The Patriots, Tom Brady and Deflategate: What Happened?

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Anybody who has ever accused the NFL of showing favoritism to the New England Patriots quickly saw their claims get crushed with one sweeping blow earlier this offseason, when the league handed out punishment to Tom Brady and the Patriots for their involvement in the scandal that is now simply known as Deflategate.

The NFL hammered Brady with a four-game suspension — without pay — and fined the Patriots $1 million, while also stripping them of their first-round draft pick in 2016 and their fourth-round pick in 2017 for directly violating the league’s “Policy on Integrity of the Game and Enforcement of Competitive Rules.” The two members of the Patriots equipment staff who reportedly carried out the plan also received indefinite suspensions from the league.

Brady’s agent, Don Yee,  announced that the three-time Super Bowl MVP will appeal the ruling (and the appeal is currently happening), which means we aren’t even close to hearing the last of Deflategate. There is still a chance that the penalties the league handed down could be reduced for one, or all, of the parties involved during the appeals process.

As of now, though, we have to assume that all of the disciplinary measures NFL Executive President Troy Vincent presented in his letters to Brady and the Patriots will be the final ruling. Assuming that Brady’s suspension stays at four games, and the Patriots’ draft pick penalties remain as they currently are, the NFL’s ruling will cause a ripple effect that will be felt throughout the NFL.

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For starters, the Patriots’ road to repeating as Super Bowl champions in 2015 just got incredibly bumpy. They will be without their future Hall of Fame quarterback for games against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home for the NFL season opener, on the road against the Buffalo Bills, at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.

Brady’s first game back from his suspension would, ironically, be on the road against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football in Week 6. It is entirely conceivable that New England could go 1-3 without Brady, which would put them severely behind the eight ball in the race for both the AFC East division title and the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the AFC playoffs. Of course, they could also very easily end up being surprised by the play of second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who will be filling in for Brady during his suspension.

The Patriots will also be facing the problematic task of going into the 2016 NFL draft without a first-round pick. For some teams this would be potentially crippling, but as we know, Bill Belichick has a knack for finding Pro Bowl-caliber players in the later rounds of the draft. Regardless, losing a first-round pick means that the Patriots have lost one of the most valuable assets NFL teams possess.

When the Patriots failed to re-sign cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the gap between them and the other 15 teams in he AFC shrunk significantly. Furthermore, if Brady’s suspension ultimately costs New England a chance at home-field advantage during the playoffs, the odds of the Patriots repeating as AFC champions will decrease considerably. In reality, you’d be kidding yourself if you don’t believe that the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers were celebrating the news of Brady’s suspension and the loss of their 2016 first-round draft pick when it was first announced.

Likewise, the race in the AFC East just got a lot more interesting with the news of Brady’s suspension, assuming it stands. The Buffalo Bills are returning one of the league’s best defenses, and their new head coach, Rex Ryan, has always done a great job of preparing his teams to play against the Patriots.

The New York Jets may have had a better offseason than any team in the NFL up to this point, and if things click for quarterback Geno Smith, the Jets could be a playoff-caliber team in 2015. Lastly, the Miami Dolphins may stand to benefit more than any other team in the division from Brady’s suspension. This offseason, the Dolphins, who were close to turning the corner in 2014, were able to add one of the best defensive players in the league in Ndamukong Suh, and drafted a potential difference-maker in former Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker.

In fact, a recent ESPN article even went as far as using analytics to argue that the Dolphins are now the favorites in the AFC following Brady’s suspension. While it would be irrational and, for lack of a better word, dumb to count the Patriots out of the race in the AFC East, there is the very real possibility that their run of six straight division titles could come to an end in 2015.

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Needless to say, the NFL set a new precedent with the punishments it handed out to Brady and the New England Patriots. As a result, we can expect to see all 32 NFL teams toe the company line when it comes to “the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.” Interestingly enough, we have also already seen Major League Baseball take the necessary precautions to prevent a similar incident in its league.

It’s extremely difficult to trust that the NFL made its ruling without factoring in the Patriots’ perceived culture of bending the rules to fit their “win at all costs” mentality. Skeptics believe that the Deflategate punishments were nothing more than the NFL sending a public relations message to the rest of the league and to football fans around the world.

To be brutally honest, it’s hard not to side with them. The last time a team was penalized for tampering with game footballs was during the 2012 season, when the San Diego Chargers were found to have had an adhesive substance on the towels they were using to wipe down the footballs they used in their Week 6 game against the Denver Broncos. San Diego’s penalty was a measly $20,000 fine. Moreover, in a frigid game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers in 2014, the ball boys were caught on camera using sideline heaters during the game to warm up the game balls.

As Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports pointed out, heating footballs up and deflating footballs are two different things, but both are against NFL rules, and both serve the purpose of making the ball easier to throw, catch, and secure. The Panthers and Vikings both received a written warning.

News of the Deflategate punishments caused varying responses around the league and in the professional sports world. As expected, anyone associated with the Patriots — from their players to their fans — were unhappy with the ruling. There seemed to be a near 50/50 spilt in the opinions of players from other NFL teams around the league, while most front office executives from other teams wisely chose not to comment on the matter. When it comes to fan reactions, the general consensus among the fans of the rival teams is that the findings in the Ted Wells Report are an ugly blemish on the accomplishments of Brady and the Patriots over the past 15 years. Here at Sports Cheat Sheet, we feel those sentiments are an overreaction, but that remains a story for another day.

As you can imagine, Patriots owner Robert Kraft wasn’t the least bit pleased when he learned of the punishments his team and star quarterback received. Here is what he had to say in his official press release:

Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league. Today’s punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.

We are humbled by the support the New England Patriots have received from our fans throughout the world. We recognize our fans’ concerns regarding the NFL’s penalties and share in their disappointment in how this one-sided investigation was handled, as well as the dismissal of the scientific evidence supported by the Ideal Gas Law in the final report.

Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered.

In case you were unaware, the relationship between Kraft and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been well documented. On top of having a strong working relationship — Kraft is essentially one of Goodell’s direct bosses, as he came into office by way of a vote among the league’s 32 owners — the two men had become close personal friends. According to a story from Bleacher Report that quoted an anonymous owner from another NFL team, the relationship between Kraft and Goodell is now “pretty much dead.” It’s way too early to speculate, but if Kraft is inclined to do so, he could more than likely rally the other 31 owners around the NFL to vote Goodell out of office.

The way we see it, the battle between the NFL and the New England Patriots is just getting started. Brady plans to appeal his suspension, and it would be shocking if Kraft sits back and accepts the hefty fine and draft pick penalties his team received without a fight. Either way, the punishments the league gave out on Monday afternoon are going to have a significant effect on the NFL in the very near future.