Start by saying what has rarely been said of the NFL in the past year related to its punishment of wrongdoing: I think they got it right this time.
The punishment handed the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on Monday in the “Deflategate” controversy — notably a four-game suspension of Brady and forfeiture of a first-round draft pick next year — seems reasonable. The Pats also must pay a $1 million fine and lose a fourth-round pick in 2017.
Patriots fans might decry the penalties as too harsh. Teams playing the Pats, including some Miami Dolphins fans, might complain the punishment is too lenient. But both sides might meet in the middle and agree that the penalties amount to neither the hammer coming down nor a slap on the wrist.
On one side had been speculation about a possible full-year suspension of Brady, tantamount to a death penalty for New England’s season. On the other side were arguments the Pats deserved no punishment at all because of the independent Wells Report’s vagaries about the ball-underinflation culpability being “probable more than not” and the conclusion Brady must have been “generally aware” of the wrongdoing.
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I thought that murky conclusion alone demanded lenience. I wouldn’t have suspended Brady at all based on “probable” and “generally.”
But I understand, too, that in the real world a league still reeling from the massive image hit of Ray Rice does not spend millions on a 109-day investigation into a high-profile cheating controversy and then do nothing. I also understand that Brady ordering slightly under-inflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game was not the real issue.
“It was the coverup,” a league sourced texted me just after the news broke Monday. “[It was] that he denied it, and then didn’t cooperate with the Wells team.”
It’s in the what-next — the impact and fallout of the penalties — that swivels the spotlight on the Dolphins as much as one any other team.
One of my first thoughts upon hearing the NFL’s verdict:
The burner under Fins coach Joe Philbin just got turned up.
The excuses why Miami shouldn’t make the playoffs just became fewer.
The only time Miami has made the playoffs since 2001 was in ’08, when Brady missed almost all season injured. Now Brady is erased for the first quarter of the season, and Miami must take advantage again.
Philbin’s job depends on it.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill also most seize the opportunity.
Brady sitting out games vs. Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Jacksonville and at Dallas with backup Jimmy Garoppolo starting means New England could start out, say, 2-2. It assures the Dolphins, who still must face Brady twice, of nothing. But it’s an opening.
This is a Dolphins team that really likes its offseason. A team that made a free-agency cannonball more than splash by signing premier defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. A team that seemed to hit big in the draft by getting wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Brady sitting out four games is right up there with reasons a Dolfan might be feeling good today.
But all that means is that the Dolphins of Philbin and Tannehill had better take advantage, because there was a shift with Monday’s NFL ruling.
The shift meant the AFC East is open now, with diminished Patriots and ascending Dolphins now too close to call. Example: Football Outsiders, the respected ESPN-affiliated website, had forecast both teams to finish 11-5 this coming season prior to the Deflategate penalties.
“Your hot Super Bowl contender for the 2015 season is the Miami Dolphins,” said the website even before the (now fully inflated) football was taken from Brady’s hands for a quarter of the season.
None of this means the AFC East mastery of Bill Belichick has ended, or that the Pats can’t weather this.
What it means is that expectations of the Dolphins — and the pressure on them — has just increased by a lot.
For years Dolfans have awaited and longed for a changing of the guard in their division, and looked for a sign why it might finally be at hand.
Is this the sign?
For Joe Philbin, it had better be.