a suspension or heavy fine, it will forever mark Brady as a cheater in the eyes of the NFL.
The league has had definitive proof in recent disciplinary cases. In 2012, New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams admitted his role as a ringleader in the team’s bounty system, and Goodell came down hard on Williams and the Saints. More recently, the Falcons admitted piping in fake crowd noise at 2014 home games; the team was fined $350,000 and a marketing employee lost his job. Cleveland GM Ray Farmer admitting sending illegal text messages to coaches during games; Goodell suspended him four games. Jets owner Woody Johnson was publicly covetous of cornerback Darrelle Revis while still a Patriot; it cost Johnson a $100,000 league fine.
But under league guidelines, the NFL doesn’t have to catch Brady in the act of ordering the deflation. Goodell and NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who is also reviewing the case for discipline, could rely on the “preponderance of the evidence” that “the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not,” according to the league’s policy on integrity of the game.
I believe there is one other factor at play, and it a significant one. The other 31 teams are watching very closely what Goodell does in this case. If he fines the organization but does not come down hard on Brady, other owners will feel that their suspicions that the close bond between Goodell and New England owner Robert Kraft (well, it used to be a close bond, before this investigation frayed it) played a role in the league taking it easy on New England.
So this is a complex, explosive, divisive issue, and not just between the Patriots and the league office.
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Tom Brady and Pats owner Robert Kraft embrace following the AFC title game. New England would go on to win Super Bowl 49 two weeks later. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
The text messages and recounted conversations involving the two Patriots’ employees in question—officials locker room assistant McNally and equipment assistant Jastremski—leave little doubt that neither will work for an NFL team again. They use their positions almost recklessly, McNally apparently cavalier in leaving the locker room before the AFC Championship Game with the Patriots’ game balls without telling the officials. Referee Walt Anderson told Wells' investigators it was the first time in his 19 years as an NFL official that he’d lost track of the game balls before a game. The report paints a picture of McNally, who called himself “the deflator” in a 2014 text message to Jastremski, as entering a restroom (as seen on security-camera video) and being in there for 100 seconds before the title game. He lied about it when first asked by Wells’ investigators, and then said he used a urinal in a bathroom that has none.
The report said: “There is less direct evidence linking Brady to tampering activities than either McNally or Jastremski. We nevertheless believe, based on the totality of the evidence, that it is more probable than not that Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski.”
Wells went on to say, “Our conclusion that it is more probable than not that McNally and Jastremski participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were tested by the game officials. We believe it is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady’s knowledge and approval.”
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A few more points to make:
• The NFL has some faults to address here. Two happened before the game. Colts GM Ryan Grigson emailed the league the day before the game, saying he was concerned that the Patriots might be letting air out of their footballs. League officials said they would report this to referee Walt Anderson before the game so he’d be on the lookout for it. Then Anderson lost sight of the footballs. The report isn’t exact about how much time lapsed between sightings of the ballbag with New England’s allotted footballs by Anderson and his crew, but it was several minutes at least. At that point, particularly with the warning Grigson had given league officials on Saturday, Anderson should have immediately either called for the backup bag of footballs to be used—there was one in the officials’ locker room on the inclement Foxboro evening—or tested the pressure of the balls in McNally’s bag. Instead, Anderson just began the game, and the balls in McNally’s bag were used in the first half.
(Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
• The league has to invent a new protocol for footballs before the game. That’s easy. No question it will be done, with the balls never out of at least one official’s sight between the time they are tested for correct air pressure (12.5 pounds per square inch to 13.5 pounds) before the game, and the time they are walked to the sidelines by said officials. In addition, the exact pressure in each ball needs to be recorded before the game—another gimme.
• This is too important to get some facts wrong, and the NFL did. There were media leaks throughout the first week in the process, and some were based on misleading stats. According to the two-page letter apprising the Patriots of the investigation sent by NFL senior vice president Dave Gardi to Patriots officials Jan. 19, “One of the [Patriots’] game balls [inspected at halftime] was inflated to 10.1 psi, far below the requirement of 12 ½ to 13 ½ psi. In contrast, each of the Colts’ game balls that was inspected met the requirements set forth above.” In fact, the lowest of the 20 readings measuring Patriot footballs at halftime was 10.5 psi. And one of the gauges measuring the four Colts’ footballs that were measured at halftime had three of the balls below 12.5 psi.
• I found two things very hard to overlook.1) So the officials at halftime measured the psi of 10 Patriots footballs and four Colts balls. (Each team conditions footballs during the week and hands a bag of them to officials for pregame psi inspection.) The Anderson crew measured every ball with two gauges. Using a baseline of 12.5 psi for the New England balls—approximately the pressure adopted in the pregame measurements by the officials—and the Colts-preferred 13.0 for the Indianapolis footballs, the two gauges had the New England footballs down 1.39 and 1.01 psi, on average. The Colts’ footballs were down an average of .37 and .56. Not totally definitive, but not nothing either. … 2) According to the Wells report, an examination of Jastremski’s phone found that he and Brady had not spoken or texted for six months before the morning after the AFC championship. When the story broke that that the league was looking into claims of doctored football, the two men then spoke six times over the next three days, for a total of 55 minutes. Circumstantial, yes. But you can bet the league will look at that suspiciously.
• Will Spygate play a part in discipline? I don’t think the sanctions will be as harsh as the 2007 penalty for the Patriots' taping opposing sidelines to try to steal signals. That discipline amounted to two fines totaling $750,000 and the loss of a first-round pick. Because there’s no evidence the Patriots organization or coaching staff had anything to do with this—and because the last three team discipline cases didn’t involve a draft choice or choices—I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodell puts the onus on the two employees and Brady more than the team. But there’s one other factor here. Goodell could conceivably say: This is the second time I’ve had this same team in the principal’s office for fudging with the rules. I’m going to come down hard, and maybe that will ensure it never happens again.
That’s considering, of course, that the NFL can be sure Brady was in the middle of this.
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