Underhill: In Deflategate vs. Bountygate, Saints fans shouldn’t expect ‘justice’ when the Patriots’ penalties are unveiled _lowres

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

By the time Wednesday came to a close, and the dust was only beginning to settle on Ted Wells’ report on the Patriots’ deflated football scandal, the phrase “more probable than not” was already inching its way toward infamy in New England.

It’s the phrase that was used to tarnish New England’s latest accomplishments and, to an undetermined degree, Tom Brady’s legacy as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks of all time.

That’s how these things go. The NFL comes in, has someone write a polarizing report and in the end a region walks away with a phrase it deems patently absurd. For New Orleans, back when the punishments were doled out for the bounty scandal, the city was left without Sean Payton for a season but gained the phrase “ignorance is not an excuse” from commissioner Roger Goodell.

The question now is what the Patriots will be left without. Will they be without Brady who, unless you’re subscribing to a theory other than the one presented in Wells’ report, was allegedly somehow involved in the scandal?

Will they be without coach Bill Belichick for some amount of time? He was cleared of all wrongdoing in the report, but Payton was forced to sit out a season despite arguing he knew nothing about the bounty program. This is when Goodell infamously dropped his line about ignorance.

And by definition, Belichick also was ignorant, which could put him in the cross hairs. It’s his program and, using Goodell Logic, he’s responsible for everything that happens at 1 Patriot Place. His team. His locker room. His employees. His footballs. Should he have to sit? That seems to be the precedent, if the NFL is at all concerned about keeping things fair and equal and consistent.

But that assumes Goodell knows what fair and equal is, and in this case fair and equal would only mean more absurd punishment being handed out by the league office.

But even though the punishment laid upon the Saints was likely outlandish, at least one NFL legend thinks Belichick and Brady should get the hammer dropped on them.

“Now twice under Bill Belichick, and possibly a third time, they’ve cheated and given themselves an advantage,” former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman told a Dallas radio station. “To me, the punishment for the Patriots and/or Bill Belichick has to be more severe than what the punishment was for the New Orleans Saints. ... Sean Payton did not cheat. There was nothing that Sean Payton and the Saints did that was illegal. And they did not give themselves a competitive edge.”

The first incident Aikman references is the Spygate scandal, which conveniently ended with Goodell destroying the evidence before anyone could see, what, exactly the Patriots were taping during games. Apparently it wasn’t that big of a deal to Goodell, because whatever was on those tapes only led to Belichick and New England being fined and stripped of a first-round pick.

At that point, the commissioner still hadn’t found the full gumption to serve as the sheriff no one wanted but felt everyone needed.

A few years later, the league caught wind of the bounty scandal and decided to drop the hammer on the Saints. If Spygate was a strong storm, the league turned Bountygate into a hurricane. Was the extent of the punishment fair? No. New Orleans found itself in the unfortunate position of being directly against player safety, which was Goodell’s chief cause at the time. It’s hard to know whether that’s still his cause with all the Thursday night games being played.

From my ignorant, outside perspective, without the benefit of truly knowing the situation or being close enough to know the figures involved, at the time, I agreed with those who felt Goodell needed to come down hard on the Saints. He dropped the ball on Spygate. This was a chance to get it right. Instead, he dropped the ball and decided to kick it toward his own end zone.

No one knew just how uneven Goodell’s brand of justice was until he attempted to cripple the Saints. Players were suspended for ridiculous amounts of time. Coaches were suspended. Payton was lost for a year. General Manager Mickey Loomis was asked to sit out eight games. Draft picks were stripped. The storm hit with unjust levels of force.

So, if one “Gate” plays into another, where does that leave the Patriots after Deflategate?

Aikman makes a solid point in saying the Saints didn’t cheat. If they did try to injure players — and the true legitimacy of that point is still up for debate, much like the results of every other investigation hatched by the league — then some type of punishment was warranted. But they didn’t cheat. Maybe it’s semantics, but there is some type of difference. Whether that means something and which way the pendulum should swing is debatable.

People in New England will argue the Patriots never cheated, or at least not in meaningful ways. They’ll say there was really no competitive advantage gained by taping signals, and that deflating footballs is something done by every team.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe the tapes provided no real benefit, and maybe deflating footballs is like slipping a little pine tar on a baseball. But the fact is that both of those things, to some degree, puts the integrity of the games in question. There probably should have been more punishment for the Spygate scandal, and now there has to be some type of penalty for deflating footballs.

Should the Patriots receive harsher punishment than the Saints, as Aikman suggests? Probably not. There should be some short suspensions and some other sanctions. But there’s no need for the league office to go nuts.

Is it fair? Is it just? Not if you’re from New Orleans or cheer for the Saints.

But the fact is, no one should be punished at that level unless there is a smoking gun lying next to a body. That wasn’t the case with the bounty scandal, and there are enough holes in the Deflategate report to keep the smoking gun hidden, even if the circumstantial evidence is strong. Goodell screwed up with the Saints, which is probably why he delegated the responsibility of handing out punishment this time around.

But to those thirsting for the sanctions to exceed what the Saints received, all I can say is no one should wish the uneven wrath of Roger and his cronies upon anyone.

Even if that means the league never achieves consistency in how it operates.