After millions spent investigating and litigating, after conflicting conclusions about whether the Ideal Gas Law did or did not play a role, after Tom Brady’s infamous cellphone destruction that convinced Roger Goodell there was no other outcome than guilty, after a staggering 630 days after the alleged tampering of footballs in the AFC Championship Game, Deflategate finally will reach its conclusion shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday on a football field by the shores of Lake Erie.
Brady, arguably the greatest player in NFL history, is back in the lineup for the first time since serving the four-game suspension he ultimately accepted after a fight that cost the litigants more than $20 million and cost the legendary quarterback a big hit on his reputation.
Deflategate finally — mercifully — is over, with the quarterback and the commissioner who benched him both scarred by the events since Brady threw a first-half interception against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 18, 2015. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson picked off the pass and brought the ball to the sideline, where it was inspected by the team’s equipment manager, and the sequence of events that followed constituted one of the longest and most divisive controversies in the history of pro sports.
Brady did everything possible to put off the suspension, taking his case to District Court in New York, where he won a case that allowed him to play the entire 2015 season. But after the NFL’s appeal was upheld not once but twice, and with Brady’s last option taking his case to the Supreme Court, he folded for the good of his team and his own well-being and put the matter to rest.
Now it is back to football, as he dons his helmet and a chip on his shoulder the size of the skyscraper at 345 Park Ave., where Goodell works. Brady has not stopped seething about his punishment since it was first handed down on May 11, 2015, and he has continued to profess his innocence in the alleged scheme to play with intentionally deflated footballs.
Brady has won a Super Bowl title and gotten to the AFC Championship Game since that infamous interception began the controversy. But after concluding that he might put his team at an even further disadvantage if he pursued yet another appeal — possibly a suspension later this season or even in the playoffs — he threw in the towel.
It’s time for payback the only way he knows how — by resuming his Hall of Fame career with the express purpose of getting his team to Houston on Feb. 5 for Super Bowl LI.
After surviving Brady’s absence by going 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots surely were delighted to see him back under center in practice this week. Coach Bill Belichick, however, was unwilling to publicly exhale now that his big-time quarterback has returned. In fact, Belichick offered up his usual flatline demeanor in describing his feelings about having Brady back.
“I feel like we need to go out to Cleveland and play well in order to win,” Belichick said when asked if he felt relieved that Brady is back. “That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
And what about the idea that Brady’s return will inspire the team to perform even better? Another shrug from the coach, who has become expert in masking his emotions.
“I think our team needs to prepare well to go out and play well against Cleveland in Cleveland,” Belichick deadpanned. “That’s what we need to do.”
And does the coach think Brady is ready, both physically and mentally, to come back?
“You’d have to ask Tom how he’s personally feeling,” Belichick said. “That’s something that I can’t answer.”
Reporters would have loved to ask Brady about that, but the 39-year-old quarterback wasn’t made available to the media this week. Although every player on every team is required to speak to reporters at least once each week during the season, Brady was not made available. Technically, he had not been activated to the roster from his suspension, so the Patriots were able to use that loophole to keep him under wraps.
Which can only mean that Brady will be a massive hunk of intensity when he hits the field for Sunday’s game. Even if no one will say so.
“Everything is the same every single week,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “Everyone is always preparing the same. No matter who it is at quarterback, you’ve always got to prepare the same. We’ve got to prepare every single week to the max, so it’s just like any other week.”
“Except Tom’s back at quarterback, baby,” Gronkowski said.
The 27-year-old tight end might be the happiest man in the locker room to have Brady back. After missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, Gronkowski has only one catch in his last two games. The one catch came in last week’s 16-0 loss to the Bills, the Patriots’ first home shutout loss in 23 seasons.
“First off, we’ve got to focus on the Browns,” Gronkowski said. “They’ve got a great team; a lot of hard-working players out there on their defense, a lot of young guys that work hard that keep going after the ball, so that’s what we’ve really got to focus on.”
Yes, all is indeed normal with the Patriots, who never underestimate an opponent — even one as bad as the Browns, who are 0-4 under first-year coach Hue Jackson. Not even the most wide-eyed optimist can expect that streak to end on Sunday, especially not with Brady ready to return.
The great quarterback didn’t say a word this week in anticipation of his return, but he’ll have plenty to say now that he’s back on the field. His play will do all the talking.
Week 1: Pats 23, Cards 21
QB: Jimmy Garoppolo
24/33, 264 yards, 0 INT, 1 TD
Week 2: Pats 31, Dolphins 24
QB 1: Garoppolo
18/26, 232 yards, 0 INT, 3 TDs
QB 2: Jacoby Brissett
6/9, 92 yards, 0 INT, 0 TD
Week 3: Pats 27, Texans 0
11/19103 yards, 0 INT, O TD
Week 4: Bills 16, Pats 0
QB: Brissett 17/27, 205 yards, 0 INT, 0 TD