Six years ago, an errant Tom Brady pass stuck to the gloves of then-Indianapolis Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
That ball would be handed off to a Colts equipment manager. It would be whisked away by NFL security. It would have a needle plunged in its side. Would have its contents measured, dissected, analyzed and would set off an investigation, a 243-page report, a contentious legal battle worth millions in fees, a four-game suspension for Brady and would leave behind a complicated legacy.
But as Brady is set to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55 on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, his 10th career appearance in a Super Bowl, so much about Deflategate remains a mystery.
Namely, there’s a single question — still left unanswered — that cuts to the heart of the issue: Did Tom Brady actually cheat?
One piece of information that had been missing was about the enforcement of a rule the NFL adopted following Deflategate. It stipulates that the league has the authority to randomly select games and take footballs used by both teams to have their inflation levels measured and recorded at halftime. Those balls are then secured and removed, and both teams use back-up footballs in the second half.
The NFL hasn’t released any data since the rule had been adopted and hadn’t commented publicly on the enforcement of the rule change until Tuesday.
“Yes, this policy continues,” NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports. “At randomly-selected games, the game balls used in the first half are inspected and the levels are measured and recorded. There have been no violations to date.”
Brady has never admitted to wrongdoing and has never had any hard evidence presented against him in a way that indicates clear guilt in any cheating incident in his 21 seasons in the NFL.
“I don’t believe so,” Brady said on January 22, 2015 when asked if he was a cheater. “I feel like I’ve always played within the rules. I would never do anything to break the rules.”
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But the 243-page Wells Report from NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells concluded it was “more probable than not” that former Patriots equipment managers Jim McNally and John Jastremski were part of a scheme to intentionally deflate footballs and that Brady “was at least generally aware” of the plot.
The report cited a wealth of circumstantial evidence and stated that “a contrary conclusion requires the acceptance of an implausible number of communications and events as benign coincidences.”
While that might be so, it also reinforces the report’s biggest weakness: What it makes up for in circumstance, it lacks in a smoking gun.
“I think it’s a stain on the NFL more than it is a distraction from the legacy of Tom Brady,” Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney whom the NFL Players Association hired to defend Brady, told USA TODAY Sports. “When it was reviewed on the facts, it was basically completely unsupported. The court of appeals did not review or reverse those findings. It simply said because it was arbitration, the courts couldn’t get involved.
“It was a travesty. And, since then, Tom Brady has proven pretty well that he doesn’t need any alleged adjustment of ball pressure to be the most successful quarterback in the history in the NFL, bar none.”
The most damning evidence is a series of text messages between McNally and Jastremski. In one exchange, McNally refers to himself as “the deflator” in May 2014 and tells Jastremski he wasn’t “going to espn……..yet.”
Wells said in a conference call with reporters in May 2015 that “no one can ignore the implications of that text message” and called it “direct evidence” and “inculpatory.”
Despite that, there has been no document retrieved in which Brady, McNally or Jastremski directly address the intentional deflation of footballs at Brady’s behest.
The Patriots even offered a rebuttal to the “deflator” texts as well as other issues in a website that is still live: The Wells Report in Context. That rebuttal claimed “there was nothing complicated or sinister” about McNally’s use of “the deflator” and said it was related to weight loss.
In other exchanges, Jastremski and McNally discuss the swap of cash or gifts and make references to the inflation of the footballs. Jastremski wrote in October 2014 that he had a “big needle” for McNally, who responded: “Better be surrounded by cash and newkicks….or its a rugby sunday.”
McNally later acknowledged that his reference to a rugby ball, which is significantly larger than an official NFL football, meant a heavily inflated football.
In another exchange, Jastremski sent Brady a text saying to give him a heads up that Patriots head equipment manager Dave Schoenfeld would be asking Brady about the incident.
“FYI…Dave will be picking your brain later about it,” Jastremski wrote. “He’s not accusing me, or anyone…trying to get to bottom of it. He knows it’s unrealistic you did it yourself…”
In interviews with Wells, Jastremski and McNally repeatedly denied violating the rules and said any potentially incriminating text messages were attempts at humor, given the overwhelming media coverage of Deflategate.
The Wells Report also points to “a material increase” of phone conversations between Brady and Jastremski as “additional evidence of Brady’s awareness” of the alleged scheme. But the report cannot say with certainty what those conversations were about.
Then there’s the question about what happened in the bathroom. The Wells Report details how the night of the 2014 AFC championship game, McNally took the approved footballs into a bathroom inside Gillette Stadium for a minute and 40 seconds before he eventually goes to the field.
It is during this time that Wells suggests that McNally likely engaged in the intentional deflation of the footballs. Citing an accompanying study from the engineering and scientific consulting firm Exponent, the Wells Report said the time spent in the bathroom “was a sufficient period to deflate thirteen footballs using a needle.”
Yet, McNally, who initially omitted mention of going into the bathroom with the game balls in an interview with NFL security, denied any wrongdoing and said he had “often” taken game balls into the bathroom before going to the field. Wells wrote that he did “not find these claims plausible and they were contradicted by other evidence developed during the investigation.”
Finally, there’s the issue of Brady’s destroyed cell phone and the more than 10,000 text messages that were forever lost. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Brady “willfully obstructed” the investigation and used the destruction of the phone as a piece of key evidence, despite the contents of the phone being a mystery.
Brady testified under oath in June 2015 that he gives his old phones to an assistant to destroy, due to privacy concerns. Goodell said that conflicted with the fact that Brady’s previous cell phone, used from the spring of 2014 through Nov. 5, was available for investigating.
Wells then testified in June 2015 that he thought Brady was acting as if he were “hiding something and may be guilty.”
Wells did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
It all adds to the nebulous nature of the case. There’s smoke, certainly, but no fire. Brady loyalists will say the case was a sham, detractors that he’s guilty.
The enduring result, however, as Brady looks to break his own record and add a seventh Super Bowl at the age of 43 is that his legacy is still mostly intact — depending on whom you ask.
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