Tom Brady's punishment, legacy up in the air over Deflategate saga

Story highlights

  • The NFL doesn't like when people lie to its investigators, something the report indicates Brady might have done
  • The Wells report finds two Patriots staffers probably improperly deflated footballs
  • It also says Tom Brady "generally" knew about it; it's unclear how he'll be punished

(CNN)One-hundred-eight days.

That's how long the world waited, with bated breath, for the news. Riots erupted in Baltimore. Thousands died in a Nepal earthquake. The high-profile murder trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Aaron Hernandez ended in convictions.
All that is important, of course. But what about Deflategate?
    That moniker -- a bona fide scandal, as evidenced by the "-gate" suffix -- revolves around the New England Patriots' use of underinflated footballs during January's AFC championship game with the Indianapolis Colts. Ever since Indianapolis reporter Bob Kravitz broke the story late on January 18, there's been a swirl of questions.
    Was Patriots' boss Bill Belichick behind it all, tweaking game balls to his team's advantage? What about star quarterback, supermodel husband, dimpled All-American boy Tom Brady?
    The first chance to get answers came Wednesday, with the release of lead investigator Ted Wells' much-anticipated report on the Deflategate scandal.
    As one might expect in a 243-page document, it contains a lot of information. It also has a lot of words like "probable" and "generally," the latter referring to the report's conclusion that Brady was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities" by two Patriots employees in improperly deflating footballs.
    That lack of definitive conclusions, not to mention the shrill nature of sports debates, in some ways has added to the noise. It leaves a lot of questions, still, about what exactly happened and what will happen next. Among them:

    Will Tom Brady be punished and, if so, how?

    He's certainly not going to Disney World (a common destination for champion MVPs, as Brady was for the third time in the recent Super Bowl XLIX). He's not going to jail either; Brady is accused of compromising the integrity of an NFL game, not committing a real crime.
    Still, if anyone high-profile gets punished, it's going to be Brady.
    Given the hedging in the Wells report, it's possible nothing happens to Brady. No one said the quarterback tampered with the balls himself. The evidence implicating him comes from texts involving and interviews with New England locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski, the same two men who investigators assert probably did directly break NFL rules. Neither of them comes off as a saint in the report.
    Regardless, whether you believe the Wells report or not (and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell evidently believes it), it casts Brady in a negative light.
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    McNally texts about Brady's complaints about overinflated balls, then tells officials of the quarterback's preferences they be less inflated (albeit at permissible levels). He and Jastremski go back and forth (it's debatable if they're joking) about Brady supplying them with shoes, signed footballs, jerseys and other paraphernalia. Then there is Brady's claim -- which investigators didn't buy -- that he didn't even know McNally's name. Lastly, the Wells report calls out Brady for not turning over emails and texts to investigators.
    So what will Goodell do? Goodell has said only that league officials will "consider what steps to take in light of the report, both with respect to possible disciplinary action and to any changes in protocol." There's no obvious precedent in this case, though the commissioner has come down hard before. Just ask the New Orleans Saints, Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice.
    CNN's Rachel Nichols said Goodell also might take action because Brady appears to have lied or misled when questioned.
    "That's something the NFL does not like. They do not like you not being honest or straightforward with its investigators," she said. "(Brady) said he didn't know one of the equipment guys involved when there clearly is a text trail saying he did."
    Some analysts, like former NFL defensive end-turned-ESPN commentator Marcellus Wiley, think Brady should be suspended between eight games and a full 16-game season. Ian O'Connor, who writes for ESPN.com, opined that a four-game ban would be about right.
    Others chime in that a fine would be appropriate, if anything at all.

    How will this affect Brady's legacy?

    That may be an even bigger issue for sports fans.
    How many games Brady misses may be largely beside the point. Athletes miss games all the time, especially in the rough-and-tumble NFL. Given the league's long grind and his team's impressive track record -- with playoff appearances in 12 of the last 14 seasons, including six Super Bowl appearances and four wins -- you can't count out Brady and the Patriots even if he has a relatively brief suspension.
    What the Deflategate story likely will do is cause those who already have strong opinions to feel even firmer in their beliefs.
    With his NFL success and supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen, not everyone has looked on Tom Brady favorably -- even before Deflategate.
    New England fans attribute some people's disdain for Brady and his longtime coach Belichick to jealousy, citing the pair's shared success. (Notably, the Wells report found Belichick -- punished years earlier for what's known as Spygate -- knew nothing about the deflated footballs.) In the quarterback's case, you can't discount how people feel about him being an Uggs-wearing model who is married to Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen and has three adorable children.
    No, Brady isn't the underdog he was when he was drafted in the sixth round out of Michigan in 2000. Instead, in amassing 53,258 career passing yards and 392 touchdowns, he's among the NFL's all-time best quarterbacks.
    But, even if Brady wins a fifth Super Bowl, he may already have lost in the eyes of some NFL fans. Not everyone thinks so, especially around Boston. But some sports pundits clearly do.
    Former Denver Broncos standout and now ESPN personality Mark Schlereth tweeted that he thinks the advantage from deflating footballs "was more psychological for Brady than anything else. Still constitutes circumventing the rules or cheating." But he doesn't think it rises to the level of what the Atlanta Falcons recently admitted to doing -- pumping crowd noise into the Georgia Dome.
    For a more damning assertion, just look at the headline of Mike Freeman's Bleacher Report column: "Tom Brady's Legacy Forever Scarred by Damning Wells Report."
    That piece starts and ends with the same words: "Tom Brady lied."

    Was this a credible, conclusive investigation?

    As with so much about this story, it depends whom you ask.
    Goodell hailed Wells' team for conducting what he called "a thorough and independent investigation." Clearly, many fans and pundits -- especially those inclined not to support the Patriots in the first place -- think the report is plenty incriminating against Brady and his team generally.
    But that's not what folks in New England think.
    Patriots owner Robert Kraft defiantly challenged the report, calling its conclusions "incomprehensible."
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    "To say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC championship game, would be a gross understatement," Kraft said.
    Those words were subdued compared with what Brady's agent, Don Yee, said. Noting the Colts' role, Yee said the ordeal is the product of "a sting operation." Noting Wells' law firm's ties with the NFL, Yee claimed "this was not an independent investigation."
    "This report contains significant and tragic flaws," the agent said.
    CNN commentator Mel Robbins thinks the Wells report got it wrong, and should have been more punitive, because "we have irrefutable evidence ... that proves the Patriots deflated the balls and cheated on purpose."
    Then there is another possibility -- that the investigation, even if it was carried out properly, isn't conclusive. This view could be summed up in a headline on a story by Yahoo's Dan Wetzel: "Tom Brady probably isn't innocent, but Wells report fails to prove he's guilty."

    Did the deflated footballs affect the game's outcome?

    Finally, a question with a clear answer.
    No.
    New England led 17-7 at halftime of the AFC championship game, at which point 11 of the balls the Patriots provided for the game were found to be under the mandated 12.5 PSI (that's pounds per square inch). They were pumped up and the game resumed. And guess what happened: The Patriots, and especially Brady, performed much better in the second half en route to a resounding 45-7 victory over Indianapolis.
    League officials checked four footballs from each team after the game, according to the Wells report. All the Patriots' balls came in well above the inflation mandate; interestingly enough, one official found that three of the Colts' balls measured just below. (So you know, each team gets to supply its own balls for use on offense.)
    In other words, when it came to the actual game of football, the footballs themselves didn't seem to matter much.

    How important is Deflategate?

    To answer this question, start by asking yourself: Do you live and die by America's most popular sport? Did you like or dislike the Patriots and Tom Brady before this all went down? How important to you is the so-called "integrity of the game," including people tweaking the rules to gain an advantage?
    In other words, what you think about Deflategate is personal.
    Some take great offense at what Brady and the Patriots staffers reportedly did. It's "a big deal," writes MMQB.com columnist and former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt.
    "If a league is going to stand for anything," Brandt writes, "it is the foundation that no team is gaining a competitive advantage by playing outside the rules, no matter how great or miniscule the transgression."
    Some Patriots fans see this episode as significant, too, not because their team erred but because they think it shows the rest of the country's irrational, unfair contempt for their team.
    "It's more probable than not this #DeflateGate saga will go down as the dumbest scandal in #NFL history," tweets Boston.com columnist and Massachusetts radio personality Adam Kaufman.
    If you're on the fence about what to think, try looking to Rob Gronkowski for insight. The Patriots' star tight end, who embraces his lovable meathead persona, has an undisputed bias. He doesn't have a Ph.D. in sports psychology. And he isn't known for his eloquent analysis of world events.
    So when asked by CNN affiliate WBZ about the Wells report, what did Gronk do? He stayed mum, flexed his muscles and walked away.
    In other words, a ridiculous gesture for what some see as a ridiculous story.