Greg Cote

Greg Cote: No Deflategate winners as report leaves New England Patriots fuming

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks at a news conference Jan. 22, 2015 about the NFL investigation into deflated footballs, in Foxborough, Mass.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks at a news conference Jan. 22, 2015 about the NFL investigation into deflated footballs, in Foxborough, Mass. AP

If the cliché is true that variety is the spice of life, then one must be astounded and grudgingly impressed by the sheer variety of ways the NFL, its teams and their players find to embarrass themselves.

The New England Patriots and star quarterback Tom Brady being found (probably) guilty Wednesday by the long investigation of the “Deflategate” controversy comes as a welcome change of pace from the sad parade of domestic abuse scandals.

How proud the staggered NFL must be of the headlines dogging its two Super Bowl teams Wednesday, and of course by “proud” I mean the opposite as beleaguered commissioner Roger Goodell wonders how and when it was his league spiraled commode-like into such a dysfunctional family.

The Patriots now see their Super Bowl championship tainted at least somewhat by the revelation they (probably) cheated to get there. Meanwhile, the team they beat in the title game, Seattle, scrambles to explain how its supposed thorough investigation failed to discover (or perhaps simply chose to ignore) the domestic-violence allegations against second-round draft pick Frank Clark.

The issuing Wednesday of the Wells Report investigation of the Patriots might be seen as a respite for Goodell, in that bending the rules to win a playoff game, though damnable, isn’t as cowardly or heinous as violently striking a woman. On the cheating-vs.-beating scale, cheating’s only victim is sportsmanship. OK, and morality. All right, and in this case the Indianapolis Colts, I guess.

The three-month investigation was by league-appointed attorney Ted Wells, the same cat who investigated the Dolphins/Bullygate matter. Wells has found a lucrative cottage industry in NFL embarrassment and resulting investigations.

On the Patriots, he produced a detailed, windy 243-page report that distills to this conclusion:

“It is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the playing rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules. In particular, we have concluded that it is more probable than not that Jim McNally (officials’ locker room attendant for Patriots) and John Jastremski (equipment assistant for Patriots) participated in a deliberate effort to release air from the Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee. Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.”

The four most interesting words in all of that?

“More probable than not.”

In other words, “We’re pretty sure it’s likely the footballs were doctored, and that Brady probably had to know.”

That isn’t exactly a videotape, an eyewitness or a smoking gun.

“Probably” doesn’t convict you in court.

“Probably” leaves enough wiggle room to argue the verdict — as the Patriots did Wednesday in a statement that read: “To say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs, would be a gross understatement.” Added Patriots owner Robert Kraft: “The time, effort and resources expended to each this conclusion are incomprehensible to me.”

(Can’t disagree with Kraft on that.)

Now Goodell and the NFL must decide how to punish the Patriots, if at all, and it’s just his luck — to be presented a report that leaves the commish in a no-win situation.

How miserably perfect all around: An inconclusive report that leaves the Patriots crying foul and the NFL having no idea whether or how to punish based on “probably.”

Goodell must levy some penalty for a finding of (probable) guilt, but the investigation — which did not implicate Kraft or coach Bill Belichick — wouldn’t seem to justify anything real harsh.

Compounding the report’s lukewarm finding is the fact the Patriots beat the Colts 45-7 you will recall. What the Pats (probably) did to those footballs is not an excuse available to Indianapolis. The Colts blaming Deflategate for that loss would be like me claiming I’d have beaten Usain Bolt in that 100-meter dash if I hadn’t stumbled out of the starting blocks.

And anyone suggesting the Pats be made to forfeit their Super Bowl win based on this report should be Baker Acted by their family.

Deflategate strikes us as a misdemeanor on the grand scale of wrongdoing even if the guilt finding were more than “probable.” But it was a big story because it involved Brady and happened in the playoffs, with a glamour team the accused. Adding to the tabloid quality of the tale was the fact the Patriots have a former player just convicted of murder, and that Belichick and the Pats had been found more than probably guilty in the 2007 Spygate matter.

So what’s a reasonable penalty now?

I’d suggest a public reprimand, a dismissal of the two equipment guys involved, an assurance of safeguards against it happening again, a club fine of around $100,000 and forfeiture of a substantial but not first-round draft pick — maybe a second or third rounder. I’d not suspend Brady, not even for one game, based on “more probable than not.”

The Wells Report findings simply are not conclusive enough to bring the hammer down on New England.

However they are conclusive enough to be just the latest embarrassment for Goodell’s black-eyed NFL.