As Tom Brady’s career comes to a close, he faces a referendum of sorts. The talk around football is that his legacy has been forever soiled by a damning report that states that he was directly responsible for the illegally low pressure of the footballs used over the course of the playoffs en route to the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory. What happened next, few could have predicted.
The Patriots did not have to forfeit the Lombardi Trophy, but they did have the future of the franchise put in jeopardy. A $1 million fine. Tom Brady suspended for four games. And most important of all, they lose their 2016 first-round pick and a 2017 fourth-round pick. The first one, though almost unconscionably large, is nonetheless expected. The million-dollar fine is equal to the largest ever handed down by the NFL, that to San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. for his felony conviction in the Louisiana gambling scandal in 1999 (it should be noted, however, that in 1999, $1 million was a lot more than it is now).
Money is by far the least of Robert Kraft’s worries, however; he likely saw his net worth soar in the HeinzKraft Foods merger. The Tom Brady suspension is the most puzzling piece of the saga, because the NFL itself figures to lose out by suspending one of the best QBs in the history of the league for 20 percent of the season. In addition, the defending champs are the owners of the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the league. Losing Brady for four games, even if the Pats win a game or two over that stretch, will put them in a hole that will be tough to claw out of.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they face struggling Buffalo and Jacksonville teams over those games. Still, the suspension could be season-defining for the league, where two games makes the difference between playoffs and an early offseason. League-wide parity has never been more apparent; four wild-card teams have won a Super Bowl since 2000. Before that, there had only been two to accomplish that feat.
The suspension is especially destructive because of the timing. If Tom Brady needed to use deflated balls and has not done so extensively in the past, it suggests that much like Peyton Manning, his arm strength is no longer what it used to be. If you are wondering what the advantages of using a deflated ball are, you need only go outside and throw a Nerf ball around after using a professional replica.
Obviously, the real differences are much, much smaller. But in a game literally decided by inches, those are the advantages that divide football immortality from the forgotten runner-up.
What seems to be less talked about in the sporting diaspora is the loss of two picks for the Patriots. During the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal revealed in 2012, the Saints were penalized with two consecutive second-round picks.
The Patriots’ punishment shares many parallels with the bounty scandal; Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended an unprecedented one year after the Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2011. The franchise was fined $500,000 and lost the second-round picks. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, an essential part of the Saints’ championship run, was suspended indefinitely.
Such a punishment can drastically alter the future of a franchise. The 2012 Saints went from champions to the owners of a 7-9 record and did not make the playoffs. Additionally, the team had already traded their 2012 first-round selection to, of all teams, the Patriots. Thus, during the 2012 draft, the Saints did not go on the clock until the third round. Instead of being able to add to their talented but aging roster and perhaps make another run, they were forced into a premature rebuilding mode. Only rebuilding tends to be difficult with no materials.
The Saints entered a sort of football purgatory; they had a middling season but could never take advantage of their higher picks. Losing two second-round selections and gaining nothing in return was disastrous, and it appears that the Saints may never fully recover. Gregg Williams parted ways with New Orleans after his reinstatement. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees was prolific as ever, and the Saints offense was perennially one of the best in the league. Jimmy Graham redefined the tight end position. Yet they always lacked the defense necessary to be successful in the playoffs since 2011.
Though we are taught to avoid counterfactual history, it is hard not to imagine what the Saints might have looked like with Williams still on the sideline, coaching a much-improved defense. Now, Graham has departed, and New Orleans has gone from one of the best teams in the league to a contender with caveats to a team on the outside, and New England should fear the same fate.
There are very real repercussions for missing on a first-round draft pick, even when a team has one. The very words “first-round bust” will send chills up the spine of any head coach. Given Brady’s suspension, their vacated first-round pick will still have the potential to be a mid-rounder or even in the top half of selections in 2016. The Patriots may very well be losing out on one of the best 16 eligible players in college football.
Think about the difference a single star can make for a team. The difference that Tom Brady makes. Predraft preparation is becoming more and more advanced. Like so many sports, football is increasingly relying on advanced metrics. A top-16 pick is astronomically more likely to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player than a second-round pick. Not to mention the fact that first-round selections have become the coveted currency of potential in today’s NFL.
Just like the Patriots’ future, the football annals have now been irrevocably altered. Tom Brady, a man who had a legitimate argument to be the best quarterback of all time, and perhaps the best ever to play the game at any position, will likely have to vacate that spot because of the fallout of the deflation scandal. Much like Barry Bonds, who played in a time where performance enhancing drugs abounded, the tinge of circumnavigating the rules will leave a permanent asterisk.
For the casual observer, it can be difficult to understand the situation. With all the issues football is dealing with right now, it seems almost farcical that such a future-altering decision could be handed down over the pressure in a game ball. It is really not my place to say whether or not the penalty itself is fair. I can only tell you that New England was already on notice after the spying allegations of a few years ago, and the league noted that it had played a role in deciding the punishment.
However, it could not come at a worse time. Fans and onlookers alike are puzzled by the NFL’s willingness to crack down on in-game cheating, but not on serious and pervasive issues around the league. You can be sure that the Patriots will not try that trick again.
Why can’t the NFL figure out that the same applies to so many of its personnel committing acts that cause real-life suffering to innocent people? Instead, Roger Goodell and his administration have chosen to send a message that a seeking a competitive advantage outside the rulebook somehow sullies the NFL brand more than domestic violence, substance abuse and the premature deaths of its alumni. It may be a game of inches, but it is still just that: a game.
Should Radoff take Brady’s vacated spot? Let him know at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.