More than six months have passed since Tom Brady's Patriots routed the Colts, 45-7, in the AFC Championship Game on the way to the quarterback's record-tying fourth Super Bowl victory, and there still is no closure on one of the most infamous chapters in NFL history.
That the Patriots used underinflated footballs in the first half of that game is not in dispute, but there still is no agreement on whether Brady engaged in nefarious behavior in seeing that the Patriots' equipment staff made sure those footballs were deflated below permissible levels.
Brady claims innocence, as do the overwhelming majority of Patriots fans. Commissioner Roger Goodell believes there is sufficient evidence that Brady bears sufficient responsibility and therefore is deserving of the four-game suspension Goodell upheld Tuesday.
With all 32 training camps now open and the regular season set to begin next month, and the case now on the desk of federal Judge Richard M. Berman, it is time for Goodell and Brady to meet somewhere in the middle, reach a settlement and move on from one of the most divisive and venomous debates this league has known.
Berman is now the adult in the room, pushing for a settlement before he has to make a ruling that likely will make only one of the sides happy. Or perhaps neither side.
With no way of knowing how Berman will rule, there are no guarantees that Goodell can score a decisive victory and uphold his right to maintain his airtight grip on disciplinary issues. Likewise, there is no way Brady can know if his name will be cleared once and for all by having his suspension lifted.
The better alternative is to negotiate a settlement by having both sides meet in the middle. And there is a perfectly sensible middle ground here, reached by a simple mathematical equation. Divide four games in half, and there you go.
No public admission of guilt on Brady's part. No fundamental change in Goodell's ability to impose discipline. No change to the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement.
Goodell can exact his pound of flesh on Brady for what the commissioner believes is sufficient evidence to suggest that he knew what the deal was with the deflation of the footballs. The commissioner also can be satisfied that Brady would be sanctioned for directing his assistant to destroy the cellphone he used from last November until the day of or the day before his meeting with NFL investigators March 6.
Goodell was adamant that the four-game sanction should stand, and no doubt will want his powers of discipline to remain intact. But so many of his previous decisions have been reduced on appeal, including his indefinite suspension of former Ravens running back Ray Rice and other stiff penalties handed out to Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, as well as his suspensions in the Saints BountyGate scandal.
So why should this case be any different?
Brady no doubt will be unhappy about serving any time for something he says he didn't do, but rather than risk missing 25 percent of the regular season and imperiling his team's chances to repeat as Super Bowl champion, he would miss half that much and have the matter behind him before October.
It's still a hard pill to swallow for Brady, and although he points out that there is no smoking gun to implicate him, there still is plenty of smoke.
The alleged cellphone destruction certainly didn't help him, especially the fact that he didn't say anything about it until June 18, nearly four months after investigators repeatedly told him they needed to examine the contents of the phone and offered safeguards that would keep any unrelated private communications off limits.
And it still is impossible to get around the fact that the Patriots indefinitely suspended the two equipment staffers who were implicated in the alleged deflation of the footballs.
We have neither seen nor heard from John Jastremski or Jim McNally since the Patriots banished them from the facilities May 6, just after Ted Wells' report came out. The fact that the NFL Players Association didn't ask that the two men appear at Brady's June 23 hearing also is suspicious, given that Jastremski and McNally could have supplied a lot of answers.
While Brady's legal team was anxious to poke holes in Wells' report, the testimony from Jastremski and McNally in that same report apparently was sufficient? Odd.
But perhaps there's a sliver of hope from what will occur in the coming weeks. Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University's sports law program, who has followed NFL-related cases closely for several years, believes there is a unique opportunity ahead.
"If there's a bright side, it's that the players association and the commissioner decided on an expedited schedule rather than set up an injunction," Feldman said. "So there's at least some good news that the parties are willing to talk and at least agree on a framework for a resolution. Typically, these can be long, expensive processes, and the fact that the parties were able to agree to it and the judge agree to an expedited schedule is fairly remarkable."
But there certainly are no guarantees, especially because of what Feldman points out is the broader issue.
"This is part of a longstanding conflict between the players association and the league that is much bigger than deflated footballs, and that's about the role of the commissioner in player discipline," he said.
"The collective-bargaining agreement maintains that power in the commissioner, and the players would love to see on a regular basis a neutral third party have final say on discipline. But from the league's perspective, it sees [discipline] as one of the commissioner's most important responsibilities.
"So there's an inherent conflict that makes for a difficult resolution. There are some pretty significant obstacles to a settlement, although they're not insurmountable."
Here's hoping the two sides can come to some sort of agreement, put the matter behind them and put the focus back on football. Chances are neither side will be completely happy with a settlement, but successful negotiations often result in that type of sentiment.
More than six months after the fact, it's time to make a deal.