Much sooner rather than later, Tom Brady needs to call the most important audible of his football life. His crime against sport is not in the same ballpark as those committed by Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez, not even close, so there is no reason to follow their path of endless denial and deceit before finally telling the truth.
Brady needs to come clean right now. This is not about Brady's agent, Don Yee, or his father, Tom Sr., because agents and parents are expected to scream and shout while protecting their own. This is about the quarterback of the New England Patriots, nobody else.
Brady should hit the mute button on Yee and pass on his right to appeal. He should instruct the players' union to stand down. He should do the right thing here and admit that he knowingly broke the rules, that he was chin strap-deep in the illegal deflation of game balls, and that he deserves a four-game suspension that was always a fitting penalty for his cheating and refusal to cooperate with Ted Wells.
For all of his royal screw-ups in disciplining players, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell -- with an assist from executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent -- notarized the perfect punishment for the imperfect crime. Goodell and Vincent sent a strong message at the expense of the four-time Super Bowl champ, and yet didn't touch last season's title run or kill the chances of Brady leading the Patriots to their 13th division crown on his watch. The quarterback gets to play in 75 percent of this season's games and loses something he doesn't need, money, while Jimmy Garoppolo leads the Pats to the same 2-2 record the first-stringer led them to in 2014.
And then that first-stringer gets to come back and take it all out on the Indianapolis Colts to boot.
The Colts didn't do this to Brady by tipping off NFL officials and refs before and during the AFC Championship Game blowout. Brady did this to Brady. He was so desperate to win and to keep proving over and over he should've been the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, not the 199th pick, that, as the Wells report makes apparent, he conspired with a couple of low-level staffers to doctor game balls to his liking.
In his letter to the Patriots, Vincent acknowledged what any right-minded observer of the Patriots' 38-point victory over the Colts easily grasped: The balls deflated below the 12.5-pounds-per-square-inch minimum had no impact on the result. But Vincent also rightfully maintained that it didn't matter, that the intent to cheat is a violation nobody can measure by way of a scoreboard.
"Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football," Vincent wrote in a letter to Brady. "The integrity of the game is of paramount importance to everyone in our league, and requires unshakable commitment to fairness and compliance with the playing rules. Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question."
Vincent was "the deflator" this time, not officials locker room attendant Jim McNally, because those words had to suck the air out of the all-time great. Brady wasn't hearing this from a sportswriter or radio host. He was hearing this from a former peer, a five-time Pro Bowler, a former winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Meanwhile, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick were cleared by Wells and his aides, though the Patriots' owner said in a Monday night statement that the penalties "exceeded any reasonable expectation" at the end of what he called a "one-sided investigation." Kraft also said this of his quarterback: "Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered."
In time, Kraft will recover from the hurt and the $1 million fine, and Belichick will recover from the lost first-round pick in 2016 and lost fourth-round pick in 2017. That's what the Patriots do -- they absorb hits better than any team in the league, dust themselves off, then diagram another way to the Super Bowl.
But Brady won't recover quite as quickly, not after he refused to hand over emails and texts related to the case despite being offered what Vincent called "extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information."
No, it didn't have to be this way. Brady was pro football's answer to Derek Jeter, the megawinner who was above reproach and who wasn't even stained by Spygate, the scandal that started and stopped at Belichick's desk.
Deflategate changes everything. Brady's credibility is in tatters now, and he will only hurt his reputation more by continually trying to fake out people who refuse to be deked. Patriots fans always will embrace him. The people who cheered his nonanswers to Jim Gray at Salem State last week will cheer louder when Brady throws more touchdown passes than Rex Ryan's new AFC East team (the Bills) or his old AFC East team (the Jets) can count.
But the non-New Englanders around the country who respected Brady as much as they respected any athlete will have trouble ever believing in him again.
Until he tells the truth, anyway. Monday night, when his agent called the four-game suspension "ridiculous" and "predetermined," Brady sure didn't take any steps in that direction.
Yee maintained the Wells report showed no evidence Brady tampered with footballs and attacked the league for conspiring with the Colts before the AFC Championship Game in what amounted to a setup. In his statement, the agent summoned the ghosts of the Ray Rice case and reminded readers that "a former federal judge has found the commissioner has abused his discretion in the past."
Yee added that the punishment of the Patriots "diminishes the NFL" when, in fact, the penalties diminish the NFL's best player, Tom Brady. The quarterback actually got off with a relatively light sentence; Kraft indefinitely suspended McNally and Patriots equipment assistant John Jastremski without pay, and the league announced they can never again be involved in the pregame preparation of footballs ... if they're ever reinstated at all.
Brady will be reinstated, and he will be allowed to handle footballs before and during Patriots games. So he should overrule Yee and whoever else is advising him to appeal and accept his just punishment before admitting to his role in the scam.
This isn't Pete Rose gambling on baseball or Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez pumping one illegal drug after another into their bodies for a competitive edge. Brady should tell the public that he thought he was merely driving 63 mph in a 55 mph zone, that he didn't realize taking some air out of the ball was a big deal, and that he now realizes it is a very big deal.
He should apologize to Kraft for lying to him and for making the owner look and sound like a fool at the Super Bowl. He should apologize to Jastremski and McNally for putting franchise-player pressure on employees in no position to resist it, and for effectively costing them their jobs. And he should apologize to Wells, Goodell, Vincent and, more important, to fans everywhere who thought Tom Brady would be among the last quarterbacks to spike the integrity of his sport.
Unlike bigger cheats before him, Brady shouldn't confess in a book or a hyped-up TV sit-down years from now. If he tells the truth today, without holding back, this much would be true:
People will find it a lot easier to root for him to become the first quarterback with five Super Bowl rings.