NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, as has become the norm, dragged his feet before issuing a ruling on Tom Brady's appeal.
The verdict: Brady's four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate has been upheld, meaning the Patriots quarterback will be out of action until after his team's Week 5 game at Dallas. Brady's 2015 debut likely would occur the following Sunday, coincidentally (or is it?) when the Patriots visits Indianapolis for a nationally-televised primetime matchup.
Three thoughts on the ruling:
1. Over? Probably not even close: ABC News legal analyst Ryan Smith tweeted earlier this month that Brady was preparing to take the NFL to court if Goodell did not overturn the suspension. The NFL and NFLPA reportedly were engaged in settlement talks leading up to Tuesday's ruling, which in theory would have reduced the penalty and possibly helped the two sides avoid further litigation.
Both Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson had their suspensions overturned in court, immediately allowing them back on the field. As part of an extensive explanation of what the court process could look like if Brady opted for that route, SI's Michael McCann explained why this case would differ from those two prior high-profile decisions:
The NFL would also carefully distinguish Brady’s challenge from challenges brought by Peterson and Rice. Peterson successfully argued that he was retroactively punished by a new policy, while Rice successfully argued that he was double punished. Peterson and Rice thus relied on straightforward theories. Brady, in contrast, would be required to argue a more amorphous idea that Goodell was so conflicted in Deflategate that he should not have served as the presiding officer in Brady’s appeal—despite Article 46 expressly saying he could serve as the presiding officer.
Article 46, section 2(a) of the CBA, agreed upon by the league and its players association in 2011, reads, in part, that “the Commissioner may serve as hearing officer in any appeal...at his discretion.”
Much of the remaining battle will depend on how adamant Brady is about clearing his name, but from his perspective he also must consider a) possible distractions to his team and b) the timeline for an appeal in federal district court. Early indications are that the NFLPA will try to start the process ASAP, but we still have to talk in terms of weeks and months, not days, before a resolution. Also as mentioned by McCann, should a federal court rule in Brady's favor, the NFL could (and probably would) counter by issuing its own appeal.
Peterson, for example, appealed his indefinite suspension in November 2014. A verdict overturning that suspension arrived in February of this year, with the NFL promptly issuing its own appeal. Then, just this month, a judge ordered the NFLPA and NFL into settlement talks on the matter, set for August. Brady's case itself is far different from Peterson's, but the process could play out in similar fashion.
Goodell's decision to keep the suspension at four games does come as something of a surprise, at least compared to the general consensus when the penalty was first announced. The four-game ban appeared to leave Goodell his favored out: a tough stance in initial punishment, with enough room to walk the penalty back later. In this case, Goodell handed off the first hearing to NFL VP Troy Vincent—a move that formed the basis for Brady's appeal, as the NFLPA argued Vincent had no authority to issue such a penalty.
It has taken six months to reach this point. Who knows when the finish line will arrive.
2. Nothing has changed for Jimmy Garoppolo: Whether Brady was suspended for four games or two games or one quarter, Garoppolo had to prepare this off-season as if he was the New England Patriots' starting quarterback. If there is a silver lining for the Patriots in all this, it's that Garoppolo has had several months—including OTAs, mini-camp and, soon, training camp—to share reps with the first-team offense.
Brady is still allowed to participate in all team activities until Week 1. We'll have to wait to see if Bill Belichick splits reps between Brady and Garoppolo during camp as he did at OTAs, but it is hard to imagine any other strategy working. The Patriots have to attempt to get Brady enough snaps in August so that he's as game-ready as possible come October; Garoppolo, obviously, has to be prepared for those Brady-less games in September.
“We’re trying to give everybody an opportunity to learn our system and prepare to compete and play,” Belichick said in May, per the Boston Globe. The Patriots added veteran QB Matt Flynn a couple weeks later. “The competition will really come in training camp. ... We want to try to give everyone an opportunity to learn and understand the plays and know what to do, and then we’ll let them compete in training camp and preseason games and see how it goes. Then it’s up to them.”
In theory, then, the door could be open for Flynn to supplant Garoppolo as Brady's fill-in. Consider that a long shot barring unexpected developments, like Garoppolo tanking during camp or the Patriots starting off with a couple of losses as their young QB flails.
So far, the coaching staff has expressed confidence that will not happen. Garoppolo had the benefit of a full season with the Patriots' system, learning behind Brady, and he now has had time to prep as the No. 1 QB. The 2014 second-rounder should be as ready as possible for a tricky opening stretch (Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, Jacksonville, at Dallas).
3. Could time off do Brady good?: Sure, Brady continues to perform at an astonishingly high level—look no further than New England's Super Bowl run last year. He's also turning 38 on Aug. 3 and has suited up for an average of 2.5 extra games over the past four seasons, thanks to his team's playoff success.
While everyone involved on the Patriots would prefer Brady be on the field, let's not rule out the possibility that this unplanned early-season breather could pay dividends for Brady come January. They are two different cases, to be sure, but everyone saw an aging Peyton Manning hit the wall down the stretch last season. Assuming the Patriots can dodge a disastrous 0–4 start sans their starting QB, the prospect of having a fresh Brady come January should be appealing.
Consider also how the Patriots' schedule shapes up. Following that anticipated Brady return at Indianapolis, the Patriots have three straight at home, all against teams that missed the playoffs last season (Jets, Dolphins, Redskins). After a quick Week 10 road trip to play the Giants, New England is back in Foxboro for a Week 11 Monday night game vs. Buffalo.
In other words, the Patriots' biggest tests should come with Brady, perhaps even a relatively rested Brady, in the lineup.
As for the other elephant in the room—how this impacts Brady's legacy—only a development that cleared his name entirely would have altered the outlook. The Patriots and their fans may use Goodell's decision as an us-against-the-world rallying cry, but plenty of people on the outside looking in will take the opportunity to place an asterisk next to Brady's career.