Tom Brady will miss the first four games of the upcoming NFL schedule. Unless he doesn't.
''Deflategate'' has crept into a third NFL season, and with the federal court's rejection on Wednesday of the New England quarterback's appeal of his suspension, it certainly appears that Brady will be sidelined into early October.
Brady still has the option of taking his case to the Supreme Court - one legal analyst called that nothing more than a ''Hail Mary'' - and getting the suspension for his role in the use of underinflated footballs in the 2014 AFC title game overturned or stayed. Given how aggressively Brady, the NFL Players Association and all the lawyers involved have pursued the case, trying to get the Supreme Court to hear it could be the next step.
Meanwhile, it's up to the Patriots to figure out the best approach to opening the season at formidable Arizona before a homestand against Miami, Houston and Buffalo.
One thing for sure: super-secretive New England won't be giving out any hints.
Among the Patriots' biggest dilemmas is how to split reps and game time in the preseason. Normally, Brady would take a huge number of reps, but would play sporadically in the exhibition matches. Jimmy Garoppolo would get the majority of the game snaps.
Now? New England's coaches must get Garoppolo prepared for his most significant pro action. Yet offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must be careful not to get in the way of Brady's prep.
While Brady is among the most accomplished winners in sports, and no one knows his craft better than the four-time Super Bowl champion, this is uncharted territory for him. Staying sharp when you are barred from any interactions with your team for a month is a huge challenge even for Brady.
That makes the Patriots' August very intriguing. Watch for lots of photos and video of Brady working with backups and rookies whenever that occurs on the practice field. Sort of like Leonardo DiCaprio doing a cartoon.
The Patriots also must begin considering their overall quarterback situation. Rookie Jacoby Brissett would be the only backup to the untested Garoppolo, hardly an ideal situation for anything except a rebuilding team. So bringing in a veteran QB for at least the four games Brady will miss makes some sense.
Except, of course, how does that quarterback get any practice reps in light of the urgency of preparing Garoppolo and keeping Brady somewhat sharp? He doesn't. So finding someone willing to be nothing more than a camp body would be the Patriots' chore.
In a way, though, the Patriots are fortunate that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan issued its decision Wednesday. Barring that ''Hail Mary'' in DC, the team can move ahead with concrete plans for preparing Garoppolo, who has thrown all of 31 passes in two NFL seasons.
Envision a scenario where the deflated footballs issue remained unsettled and Brady received a stay of his suspension while the courts considered its merits. He would play in those first four games and many others until a decision was made.
Imagine then that Brady still loses on appeal and is forced to sit out the final four games of the schedule. Or the section when the Patriots play Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Seattle, their most formidable four-game stretch.
Or - New Englanders shudder at this thought - he has to sit out the playoffs. After all, the genesis of all of this hot air was what the NFL says occurred in a conference championship game.
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