FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There were few absolutes in the Wells Report on the New England Patriots' underinflation of footballs -- and perhaps that is what Tom Brady and the team relied too heavily on. There was no smoking gun and, even now, there are those who wonder if the preponderance of the evidence was enough to sit Brady for four games and to strip the Pats of a first-round draft pick, as the league did Monday.
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But what they -- and perhaps the Patriots, whose owner Robert Kraft indignantly demanded an apology in anticipation that the smoking gun would never turn up -- underestimated was that the one absolute they could have controlled, their candor, was the one that would be a significant part of their undoing. The Patriots' slipperiness during the investigation -- the implausible answers, the failures to turn over text messages or show up for follow-up interviews -- did much more damage than even a lousy Brady grip on a football could have caused.
It was clear from the NFL's notices to the Patriots and Brady on Monday, that it was their lack of cooperation in the investigation that was at least as much of an issue for the NFL as whether the footballs were a few pounds of pressure below where they should have been. It's not quite as simple as the cover-up being worse than the crime, but the NFL demands not only compliance but cooperation from those who participate in the game. And whenever Brady and his lawyers made the decision that they would not turn over his text messages and emails -- even though, the league said, extraordinary protections were offered to him -- even his vast successes and his reputation as one of the game's best ambassadors could not save him.
Brady will appeal, and his agent, Don Yee, has insisted in the last few days that Brady's interviews with investigators have been incorrectly portrayed. The Patriots organization steadfastly believes there was no wrongdoing. In fact, the Pats' lack of contrition in this case has been striking, and it is in some contrast to the position they took during the 2007 scandal that revolved around improper videotaping of opponents' signals. There are those who believed Commissioner Roger Goodell protected the Patriots then, not suspending Bill Belichick and burning the tapes so that nobody on the outside would ever see them. Belichick apologized after he was sanctioned, and said his interpretation of the rules governing such taping was incorrect. On Monday night, Kraft, who is personally close to Brady, issued another statement of support for the quarterback.
"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," the statement read. "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."
It's hard not to wonder if the Patriots' attitude, coupled with the lack of cooperation, was interpreted in some quarters as a defiance of the league and its investigators that simply could not be ignored. Certainly, the fact that the Patriots were back in the NFL's equivalent of the principal's office for a second time on a violation that centered on the integrity of competition weighed heavily in the sanctions against the franchise.
Whatever prompted the Patriots to take this tact, it hasn't paid off yet.
Soon after the Patriots landed in Arizona for Super Bowl week, Kraft angrily demanded an apology from the league if no smoking gun was found. It wasn't. The Patriots and Kraft left Arizona with the Lombardi Trophy.
But on Monday, the NFL left them empty-handed.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.