The Wells Report on the Patriots possibly playing the AFC Championship game with underinflated footballs is less an investigative finding and more a 243-page choose-your-own-adventure novel. By the time you reach the end, you could arrive at a very different conclusion, depending on the choices you’ve made. Do you choose to believe the Patriots? Do you choose to believe NFL-anointed investigator Ted Wells and the league?
After 109 days, 243 pages, dozens of witnesses, and incalculable speculation, we’re right back where we started. Patriots true believers dismiss the report — which concluded that it was “more probable than not” both that low-level Patriots employees deliberately deflated footballs and that quarterback Tom Brady was “at least generally aware” of their activity — as a flawed fabrication stemming from a sting operation. Patriots truthers see it as proof that the Patriots are inveterate rule-benders, just as they always believed.
The problem with this exhaustive and exhausting report is that it’s not going to change entrenched opinions on either side, and it leaves those of us in the middle not knowing what to believe. It comes to a conclusion — that the preponderance of evidence indicates the Patriots tampered with footballs — but it doesn’t provide one.
No one can say with absolute certainty that the Patriots and Brady are guilty. The case against them is a pile of circumstantial evidence, from text messages to conflicting testimony from Brady, equipment assistant John Jastremski, and officials locker room attendant Jim McNally.
But after reading this report, you can’t say with absolute certainty that they’re not guilty, unless you are the most sycophantic of Patriots fans. See you guys on Twitter.
The problem for the Patriots is that there are now two NFL-sanctioned investigations that paint their deified coach and their canonized QB as scofflaws.
Brady and Bill Belichick can win four more Super Bowls, but they’ve lost the historical high ground. Outside of New England and the hearts and minds of their fans, their claims to being the greatest ever will carry the twin caveats of Spygate and Deflategate. Forget the footballs; some of the air has been let out of their era of eminence.
It’s more probable than not that is unfair, especially when you consider the Denver Broncos won two Super Bowl while circumventing the salary cap. But it’s perception calcified as reality.
Even if you own a Brady winter hat and a Belichick hoodie, you have to admit that some of the circumstantial evidence in the report is disconcerting. I was in the camp that if it was taking this long to produce a report, Wells had zip, zilch, nada. Not quite.
The scientific findings of the report are easy to dismiss because the initial air pressure of the footballs was not logged. Blithely casting aside the incriminating communication between Jastremski and McNally is not as simple.
There are texts between Jastremski and McNally in which McNally refers to himself as “the deflator” and teases about going to ESPN. There is a text exchange between the two in which McNally, told of Brady’s unhappiness with footballs for an Oct. 16 game against the Jets at Gillette Stadium, threatens to make the next ball a “[expletive] balloon.”
Jastremski replies less than two minutes later: “Talked to him last night. He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done. . . ”
McNally and Jastremski said that the “him” referenced wasn’t TB12. It was a friend of Jastremski’s and the discussion was about McNally unloading season tickets. Talk about abrupt non-sequiturs.
If the texts were all a joke, as the Patriots say, no one at Patriot Place is laughing now.
If McNally and Jastremski deflated footballs, it strains credulity to think they were acting on their own, risking their jobs and the team’s reputation.
Brady claimed that he didn’t know McNally. But during their interviews, Jastremski said Brady knew McNally and knew that he was the officials locker room attendant. McNally told NFL Security that he has been personally told by Brady about his inflation-level preference.
Connecting Brady giving memorabilia to Jastremski and McNally to the deflation issue is a stretch. It’s also highly prejudicial to characterize Brady’s increased communications with Jastremski in the wake of Deflategate breaking and a meeting with him in the quarterback room the day after the game as an indication of guilt.
There is also a tacit presumption in the report that because Brady didn’t want to turn over his e-mails and phone calls, he was hiding something.
What mega-celebrity would willingly turn over private communications and risk public embarrassment, especially when the NFL has more leaks than the Lusitania?
The Wells Report gives Brady plausible deniability and plausible culpability, which gives me a headache.
The one thing the report did clearly establish is that Brady played dumb about his knowledge of and feel for footballs in his press conference on Jan. 22.
“I wouldn’t know on a particular play,” Brady said then, when asked about feeling a difference in a ball. “It was a very wet, cold, windy night.”
Yet the report, citing Jastremski and other Patriots personnel, said Brady complained angrily about the footballs feeling like “bricks” during the Oct. 16 Jets game. It turned out that when Jastremski tested them the next day, they had been overinflated.
Brady also told Jastremski before the AFC title game to prepare the balls with leather-palmed gloves — instead of leather conditioner — for better grip.
Unsurprisingly, Brady is intimately familiar with the tool of his livelihood.
In the end, the Wells Report serves as nothing more than a voluminous Rorschach test.