Up front, long before the air started hissing out of his charmed world, Tom Brady should have taken a knee. He should have confessed his venial football sin and admitted to everyone that his never-ending pursuit of a competitive edge got the better of him.
OK, so maybe he should have waited to confess until sometime after the Super Bowl, just in case Roger Goodell had it in him to bench the big star for the big game. But either way, Brady should have come clean about the improper deflation of his AFC Championship Game footballs and then banked on the American public's unbreakable ability to forgive and (pretty much) forget.
Alex Rodriguez disgraced himself and his sport in ways Brady never has and never will, and now there are millions of New Yorkers itching to throw the revived and allegedly reformed slugger a parade. Did one of the two greatest quarterbacks of all time really believe his standing among New England Patriots fans -- and among neutral observers worldwide who simply appreciate self-made masters of their trade -- couldn't survive the plain truth about Deflategate?
Bill Belichick survived Spygate; he's up there with Vince Lombardi among the all-timers. Brady is up there with his idol, Joe Montana; his decision to destroy a cell phone that likely implicated him in a low-rent scheme with two team flunkies doesn't destroy his legacy as a four-time champ.
But it does make Brady look bad. In announcing his ruling to uphold Brady's four-game suspension, Goodell said the quarterback had his personal assistant do an end zone dance on his phone on or around the same March day Brady met with the investigators who already had asked to see relevant texts and emails on that phone.
Brady didn't reveal he'd effectively deleted nearly 10,000 texts over a four-month period until days before his 10-hour appeal hearing on June 23. According to the NFL ruling, he said the destruction of old cell phones was merely a part of his normal routine, like warming up with Julian Edelman and Gronk. But on page 12 of Goodell's 20-page decision, the commissioner points out that the phone Brady used before the one in question was intact and available for a forensic expert to review. "No explanation was provided for this anomaly," Goodell wrote.
Brady hasn't offered a credible explanation in this case from the start, and for good reason: He doesn't have one. The Ted Wells probe turned up enough circumstantial evidence for a common-sense, agenda-free reader to conclude what Montana and Troy Aikman and their combined seven rings and two Hall of Fame busts concluded in the early hours of this mess: Brady had to have known what those two Patriots staffers, or Watergate burglars, were doing to his footballs.
Goodell cited Brady's quarterback-room meeting and numerous cell phone conversations with John Jastremski after the allegations surfaced; the quarterback had no such meeting or conversations with the equipment assistant during the regular season. Jim McNally, the officials' locker room attendant and the man believed to have taken a 100-second bathroom break with New England's AFC Championship Game balls, also makes a return appearance in the commissioner's decision as the self-described "Deflator."
Of course, we already knew about Jastremski and McNally. We also knew that Wells had offered to allow Brady's agent to screen his phone before turning over texts and emails to investigators, and that Goodell's lieutenant, Troy Vincent, had noted in the May announcement of the quarterback's suspension his refusal to cooperate despite "extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information."
We didn't know Brady had crushed the phone in question like, you know, he'd crushed the Indianapolis Colts.
Does this constitute a smoking gun? Close enough to make the pile of circumstantial evidence look about as tall as Brady standing in a well-protected pocket.
If you were paying close attention back in January, you knew this day of reckoning was coming. "Tom's personal preferences on his footballs," Belichick said then, "is something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I can possibly provide."
The coach wasn't about to star in Spygate II. The Wells report cleared him and Robert Kraft, too. Ultimately, the owner did the right thing by cutting his losses at a million bucks and two draft picks rather than fighting a losing fight for that apology he was never getting from Goodell.
Suddenly Brady was out there alone, lawyered up and ready to rumble with the same commissioner who said so many nice things about him at the Super Bowl. Maybe Brady counted on Goodell folding on Deflategate. Maybe the quarterback figured that after all of the things that had gone wrong for the commissioner in the handling of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy and Bountygate, including one former federal judge blitzing him with an "abuse of discretion" finding in the Rice case, Goodell was too weak to go the distance with Brady. Too weak to deal with the ghosts of screw-ups past.
But just as Goodell hurt himself by destroying the Spygate tapes without reasonable justification, Brady hurt himself badly by destroying his cell phone. His agent is describing the appeal process as "a sham" and maintaining that his client was "completely transparent" in providing the commissioner with "an unprecedented amount of electronic data," data the agent claims was ignored.
The NFL Players' Association called Goodell's decision "outrageous" and is taking its cause to federal court. Sure, it's possible the league and the quarterback can reach a settlement before the testimony is complete. It's possible Goodell realizes he can't have Brady serve the same suspension handed Hardy, whose 10-game ban for the violent assault of a woman was reduced by arbitrator Harold Henderson to four. It's also possible that Brady's lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, will enhance his impressive record against sports leagues in the courts.
Only here's the problem for Brady: Even if he wins, he loses. People who weren't convinced of his role in Deflategate by Ted Wells, or by McNally's reference to himself as "The Deflator," or by the notion that no underlings would alter game balls sans Brady's approval with a Super Bowl trip on the line, have to be sold by the story of the cell phone that went poof in the night.
So the quarterback has lost in the court of public opinion, and it didn't have to be that way. He should have copped to his mistake months ago. He should've realized that one stain wouldn't ruin an otherwise spotless career. He should've apologized for seeking that extra competitive edge, if only to prove one more time that 198 players shouldn't have been picked ahead of him in the 2000 NFL draft.
The quarterback instead engaged in what appears to be just another common cover-up worse than the crime. In other words, for the first time in his epic football life, Tom Brady just beat himself.