Under his oversized ski cap, Tom Brady could not hide from the fact he was convicting himself in the court of public opinion. The quarterback of the New England Patriots admitted that footballs pumped up to 12.5 pounds per square inch are "a perfect fit for me," yet swore he did not notice a difference in the AFC Championship Game when most of the balls had significantly less pressure.
Brady's story Thursday was harder to believe than the story of the 199th pick in the NFL draft becoming one of the greatest players of all time. The lead-footed pocket passer became a Russell Wilson-like scrambler in the half hour he fielded questions at Gillette Stadium, and when it was over, it was clear that the only starting quarterback to advance to six Super Bowls had just lost one of the biggest games of his life.
"I would never do anything outside of the rules of play," Brady said.
But his own words told a different tale, and as soon as he was done talking, a 17-year veteran of the quarterback position, Mark Brunell, said on ESPN that he was among those who didn't believe Brady. Earlier Thursday, even before Bill Belichick seemed to be throwing his franchise player under a triple-decker bus in his own news conference, Hall of Famer Troy Aikman said on a Dallas radio station the following:
"It's obvious that Tom Brady had something to do with this."
Sadly, it only became more obvious after Brady spoke. And if the NFL finds in the coming days that Brady did have something to do with altering the 11 Patriots footballs ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported to be under-inflated in the first half of the 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, then commissioner Roger Goodell needs to bench Brady for the Super Bowl.
As much as he has been compromised by the whole Ray Rice case, Goodell cannot make a mockery of his championship game by allowing someone to participate who broke league rules to ensure a competitive advantage in the semifinal. Of course, it would be nice if the NFL actually got around to interviewing Brady, who said he has yet to sit down with the league. Goodell's crack detectives must be too busy trying to track down a third Rice video.
Whatever. Brady swears he beat the Colts "fair and square" and that he had no knowledge "of any wrongdoing" as it relates to those 11 balls turning up with significantly less pressure than the 12.5 to 13.5 psi the league mandates.
Put aside Brady's acknowledgment that this is a very serious issue, and not the kind of thing you joke about the way he did Monday on his weekly radio appearance on WEEI. Put aside Brady's acknowledgment that the game's integrity needs to be protected more than anyone's quarterback, and that the laws governing the sport are important to him ("Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out," he said of the Baltimore Ravens' whining about New England's funky substitutions).
Focus on the loosest brick in Brady's version of events -- or non-version of events -- that took down the whole house. The quarterback said more than once that a ball at 12.5 psi felt like magic in his hands, and it made sense. Any elite craftsman or artist or athlete could tell you that the tools of his or her trade are not interchangeable parts. Right before a performance, Jimi Hendrix would've known if he'd been handed something other than his most reliable guitar.
But Brady claimed that the NFL game moves so fast, he doesn't have time to worry about the weight or feel of the ball once the bodies start flying. "I get the snap," he said, "I drop back, I throw the ball."
He has thrown it better than just about every quarterback dead or alive. Sure, Brady would've beaten Andrew Luck and the Colts with a bowling ball, or any ball, and the people who keep defaulting to that truth are missing the point.
This isn't about whether the Patriots needed to cheat. This is only about whether they did cheat.
And along those lines, Belichick's earlier appearance came across as more credible than Brady's. The coach knew that he couldn't on-to-Seattle his way through this crisis, so he borrowed a scene from the "Casablanca" script and dramatically claimed he was shocked -- shocked -- to find that deflating is going on in here.
Belichick took the hit on Spygate way back when, and in this stunning, 11-minute show of human emotion and defiance and self-preservation -- his most startling presser since he famously resigned as HC of the NYJ -- he all but said, "Tommy, it's your turn to take the hit on this one."
The hooded overlord of the Patriots maintained that he'd never discussed a football's air pressure with anyone in his 40-year NFL career, and that his quarterbacks, kickers and specialists knew a hell of a lot more about the condition of game-day balls than he did.
But Belichick didn't name any kickers or specialists. He did name a certain dimpled quarterback.
"Tom's personal preferences on his footballs," Belichick said, "is something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I can possibly provide."
Belichick was so desperate to ensure he wouldn't be the fall guy this time around, he opened a window on his maximum-security world and told of how he constantly scuffs up footballs in practice to create for his players the most challenging conditions possible. (Now 31 other NFL coaches are saying, "Why didn't I think of that?") This was Belichick's way of conceding he's not beyond playing dirty tricks with the equipment but only within the boundaries of the law and never within the boundaries of an AFC Championship Game.
Though it was hard to accept Belichick's claim he never knew anything about the pre-kick journeys of your average game ball, especially when he's more control freak than control enthusiast, he wouldn't have lateraled this mess to Brady without a good reason. Their once-in-a-lifetime partnership would be forever destroyed, along with their chances of beating Seattle, if the coach was involved in the deflation and still made it Brady's burden to bear.
"I have no explanation for what happened," Belichick insisted.
Brady would say more of the same, and would even add that he believed in the ball boys' innocence, too. Truth is, somebody did something to those footballs, and the man who threw 35 passes for the winners had to know he was playing with illegal balls in the first half and, after inspection and correction at halftime, the legal stuff in the second.
Once upon a time, after he was drafted late in the sixth round in 2000, Brady introduced himself to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and told him, "I'm the best decision this organization has ever made." Maybe for the first time in his career Thursday, Brady didn't look like that best decision. He looked and sounded weak and in desperate need of a tuck rule, though he said his friends need not worry.
"I tell them I'm going to be OK," Brady said. "This isn't ISIS. No one's dying. We'll get through this."
He's right. Someday pro football will be about pro football again.
But if the league finds evidence that Brady didn't tell the truth here, and that he did cut a corner even Belichick wouldn't cut, Goodell needs to make Jimmy Garoppolo a starting quarterback a week from Sunday.