Was standing down Patriots' plan all along to force Roger Goodell to reduce Tom Brady's four-game ban?

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was never going to go full-on Al Davis. He wasn't going to sue the NFL, dragging himself and his franchise – and moreover, his iconic quarterback – into a courtroom. He wasn't going to wade deeper into the deflate-gate swamp, where winning anything would still be losing, if only by furthering an already absurd spectacle.

Whether Patriots fans want to believe it or not, a courtroom win was unlikely. Not unless Tom Brady fell into line with the team's fight, which very likely would have necessitated him turning over electronic communications. And even in that case, a settlement would have been the likeliest outcome, further dirtying the mud-splattered NFL brand, right up to the Windsor knots of both Kraft and commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFLPA says it isn't backing down on its appeal of Tom Brady's four-game suspension. (AFP)
The NFLPA says it isn't backing down on its appeal of Tom Brady's four-game suspension. (AFP)

But rather than further stirring the ugliness, Kraft chose the most diplomatic path, standing down on Tuesday. Not happily, mind you. But likely with some leverage that may lessen the hit on Brady. And that's what this is all about now: saving Brady and the 2015 season.

That's likely what Kraft's acceptance of the league's punishment will have accomplished. At first glance, it makes Brady's case easier to fight. Now he doesn't have to worry about the team dovetailing a plausible defense of employees John Jastremski and Jim McNally with the quarterback's argument. Indeed, it frees Brady to rely on the same storyline he has trotted out all along: That he doesn't know anything about anything. That he didn't instruct Jastremski and McNally to deflate footballs, and it's on the league and Ted Wells to prove otherwise.

Considering Kraft took the Patriots through the cleanest exit, it's worth wondering whether Goodell will be the next to follow suit. It's not lost on the league's fraternity of owners that Kraft did them all a solid. Win or lose, he could have crippled Goodell's already maligned image by declaring open war on the commissioner. The owners don't want that. And they don't want to be at odds with Kraft, either. He's too important in the brotherhood, and choosing sides between a guy like that and the league office is a brutal balancing act.

This is why you saw a guy like Houston Texans owner Bob McNair coming out and essentially thanking Kraft for taking the punishment and moving on.

"He thinks about the league, and I think that's the smart thing to do, so I'm pleased," McNair said in a statement to the Boston Globe.

Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell, pictured in 2014. (AP)
Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell, pictured in 2014. (AP)

Not that it should be a surprise. Kraft could never be Al Davis. He's too politically savvy, too democratic and too much of a consensus builder to be a constant thorn of defiance. Until this recent donnybrook, he seemed above the back-and-forth nonsense. So taking the measured hit in exchange for something makes perfect sense.

Perhaps that was the plan all along. Why else would New England put up a point-by-point defense against Wells' report on a website? Why air out a battle plan like that if you intend to wage war in a courtroom? In hindsight, those moves look calculated – seeds of doubt planted into the pasture of public opinion, while still planning to minimize risk at a later date. When that site went up, Kraft's angles now appear to have been clear: kick dust back at Wells' report and satisfy the fan base; pump-fake a court battle; stand down from a nasty fight and hope the ceasefire could be leveraged to help Brady.

Only time will tell if Kraft's public jockeying will have an impact. But he's not waving the white flag for nothing in return, particularly when he is still losing a first- and fourth-round draft pick and $1 million of his own money. And he's not going away this gently after the league essentially delivered a facial double-slap during the penalty phase, publicly tying the deflate-gate penalties to Spygate, an incident that happened nearly 10 years ago.

In a way, Kraft has put the pressure back onto Goodell. The Patriots owner just took it on the chin and did what was best for the shield. But Brady's appeal of his four-game suspension is still hanging out there. And he is still important to the league's brand. Removing him from the field for a quarter of the season only drags on this saga into October, and nobody is interested in that.

So will Goodell hold up Brady's four-game suspension and risk exactly what Kraft spared the NFL – a protracted fight in court? Will he wade back into the ugliness? Or will he do what we've all believed would happen from the start, and trim the suspension to a more palatable two games?

We'll see in the coming days. Kraft has taken the first step and pulled New England out of the swamp. Now the Patriots owner is undoubtedly expecting Goodell and the NFL to do the same with his quarterback.