NEW YORK — Wednesday marked the fifth time that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held a news conference since Deflategate broke in late January, and we all know the drill at this point.
Goodell eludes questions like Julian Edelman slips through defenders, dispensing phrases such as "we must protect the integrity of the game" and "our rules apply to everybody," but ultimately saying little and leaving us scratching our heads.
Wednesday was no different, as Goodell faced reporters at the league's quarterly owners' meetings for the first time since federal judge Richard Berman laid the verbal smackdown on Goodell and the NFL and vacated Tom Brady's four-game suspension.
Roger the Dodger was in postseason form, providing as little insight as possible into why he so vehemently went after Brady, and why the NFL is continuing the fight by appealing Berman's decision in the US Court of Appeals Second Circuit.
And when he ran out of words, Goodell simply answered another question of his choosing.
You get one shot to ask a question at these news conferences, so here is the one I came with on Wednesday: "Why is the NFL appealing this? Why is it important to keep the fight going instead of just letting the story end?"
"Well, Ben, that's your description," Goodell said. "To our description it's simply about our rights under our collective bargaining agreement."
So already we were off to an odd start. I thought my question was fairly basic, and not even slanted toward Brady or the Patriots. There was no "description," just a genuine curiosity as to why the NFL continues to fight what most legal analysts say is a losing battle, and continues to give a pulse to Deflategate, which is one of Goodell's biggest embarrassments in his nine-year tenure.
"This isn't about any individual player or any individual incident," he continued. "This is about the rights we negotiated in 2011, the rights for us to have the authority to make sure we can discipline."
Now it was getting weird. Appealing Berman's decision apparently has nothing to do with Brady, or the Patriots allegedly deflating footballs.
"We talked today about some very healthy discipline numbers," Goodell then said. "We're seeing less arrests, less violations of our personal conduct policy that have happened over the last eight years. The policies are working, and the policies aren't all discipline. They also start with education, awareness, intervention, and accountability."
Now we were completely off the rails. A question about the Brady appeal somehow had morphed into an answer about the personal conduct policy.
Goodell spouted a few numbers about how arrests are down this year, then tied everything together with one last cliché.
"Protecting the integrity of the game is not something we're going to compromise," he said.
It's foolish at this point to go into one of these news conferences and expect anything of substance, but each time Goodell seems to come up with new ways to talk in circles.
If we really want to know how the NFL feels, we have to talk to Goodell's bosses — the 32 owners. We already know how the Krafts feel, and owners such as Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson outwardly supported Goodell before Berman's ruling came out.
But Wednesday was also the first time we'd gotten a chance to speak to the owners since the ruling came down, and there certainly seems to be an egg-on-our-face vibe among some of them.
"Could we have handled it better? Yes," one AFC owner said. "We sort of made a mountain out of a mole hill."
No kidding. Seven months of mudslinging and at least $5 million in attorney/Ted Wells fees got the NFL nothing but embarrassment, ridicule, and a potentially devastating blow to Goodell's authority as commissioner.
But it's hard not to notice how quickly all of the league's "scandals" this year have been brushed aside. The Patriots' headset issue against the Steelers, Ed Hochuli allegedly telling Cam Newton that he wasn't old enough to get a call, Ben Roethlisberger possibly using a cellphone on the sideline — each of them was dealt with swiftly, and with no finding of wrongdoing by the NFL.
This is probably the legacy of Deflategate — the end of costly "independent" investigations and a return to secret, in-house justice.
But Goodell and his legal advisers can't seem to let the Brady decision go. They beat Maurice Clarett on appeal a decade ago, so I guess it's worth seeing if a panel of judges will overturn Berman's decision this time, legal fees be damned.
The NFL wants to set the precedent that Goodell's rulings are final and cannot be overturned by the courts. Good luck.
"Our rules apply to everybody. They apply to every single player," Goodell said. "They are to be applied evenly, teams expect that. We will continue to uphold the integrity of the game."
Of course, the NFL wasn't applying the rules evenly when it violated the CBA and made up new penalties for Brady, which Berman swiftly tossed out. But we digress.
Goodell did provide one clear answer with regard to this mess, saying matter-of-factly that "we are not in favor of third party arbitration" when it comes to player discipline. A handful of owners have spoken out since Berman's ruling that the NFL needs to change its discipline system to avoid further public relations disasters, but the owners don't give anything away for free, and the NFL Players Association will have to surrender something — an extension of the current CBA? — to wrestle Goodell's disciplinary powers from him.
"We recognize that there are different ways of administering discipline," Goodell said. "We just haven't been able to reach an agreement on what that process is."
But when it came to explaining the NFL's actions, Roger the Dodger returned.
Goodell was asked about the new ball-testing procedures that were implemented this year as a response to Deflategate. In randomly selected games, the NFL is testing the air pressure of the footballs at halftime, logging the data, using the backup footballs in the second half, and then testing and logging the air pressure after the game.
Will that data ever be made public?
"I don't know," Goodell said.
So I asked an NFL spokesman the same question. I also asked how many games have been randomly selected so far.
"No such decision has been made," the spokesman said about releasing the data. "And we are not discussing details of the program."
So, there you go. Many questions, few answers. We're used to this drill by now.