The New England Patriots broke for nearly six weeks of summer vacation when mandatory minicamp ended last Wednesday and even Bill Belichick said he was looking forward to relaxing a bit. It won't be an entirely restful time for the franchise, though.
Tom Brady's appeal of the four-game suspension the NFL handed down for his involvement in the use of underinflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game started Tuesday in New York. It is a story that will dominate the quietest portion of the NFL calendar, and set the stage for what we are likely to see in the first month of the regular season.
How we got here
When Indianapolis columnist and television analyst Bob Kravitz first reported just hours after New England won the AFC title that the league was looking into the Patriots' use of underinflated footballs in the game, it was hard to imagine the issue would explode into a controversy that would have Belichick giving a detailed physics lesson a week before the Super Bowl, owner Robert Kraft demanding an apology from the league and Brady's reputation hanging in the balance as the story consumed the offseason.
Alas, here we are.
After a long, expensive investigation, Ted Wells -- an attorney hired by the league to look into the matter -- relied on ball-pressure readings and text messages (including one in which a low-level Patriots employee called himself "The Deflator") to come to the conclusion that it was "more probable than not" that Brady was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities" regarding the deflation of Pats game balls. Wells also concluded that Brady's explanations were not plausible and revealed that Brady did not turn over text messages and emails requested by investigators.
While Wells' report has been attacked -- and defended -- in various quarters, Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for what the league called "conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL," and the Patriots lost a first-round draft pick (as well as a fourth-rounder) and were fined $1 million. A significant portion of both penalties came because the NFL did not feel that the team or Brady were fully cooperative with a league investigation. Kraft was livid. And while Brady has said nothing publicly since the suspension, his agent has released several blistering statements. Also, Brady has hired Jeffrey Kessler, a leading labor lawyer who has long been a league foe, to handle his appeal.
Kraft ultimately decided to not fight the team penalties because he essentially decided he was not Al Davis, and did not want to go to war against his business partners. Brady, though, will have his appeal heard Tuesday (and Thursday, if needed) by Commissioner Roger Goodell, who opted to handle it himself rather than designate someone else to do it. The NFL Players Association, which has long chafed at the commissioner's broad disciplinary powers, had asked for a neutral arbitrator, a request that was rejected by the league. Goodell seemingly has opened the door to the possibility that the suspension could be reduced -- or, theoretically, vacated entirely -- by welcoming Brady to present new information.
And in his letter to the NFLPA explaining that he would hear the appeal, Goodell said that while he had publicly thanked Wells and the league office had decided the discipline, he was not "wedded" to the conclusions or the Wells Report or to their assessment of the facts.
"Nor does it mean that, after considering the evidence and argument presented during the appeal, I may not reach a different conclusion about Mr. Brady's conduct or the discipline imposed," Goodell wrote.
Kessler has had success defending other players who have fought discipline by the league, including, most recently, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. In a letter to the league, the players union said that the Wells Report mischaracterized circumstantial evidence. It is unclear if Brady will present new evidence, or provide the text messages and emails that Wells wanted to see as part of his initial investigation.
It is also unclear how long it will take Goodell to decide on the appeal. But it seems likely the league would like to have it decided before teams return for training camp in late July.
Goodell's decision might not be the end of it. The most important part of the appeal actually will come after it is decided. Unless Goodell throws out the entire four-game suspension, Brady will have a critical decision to make: whether or not to take the league to federal court to try and get the suspension thrown out completely. Brady is said to be angry about the situation and to want his name cleared entirely. Accepting a partial reduction in the suspension would not seem to accomplish that. Brady also has been historically loath to give up snaps, even in practice, to anyone -- and the prospect of Jimmy Garoppolo starting games in his place might be too much for Brady to tolerate, prompting him to go to court.
The players union certainly would welcome a court case for Brady. It has long looked for a way to attack the commissioner's disciplinary powers -- essentially, it would like to reopen the collective bargaining agreement to get the disciplinary process changed -- and Brady would be the perfect vehicle. If Brady goes to court, he will seek an injunction that would allow him to continue to play while the case makes its way through court. The risk there is the timing: Is it possible the case would come up later in the season, when Brady would least want to be off the field?
Brady has never been a strong, public supporter of the union, and the question is if he could be moved to accept a shortened suspension with the assurance that he would be allowed to return to the team (and to the field) before the calendar turns to October.