On further review, it truly is remarkable how the dramedy known as Deflategate came to be. Tom Brady, who might go down as the greatest quarterback of all time, threw a garden-variety pass in the direction of Rob Gronkowski, who might go down as the greatest tight end of all time.
The 6-6 Gronk was hardly wide-open against the Indianapolis Colts as he rumbled toward the end zone last January, but he did have half a step on linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, not to mention 6 inches in height. Mike Adams, the safety providing help, appeared to be little more than a late-arriving patrolman on the scene.
Go back and take a look at the tape. I mean, how many times out of 100 does Brady complete that pass to Gronk?
Seventy? Eighty? Eighty-five?
But on this one play during this one AFC Championship night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Brady didn't properly lead his man with the ball on first down. His underthrown play-action pass was picked off by Jackson, who hadn't recorded a single interception in the Colts' previous 18 games. In fact, Jackson had managed just one interception in his previous 48 games. So you can understand why he would carry that Tom Brady football off the field and hand it to an equipment guy for the purpose of keeping it as a souvenir.
At the time of that play, New England had a 14-0 lead with 9:11 left in the second quarter of what would be a 45-7 rout. Referee Walt Anderson -- informed of a penalty on Patriots lineman Dan Connolly -- made the following announcement to the crowd: "Holding, No. 63, offense. That penalty is declined. The result of the play is an interception."
And a sports scandal/crisis/circus to retire them all.
Colts staffers thought the ball Jackson carried to the sideline felt underinflated and, well, you know the rest. Nine months later, the 4-0 Patriots are preparing to face the 3-2 Colts in Indianapolis (imagine if this were staged in Foxborough; the Colts' reception would've made Chase Utley's in New York feel like a church social), and payback time isn't only about Brady's unstated intention to drop another 45 points on Indy -- by halftime. It's also about Roger Goodell's mission to score the kind of decisive courtroom victory over the quarterback that Brady scored over the commissioner on U.S. District Judge Richard Berman's watch.
Goodell needs to drop his appeal of Berman's decision to vacate Brady's four-game suspension, and he needs to do it today. If not today, then tomorrow, or by kickoff Sunday night, or certainly by the time the NFL is supposed to file its opening brief later this month. Goodell needs to accept the $1 million fine and two Patriots draft picks, including a first-rounder, as sufficient punishment for the alleged crime of bleeding air out of those AFC Championship Game balls, and he needs to order those same league executives who stomped the Spygate tapes to pieces to soak his Brady file in gasoline and light the nearest torch.
"Robert Kraft decided not to pursue his appeal of the team penalties for what he thought was the good of the game, and the commissioner could match what Mr. Kraft did," Brady's attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, told ESPN.com by phone. "I think it's a move that would be welcomed by most people in football."
Make that everyone in football.
"I think that the fans are tired of these types of issues," Kessler said, "and that it would certainly be better for the NFL and all of its constituencies if the league could move on. ... The intense focus on the litigation has now subsided; people are focusing on football, and it's only good for the game if that continues."
A call to the league office Wednesday was met with a referral to Goodell's recent comments at the NFL's fall meeting. The commissioner defended his decision to take his fight to the U.S. Court of Appeals and drag this interminable case into 2016 by maintaining that he is obligated to defend the league's collectively bargained rights and that "protecting the integrity of the game is not something we're going to compromise."
Goodell again expressed his respect and admiration for Brady. "But our rules apply to everybody," he said. "They apply to every single player. ... Our rules and the integrity of the game aren't different because somebody is popular or somebody is a Super Bowl champ or not."
Of course, Brady isn't any ordinary Super Bowl champ. He is a four-time Super Bowl champ who has a pretty damn good chance of becoming a five-time Super Bowl champ right around the time oral arguments might begin in court. Yes, it hurts to even think about another round of NFL v. Brady. But the pain would be worth the gain if, you know, there were a gain. And there isn't.
Just as Berman's ruling didn't convert observers who believe circumstantial evidence shows The Deflator did some deflating (this observer included), a Goodell victory will not convert those who believe the Patriots and Brady did nothing wrong. The case is already closed. Reopening it only strengthens Goodell's candidacy as the most tone-deaf commissioner ever.
Meanwhile, Brady appears to be getting the hang of it with these properly inflated balls: He has thrown for 11 touchdowns and no picks. About an hour before Brady refused to reveal much of anything in his brief news conference Wednesday, other than the fact he's not a robot, Kessler was saying his 38-year-old client was only doing what he has always done.
"Tom's one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, and he's at the peak of his powers," Kessler said. "I'm not surprised at all by how he's played."
Asked whether the circumstances make the Colts game more meaningful to Brady than your average Week 6 date, Kessler said, "I can't speak for him. I think he views every game as very important to the team. If he could, he'd like to go 16-0."
Brady did that once before in the wake of Spygate. He looks perfectly capable of a repeat performance, whether or not Deflategate ends up in another judge's courtroom.
The commissioner still has time to make sure it doesn't. His approval rating among fans at an all-time low, Goodell can actually help himself here by deferring to common sense (and decency) and serving the interests of fans everywhere. He can focus his time and energy on concussion prevention and on doing everything in his collectively bargained power to severely punish the creeps who abuse women.
Besides, suspension or no suspension, Brady has already paid a heavy price for this. Coach Bill Belichick has, too. If he needs to make himself feel better over surrendering on Brady, Goodell can remind himself that Belichick was cleared in the Wells report and yet was docked two picks anyway. If he needs more motivation than that, Goodell can remind himself that Kessler's record against sports executives might be better than Brady's record against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets (a combined 44-9 if you're scoring at home).
"I am equally as confident now as I was at the district court level," Kessler said. "The reason we prevailed there was because we were right."
Funny how this all played out. There might never have been a district court level, or any mind-numbing seminars on air pressure or any outdated references to Mona Lisa Vito or any free coffee for Berman in Maine, had a linebacker named D'Qwell Jackson not intercepted that play-action pass near the goal line and then jogged toward his bench with no clue what was firmly tucked in his left arm. The Colts never would have gotten their hands on a Patriots ball before halftime, when all hell broke loose.
But then again, had a 24-year-old night watchman at the Watergate office complex not found duct tape over a door lock, and had the undiscovered burglars inside not been foolish enough to put the same tape over the same lock after the guard removed the first piece, Richard Nixon might have served two full terms as president of the United States.
More than four decades later, Berman couldn't find the "gate" in Deflategate that Goodell believes is very much there. It's time to call off the search. It's time to shut this down. Robert Kraft came to regret his decision to take a knee on the fine and draft picks and to trust that his good-faith gesture would compel the commissioner to reduce or eliminate Brady's suspension.
Roger Goodell? He'll only regret his decision if he doesn't take a knee and instead picks another courtroom fight with Tom Brady that he's bound to lose, even if he wins.