Of all the reactions that poured in after Tom Brady's courtroom annihilation of Roger Goodell, the one that interested me the most -- the one that Goodell ought to pay attention to the most -- came from an unlikely source.
A couple of hours after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman clotheslined Goodell the way J.J. Watt mauls quarterbacks, a man named Eric Winston weighed in on the decision.
Winston, an offensive tackle with the Bengals, is president of the NFL Players Association. His opinions have drawn universal respect from his peers.
Rather than taking a sledgehammer to Goodell the way others have since Berman's ruling, Winston offered a way forward for the beleaguered commissioner.
"I am happy for Tom, and it's important to remember that when one player's rights are upheld, it is a victory for all players," Winston said in a statement issued through the NFLPA. "However, this whole ordeal has highlighted the need for players and owners to work together to make all policies fair and transparent for everyone in our game. I welcome an opportunity to have open and constructive dialogue with the league in the near future for how we can best accomplish that."
Goodell ought to take note of that olive branch. After Berman skewered him in vacating the four-game suspension leveled against Brady for allegedly being involved in a plan to underinflate footballs in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, Goodell needs to seriously re-evaluate his stewardship of the sport.
He presides over the most lucrative sport in North America, and owners have seen the value of franchises soar. The overwhelming majority have supported Goodell in the Brady case.
But this war against his players has to stop, and Goodell must find a way to better deal with controversies that he has mishandled so badly. Especially those in the past year, including domestic violence cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, and now the DeflateGate mess.
I'm all for a commissioner using his authority to maintain order, and when disciplinary measures are appropriate, there ought to be consistency and fairness in his rulings. It's not easy. Even Pete Rozelle, widely considered the greatest NFL commissioner ever, failed to adequately deal with an insurgency among players as they crept toward unrestricted free agency.
But a commissioner must govern with wisdom, not mete out discipline in a wildly inconsistent manner, as Goodell has done. Last year, he was way too soft on Rice in issuing a two-game ban for hitting his wife in a hotel elevator. He was right to take Peterson and Hardy off the field for domestic violence transgressions, but his punishments were reduced upon appeal.
In Brady's case, Goodell took the proper measure by probing actions of the Patriots' equipment staff. Berman drew no conclusions in Thursday's ruling about whether footballs were deflated on purpose. He ruled only on whether the NFL gave Brady a fair shot in his appeal, but offered a withering rebuke to Goodell and league attorneys.
The biggest mistake in the league's handling of the situation: During the course of Ted Wells' multimillion-dollar investigation, he never mentioned to Brady that he could be suspended -- either for allegedly being involved in or aware of a plan to deflate the footballs, or for destroying his cellphone shortly before meeting with Wells.
Berman's decision to overturn the suspension was based largely on that gaping hole and Brady beat the commissioner in this round of the legal battle.
Goodell announced he would appeal and the NFL ultimately might prevail. But Goodell can't escape the public fallout from this latest courtroom defeat. His unwillingness to settle the case will cost him.
In the months until the appeal is heard, Goodell would be wise to take up Winston on his offer. Goodell needs to have constructive dialogue with his players to re-establish his credibility with them.
No one is asking him to stop managing the league's affairs. But if Goodell doesn't run his sport more equitably, he will pay a steeper price with his credibility.
And perhaps one day with his job.