- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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What if we all had a choice for one "do over"?
I wonder what Tom Brady would pick.
There are no winners in the long-awaited resolution of Deflategate, but the biggest loser is clearly Brady, the face of the New England Patriots franchise.
The Wells report found that it was "more probable than not" that team personnel -- specifically locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment manager John Jastremski -- were involved in "a deliberate attempt to circumvent the rules."
Furthermore, the report concluded, it was "more probable than not" that Brady was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriot game balls."
Brady is a treasured New England sports figure who has largely been above reproach, both on and off the football field. He fortified his considerable goodwill the old-fashioned way: He earned it.
Many of his newest -- and harshest -- critics agree he is not the only quarterback who has crafted his footballs to his liking. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on record as saying he likes his balls overinflated and doesn't believe there should be a mandated psi.
Their beef with Brady isn't his handling of the ball -- more his handling of the issue itself.
Brady had the opportunity to thwart the controversy during that awkward news conference on Jan. 22 when he insisted, "I would never do anything to break the rules. I respect the league."
What if he amended that ever so slightly to say, "I didn't mean to break the rules"? What if he explained he likes his footballs a little underinflated and knows by touch what he likes, and he's never even used a gauge to measure the psi because he doesn't need one to tell him what feels right in his hand, and not one official has ever questioned him about the balls he uses.
What if he simply explained, "I've always prepared my footballs a certain way. I've done it for years. If I've compromised the integrity of the game, I'm truly sorry. It was never my intent."
Maybe -- just maybe -- there would have been no investigation. There would have been a flurry of bad ink and then we would have moved on to the next scandal, because there are so many more salacious topics than balls with a psi between 12.5 and 13.5.
"He would have been better off," observed former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak. "He could have said, 'These are my balls, I get them ready the way I want. No one has ever put a gun to my head and said, 'Make it 13.5' [psi].'"
The NFL places a premium on transparency, even if the league isn't all that transparent itself (see: Ray Rice). When the NFL asks for your emails, your text messages and your phone calls that relate to Deflategate, you would be wise to hand them over. Because if you don't, you aren't cooperating.
If you don't, people think you've got something to hide.
It doesn't help, of course, that Brady is the quarterback for the Patriots, the most polarizing team in the NFL. This year's Public Policy Polling's poll listed the Patriots as the second-most hated franchise, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys. Do you think the Indianapolis Colts would have blown the whistle on them if they were the Cleveland Browns?
Teams don't like how the Patriots win. They don't like how coach Bill Belichick has transformed tweaking the league office into an art form.
If it's not Indy ratting on them for deflated footballs, it's Baltimore crying foul over "deceptive" substitution patterns.
What the Patriots did against the Ravens was well within the rules of the game.
Deflategate wasn't, and it has provided new ammunition for the naysayers.
The Wells report systematically builds its case against New England by unveiling a series of details and text messages that describe, among other things, McNally removing the game balls without authorization from the officials' locker room just minutes before the AFC Championship Game, making a detour with the game balls into a bathroom, then initially denying to investigators he did anything of the sort. It certainly didn't help Brady's case that McNally jokingly referred to himself as the "Deflator."
The irony is that once the deflated footballs were removed at halftime of the AFC Championship Game, Brady's numbers improved dramatically.
The Patriots didn't need deflated balls to throttle the Colts or beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. They didn't need the miniscule advantage Spygate afforded them, either.
In both cases, it could have been much ado about nothing -- if the team had come clean.
Belichick was exonerated in the Wells report as having no knowledge of the deflation of the balls. Count me among those who owe him an apology for automatically suspecting he was involved because of his past transgressions.
In retrospect, his Bill the Science Guy presser was likely his best attempt at showing some support for his QB.
With each passing day, we learn new stories of how balls have been doctored in the NFL over the years. The "everybody does it" defense doesn't work in today's NFL -- nor should it -- yet it is fascinating to hear the tales of how each quarterback prepared his footballs for game day.
Zolak, a backup to Hugh Millen and Drew Bledsoe in New England, said he spent close to four hours on Saturdays preparing balls for his starter.
"Hugh was more a Type A -- a lot like Tom, actually," Zolak said. "He was an intellectual, and he was so calculating about everything.
"That's how Brady is. He wants things a certain way."
Zolak said the first thing he did to prepare the footballs was deflate all the air out of them, then wash them, wet them, and toss them in the team's industrial dryer.
Once the balls were dry, Zolak said, he'd reinflate them, put on work gloves, use a sticky substance to get the balls tacky, then rub them on a three-foot board with a piece of artificial turf attached.
"It was a process," he said. "It took hours. We'd push them in sand to make them less pointy, more oblong.
"I had big hands and Drew had big hands, so the way I liked them was the way he liked them.
"The funny thing that's lost in all this is it's more pertinent to be friendly with the strings rather than the actual ball. That's what gives you the torque and spin on it. Our guys were always more picky about the strings than they were about the psi."
Zolak said in all the years he deflated and then reinflated the balls, he never used a gauge.
"I could be holding a ball with a 12 [psi] and a 15 and I couldn't tell the difference," he said. "Neither could the refs. That's why the officials don't ever say anything."
Zolak left the Patriots following the 1998 season. He suspects the rookie QB who came in for the 1999 season inherited his job preparing the balls for Bledsoe.
"That would be Tom," Zolak said.
If Tom Brady had just come clean, Deflategate could have evaporated.