Deflate-gate: Don't expect harsh punishment for Brady, Patriots

There are two ways that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell can frame the New England Patriots right now.

One is felonious and institutional: that this is a renegade franchise with tarnished leaders who ran afoul of the integrity of the game and damaged the league's brand for the second time in eight years. First with coach Bill Belichick and spygate, and now with quarterback Tom Brady and deflate-gate.

The other setting is less jagged: that New England is itself a victim of a player and lower-level personnel taking it upon themselves to gain an (arguably immeasurable) advantage in a football game. In this view, deflate-gate would be determined to be something resting on the shoulders of a small cadre of cheaters who will ultimately endure the punishment.

Investigators found Tom Brady was at least generally aware a rules violation had occurred. (AP)

Based on some of the NFL's recent investigations, expect this to be the latter – a hammer that falls on a few, but falls short of charging the franchise with a mortal sin. And that alone will likely limit the extent of this punishment.

So who takes the brunt of the hit? Most likely Patriots equipment assistant John Jastremski and "officials locker room attendant" Jim McNally – two individuals whose text messages implicated them fairly clearly as conspirators in any ball deflation.

Brady? That's where this gets complicated, because aside from text conversations between Jastremski and McNally, Brady has been at least partially walled off. By refusing to reveal the contents of his phone communications – most specifically text messages – Brady has at the very least kept the door of plausible deniability pried open for himself.

Regardless of the collective eye-roll it would draw, Brady could continue to deny any involvement, sticking to his story that he really doesn't know anything about anything. He could say he's not sure why McNally and Jastremski were invoking his name in conversations about the deflation of footballs. He could suggest that maybe McNally and Jastremski were inferring something on Brady's behalf, but that he never directed them in any way. Or Tom Brady could say … well … nothing at all.

Thus far, saying nothing has served him about as well as it could. Yes, the Wells report does state that Brady was "more probable than not … at least generally aware" of footballs being deflated and that "it is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's knowledge and approval." Still, "more probable," "generally" and "unlikely" are three huge qualifiers that scream at the lack of a smoking gun when it comes to Brady. And it's a far cry from being able to say that he orchestrated the entire thing.

This is why Goodell has to tread lightly. He's got a report that says Brady probably knew something. That's not great. It's something … but not great. But what Goodell does have is this: Brady refused to cooperate when asked to turn over phone communications. And if the league wants to take the broad view of that action, it could do what it did to Brett Favre when he refused to turn over pertinent information in the Jenn Sterger harassment probe. Essentially the NFL could say Brady hindered the investigation.

In that case, Goodell determined that Favre was "not candid in several respects during the investigation resulting in a longer review and additional negative public attention for Favre, Sterger and the NFL." The league could say the same thing about Brady – that his withholding of text messages lengthened the Wells investigation and led to more negative publicity. Favre was fined $50,000 for that infraction but was not suspended.

Of course, critics of the Patriots and Goodell (and there are no shortage of either) would say this is the easy way out – that this is just another case of regulatory capture, and Patriots owner Bob Kraft is behind some curtain dictating how the Patriots should be punished.

The bottom line in all of this is that Goodell is in a tough spot. He clearly will have to do something, but is armed with a report that has some significant limitations. If he steps too far, he risks a union-backed fistfight with arguably the league's biggest superstar. If he doesn't go far enough, he gets another round of teams, players and fans suggesting he's pulling back for his friend Kraft.

Somewhere in there is a happy medium, similar to the outcomes of recent rule breaking by the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons franchises. Browns general manager Ray Farmer was suspended four games for sending text messages to the sidelines during NFL games last season. He was framed by the league as someone acting without the wider knowledge of ownership. And the Atlanta Falcons were fined $350,000 and docked a fifth-round pick in 2016 for team employees acting unilaterally and pumping fake crowd noise into the stadium.

Both of those scenarios were considered vaguely (and immeasurably) advantageous. Neither was considered a mortal unrecoverable sin. Given the evidence at hand, it would appear Tom Brady and the Patriots fall somewhere in that mix.

Perhaps Brady will be hit with a one- or two-game suspension. Maybe the franchise will endure a financial fine. Neither of those outcomes will be more damaging than the reputation hit sustained in the Wells report. But neither of those would be back-breakers in the 2015 season, either.

Anyone expecting more … prepare to be disappointed. Because there's at least one more deflation on the way.