What if none of it ever happened?
In lieu of being vilified across the nation for being embroiled in yet another cheating scandal, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick would have been widely lauded as this NFL generation’s Joe Montana and Bill Walsh in the months since Malcolm Butler’s iconic interception. A four-time champion at age 38, Brady would be playing to break a three-way tie with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most Super Bowl wins ever by a quarterback.
For sure, this Patriots season would have a much different tinge to it than the one that currently colors The Middle Finger Tour, a mission of revenge to lay waste to any and all opponents standing in their way of reaching the Super Bowl for a second-straight year. These Patriots may have even been celebrated outside of New England rather than looked upon with a dubious eye. Brady’s legacy would not only be intact, but stronger than ever.
We would have traded in one “D’’ word for another during the offseason, engaging in discussions about what could possibly turn out to be the second Patriots dynasty in as many decades. The Patriots’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX would have trumped all the suspicions, all the doubt that trailed the New England quarterback and head coach dating back to Spygate and the near-perfection of 2007, silencing any who took glee in pointing out that they hadn’t won a Lombardi Trophy since the video taping scandal.
If Deflategate never happened, the Patriots would have arrived in Indianapolis for a rematch of last January’s AFC Championship Game with their recent dominance over Andrew Luck and company as the prevailing story line. There would have been no sketch artists cookies for sale at a bakery in Indiana, no flat football hats for sale online, and no over/under for how many times the NBC broadcast would refer to something being “deflated.’’
Indeed, what if Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, NFL executive Mike Kensil, or whoever the football Deep Throat actually was had never called Indianapolis columnist Bob Kravitz about a nascent investigation in the wee hours following that recent title game against the Colts? To get deeper into hypotheticals, what if the balls were never deflated?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would possibly still be welcome in the Foxborough zip code. Judge Richard Berman might have spent a handful of days in August ruling on something of note from his honorable bench.
Patriots staffers Jim McNally and John Jastrzemski would still be patrolling the sidelines at Gillette Stadium. “Dorito Dink’’ and their wink-wink term for losing weight wouldn’t have become popular punch lines. The only Ideal Gas Law debated on Route One would relate to state restrictions on gas stations gouging customers on game day.
On the other hand, we might never have learned the color of the pool cover that Brady ended up getting.
NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells dubiously concluded it was more probable than not that the Patriots were up to some form of monkey business with footballs used in that AFC title game. Maybe the Patriots brought this all on themselves, as so many have suggested. But maybe Goodell made a mountain out of a mole hill in trying to deflect attention from other, more damaging controversies that continue to swirl around his New York palace.
What if the GQ story never ran, the one by Gabriel Sherman that referred to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and close confidant of Goodell as “the assistant commissioner’’ by an unnamed NFL executive? Would Goodell have so vigorously gone after the Patriots the way he did in what seemed a transparent attempt to convey his true power? Would Belichick still have a first-round draft pick at his disposal, and would the Krafts have another $1 million to spend on next year’s Super Bowl ring party in Brookline? Would Brady have had to endure such a difficult stretch to begin his season after spending much of his summer tied up in Manhattan courts and board rooms?
Actually, scratch that last one.
The reality is that the New England Patriots of 2015 may have actually benefitted from having their accomplishments dragged through the mud of simpleton sports debate. Remember, it was only a year ago that there were more than valid concerns that Brady was in the twilight of his career. Twelve months later, he has another Lombardi Trophy, and even more motivation to become the quarterback with the most rings in NFL history and, indisputably, the best to ever play the game.
All of that is still possible, even with the stain of what his team had to endure.
There’s no question our collective sports psyche would have been better off without eight months of nonsense and vitriol coming from every which way. But these Patriots? The scandal may not be a focus for them, but it’s hard to imagine it’s not a driving factor, for Brady in particular.
It isn’t revenge that’s on their minds so much as redemption in their own eyes, not those of flailing league officials or rivals mired in mediocrity. If the fourth Super Bowl win of the Brady-Belichick era didn’t shut everybody up, then perhaps a fifth one will.
There’s much to be said about adversity strengthening resolve. In the end, perception isn’t reality. It’s little more than noise that Belichick implores his players to ignore.
What if Deflategate never happened? The Patriots would still be 4-0 and among the best teams in football.
But they might not be nearly as fascinating.