It has now been two years since the start of Deflategate, an ordeal that should have ruined the New England Patriots and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Instead, the only key figure who is worse-off than before is the man who started the fiasco.
On Saturday, a day before the Patriots went to yet another Super Bowl, the Indianapolis Colts fired their general manager Ryan Grigson. The move was celebrated by Patriots fans, who knew Grigson had told the NFL that New England were underinflating footballs during their rout of the Colts in the 2015 AFC championship game. Upon hearing of Grigson’s demise, New England’s team president Jonathan Kraft couldn’t resist a last dig, telling a Boston radio station that night “might have been Ryan’s pinnacle”.
Given the overzealous investigation and draconian punishment of the Patriots that followed for a crime of such small magnitude, the saga could have ushered the demise of New England’s dynasty. Few NFL teams or coaches or quarterbacks would have survived the months of interrogation and courthouse drama. The weight would have been too much. But most teams aren’t New England, most coaches aren’t Bill Belichick and most quarterbacks aren’t Tom Brady.
Goodell dropped a sledgehammer on the Patriots when he suspended Brady for four games, fined the team $1m and took away their first-round draft pick in 2016 and fourth round selection this spring. His sanctions were the football equivalent of killing a fly with a hand grenade, and they were going to cripple the Pats. And yet all they did was make New England better. On Sunday the Patriots stomped over the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 sending the team to their seventh Super Bowl in 15 years. Against the Steelers Brady, who finally served his suspension last September, seemed ageless at 39 by throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns. Given this might have been his most efficient regular season, he appears to have benefited from the early rest, saving his body for the postseason.
Belichick has a remarkable ability to endure disaster whether that calamity is a spying scandal, the loss of a star tight end to injury or the arrest of another star tight end for murder. He grunts a few inaudible words and moves on to the task ahead. Undoubtedly, he would have loved to keep his first-round pick last April. He probably would have done something clever with it. But the Patriots survived just fine. And they probably will in years to come.
The New Orleans Saints weren’t so lucky when Goodell came down unusually hard on them for bounties given to players to take out opponents. In the years after coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and the team was forced to give up a second-round pick, the Saints have had four 7-9 seasons and finished 32-32 overall. Some of their ensuing struggles are salary-cap related and yet something was lost when Peyton was out of the picture. Something they haven’t been able to recover.
Of course, the Super Bowl happened to be in New Orleans 10 months after Goodell hammered the Saints. He came into a city filled with hate and survived. Ever since handing the Patriots their Super Bowl trophy in 2015, the commissioner has avoided the team, staying away from games at their stadium. On Sunday he went to Atlanta for the NFC title game where the reception was predictably less hostile.
Now, though, Goodell will run another Super Bowl with the team he hit harder than any commissioner should. There’s an excellent chance that on 5 February, he will stand on a stage with Brady, Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft and be forced to smile as he hands another trophy to the franchise that despises him. The elder Kraft alluded to that hatred at Sunday night’s celebration when he told the crowd: “For a number of reasons all of you in the stadium know how big this win was.”
Much like that week in New Orleans, Goodell will get through this Super Bowl with the Patriots. His reign as commissioner has been filled with crises, many of which were his own doing and yet the league continues to prosper. NFL owners have seen their teams’ values rise to a point where 24 of the 32 clubs are said to be worth more than $2bn. Maybe another leader could have made them all equally as wealthy. But how many of those owners want to find out? Even with Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate, Ray Rice, head trauma and all the other debacles that have been fumbled Goodell has made them rich. That tends to be the only thing they care about. Last year they cut his pay $2m a year and he still made $31.7m.
Debacles like Deflategate are supposed to have lots of losers. And yet the ordeal’s biggest players have all done well for themselves. The Patriots keep going to Super Bowls and Goodell keeps a job that has paid him more than $200m since he became commissioner. The only loser is the man who began the whole thing.
Somehow it never seemed this was the way things were going to be.
Fantasy player of the week
So many players here not named Aaron Rodgers could be the choice here. You can’t ignore Matt Ryan’s 392 yards and four touchdowns but Ryan was this space’s choice last week. In order to have a diversity of opinion, we celebrate the greatness of Julio Jones – a player whose brilliance has been hidden by the fact he plays in Atlanta and occasionally has been slowed by injuries. When he is healthy and Ryan is on, the Falcons are hard to beat.
Sunday was one of those days nobody would catch Julio Jones. Certainly the Packers tried, but their depleted secondary had little chance on the Georgia Dome turf. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He caught balls dancing near the sideline, falling in the end zone and leaping in the air and while getting hit by defenders. There was probably no way the Packers were going to win this game but Jones made sure the night would be a blowout.
What might have made Jones’s day even more remarkable is that last week he reinjured a toe that had kept him out of two December games. Though he had said during the week the injury wouldn’t keep him from Sunday’s game, he wasn’t cleared to play until Friday. Imagine what he would have been like if he’d been fully fit.
Video of the week
This will never be as great as Bo Jackson’s 91-yard touchdown run that took him up a tunnel at Seattle’s now-gone Kingdome but Falcons running back Tevin Coleman did a fine imitation on his three-yard score in the fourth quarter. With a wonderful touch he even managed to high-five a man in a Falcons jersey.
Quote of the week
‘Frankly we ran out of gas.”
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy knew better than anyone that his team had been on a miraculous run for the last two months. During their eight-game winning streak, the Packers completed two Hail Marys to either help win or actually win games, lost two key receivers to injuries and survived several losses in the secondary. On a week in which Rodgers – the leader of all this winning – was slowed by the flu, he had to wonder if perhaps Green Bay had gone as far as they could.
Against Atlanta, in the final game at the Georgia Dome, the Packers were overwhelmed by the NFL’s most explosive offense. They gave up 493 yards and watched Atlanta hold onto the ball for 7:18 longer than them. Simply, they were beaten. Or as their coach suggested. The gas tank was empty.
Stat of the week
Nine. The number of Super Bowl appearances for the Patriots, an NFL record. Until Sunday night New England was tied with Pittsburgh as well as Dallas and Denver for the most Super Bowls with eight, which meant the record was going to be broken in Foxborough no matter who won. Brady and Belichick also set records for Super Bowls by a quarterback and coach with seven.
What’s interesting is the path each franchise has taken to this point. Pittsburgh went to five Super Bowls during their great 1970s run and have remained one of the league’s best team’s ever since. New England languished for many years, went to a Super Bowl in 1986 in which they were blown out by Chicago and another in 1997 before Belichick’s current march of greatness began with the 2002 Super Bowl.