Despite Deflategate suspension, Tom Brady could go down as greatest QB ever

Brady must have understood fight was winless (0:49)

Jonathan Coachman explores the reasons why Tom Brady has decided to give up fighting his four-game suspension. (0:49)

If Tom Brady woke up Saturday morning in desperate need of good news, this bulletin might qualify: His big-game loss to Roger Goodell won't dramatically impact his historical standing in pro football any more than his two big-game losses to Eli Manning did.

Brady can still go down as the greatest quarterback -- maybe the greatest player -- in NFL history. His Deflategate sin belongs in the venial basket, at a safe distance from the mortal sports sins committed by the likes of Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong.

In other words, his Friday surrender won't make it into the first paragraph of his obituary decades down the road. That obit will surely include Brady's four-game suspension for his alleged involvement in the deflation of footballs the New England Patriots used in the AFC Championship Game victory over the Indianapolis Colts two seasons ago, but the misdemeanor crime and punishment won't shape the story of Brady's football life. This weekend, it only seems that way.

Though coaches often say there are no losers in tight, hard-fought games, there were clearly no winners in this one, Goodell included. The commissioner might've had his near-absolute authority notarized, but he can't possibly believe this 18-month debacle served what he's highly paid to protect -- the best interests of his league. Deflategate was a four-ring circus that effectively and mercifully ended when Brady decided his pursuit of a record fifth Super Bowl ring could be compromised if he won a temporary stay of his suspension while trying to take his case to the Supreme Court.

The timing was too perilous to mess with. Understanding that his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, can go 2-2 or 3-1 for a man, Bill Belichick, who once coached Matt Cassel to an 11-5 season, Brady made like Belichick at the coin toss and deferred. He was on to Cleveland, Week 5. Patriots owner Robert Kraft blasted the NFL's investigation, again, and those voices subscribing to the Ideal Gas Law reminded all that the league's conclusions had crumbled under the weight of scientific scrutiny.

But if the NFL's science really was junk, the circumstantial evidence was not. Most agenda-free observers thought it would've been wise long ago for Brady to make an admission of some kind and accept a lesser punishment, but the quarterback refused to take that snap and drop to a knee. He raged against Goodell's system for as long as he could stomach the fight, then took the loss. Brady thanked every supporter in his Facebook concession speech except Richard M. Berman, the U.S. District Court judge who tried and failed to free him.

The 2016 Patriots will be fine because the Patriots are always fine in the AFC East of the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Ever since Brady became a starter early in the 2001 season, one quarterback other than Brady -- one -- has managed to win an AFC East title (Chad Pennington did it for the 2002 Jets, and for the 2008 Dolphins, who won after Brady went down for the season in Week 1). Go ahead and look around the division. Nothing much has changed. Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick/Geno Smith for 16 games still isn't nearly as good as Tom Brady for 12.

So the short-term damage will be minimal. Garoppolo looks pretty good for a backup, and now the Patriots will get a valuable four-game look at Brady's potential successor after the benched franchise player turns 39 (on Aug. 3).

Long term? Now we're talking about the L-word -- legacy -- and whether Deflategate will stick to Brady's. The quarterback didn't get caught using performance-enhancing drugs, and didn't get busted for gambling on his sport. He did allegedly know his equipment guys were tampering with those game balls, and he did ditch a cell phone that investigators wanted to view. One of the two 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges who would overturn Berman's ruling and uphold Brady's suspension, Denny Chin, said there was "compelling" evidence that the quarterback "knew about [improper ball deflation], consented to it, encouraged it." The other judge, Barrington Parker, said Brady's explanation for why he destroyed his phone "made no sense whatsoever."

Brady badly hurt his own cause, and so this dark Deflategate comedy will forever remain a part of his career. But on truth serum, even the most narrow-minded Jets fans would admit that Brady became the dominant player of his generation by outplaying, outworking and outsmarting opponents, and not by cheating. Of course, the second half of that AFC Championship Game would be their Exhibit A.

In the end, Brady can surpass Joe Montana (and Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning) as the presumed greatest quarterback ever, and compete with Jim Brown, Jerry Rice and Lawrence Taylor for the unofficial title of greatest all-time player. One more championship, as Brady closes hard on his 40th birthday, would make for a stronger oral argument than any made on his behalf in the courtroom.

Meanwhile, as Goodell does his end zone dance, Brady can find some comfort in the notion that he will recover from Deflategate, just as he recovered from those deflating Super Bowl losses to Eli and the Giants. He'll just need a little time to heal, a little room to breathe. This surreal case hurt him, no question, but it didn't destroy him or severely diminish him.

More than anything, it reminded starstruck fans that nobody is perfect, not even a dimpled four-time champ with a supermodel wife.