The NFL's message to Tom Brady was clear and unequivocal: We think you cheated.
The league's message to the Patriots was the same: We think you cheated -- again.
Less than a week after attorney Ted Wells delivered an exhaustive 243-page report in which he came to the conclusion that there was enough evidence to suggest that two locker room attendants purposely deflated a dozen footballs to below the allowable limit in the AFC Championship Game and that Brady was generally aware of the situation, the league delivered its verdict: Guilty as charged.
It was a strong and just set of sanctions from NFL vice president of operations Troy Vincent, who had the blessing of commissioner Roger Goodell. Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 regular season -- this after winning his record-tying fourth Super Bowl championship. And the Patriots, who were punished for the infamous Spygate controversy in 2007, when they illegally videotaped opposing teams' defensive signals, were docked a first-round pick in 2016, a fourth-rounder in 2017 and a $1-million fine.
A lesser set of penalties would have sent a weak message from the league office: that you can break the rules and get away with it. There have been cries from many Patriots fans that there wasn't enough to nail Brady with a suspension lasting a quarter of the 2015 regular season, that there were enough holes in Wells' case to issue a fine and be done with it.
But there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Brady darn well knew what was going on, and the two attendants -- John Jastremski and Jim McNally -- were involved in deflating the footballs well below the 12.5 pounds per square inch (PSI) threshold for the AFC Championship Game against the Colts. And while Wells was not tasked with determining whether there had been a pattern of abuse relating to the deflation, Wells sure sounded like he believed there was.
"While we cannot be certain when the activity began, the evidence suggests that January 18th was not the first and only occasion when this occurred, particularly in light of the evidence referring to deflation of footballs going back to before the beginning of the 2014 season," Vincent wrote in explaining his reasons for the tough penalties.
Vincent acknowledged that the deflated footballs had little to do with the outcome of the AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won by a whopping 45-7. In fact, after the footballs were reinflated at halftime, the Patriots outscored Indianapolis 28-0. But that's not the point.
"The key consideration in any case like this is that the playing rules exist for a reason, and all clubs are entitled to expect that the playing rules will be followed by participating teams," Vincent said. "Violations that diminish the league's reputation for integrity and fair play cannot be excused simply because the precise impact on the final score cannot be determined."
In other words, rules are rules. And if you break them and you're caught doing so, then there is a price to be paid.
Brady is now paying that price, and even if he appeals the decision and sees the suspension reduced to, say, two games, the stain on his reputation will be everlasting. Which is why this whole thing is so exasperating and infuriating. That a quarterback with as much talent and inner fortitude would have to resort to cheating is a sad commentary on his legacy.
The Brady apologists will continue to cast doubt about Wells' findings, that Brady was framed and didn't deserve anything more than a fine. But even without the proverbial "smoking gun" -- a text, email or some other piece of evidence that tied Brady directly to the purposeful deflation, there was enough for the league to send the strong message that you can't attempt to cheat and get away with it if you're caught.
Brady obstructed the investigation by not allowing Wells and his staff to examine his cellphone and email account, a clear breach of league rules. It's Brady's right not to hand them over, but it was the NFL's right to call him on it.
The Patriots have been here before: In 2007, they were docked a first-round pick in 2008, and Bill Belichick was fined a record $500,000. The team was fined an additional $250,000. Vincent cited the Spygate scandal as playing into the monetary and draft choice sanctions for DeflateGate.
The Patriots get to keep their Super Bowl championship, and Brady keeps his MVP trophy from that brilliantly played game -- in which the footballs, by the way, were fully inflated because the league and not the Patriots were in charge of them.
But the team and the quarterback can't get back the integrity they lost by skirting the rules.