-- For months I've been saying there are no winners in the miserable Deflategate morass that has enveloped the NFL. From here it looked as though both Tom Brady and Roger Goodell suffered some measure of irreparable harm to their reputations amid debates over psi, the ideal gas law and the Deflator.
I was so wrong.
Brady, who steadfastly maintained his innocence and refused to accept a settlement, had his four-game suspension vacated Thursday and has resumed his place as the most compelling -- and motivated -- quarterback in the league.
As for Goodell, who desperately needed this ruling to tilt in his favor, he emerges as The Biggest Loser.
Goodell thought he could toss Article 46 around like an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon. If you ran afoul of him, then look out below: The commissioner would crush you like Wile E. Coyote with his seemingly unchecked power -- power the NFL Players Association foolishly granted him in the current collective bargaining agreement.
Never mind that Article 46 was porous protection for The Shield in court appeals regarding Bountygate, the Ray Rice case, the Adrian Peterson suspension and the Greg Hardy ruling. The NFL lost 'em all.
That's 0-for-4, for those of you scoring at home.
The NFL whiffed again Thursday when Judge Richard M. Berman concluded what most of us surmised months ago: There was nothing "independent" about Goodell's crusade to punish one of his most high-profile players. The commissioner hired Ted Wells and paid him millions to present his findings, but then allowed NFL general counsel Jeff Pash to receive drafts of the report and provide comments on it.
Then, when Brady appealed the Wells report findings, the commissioner conducted a nationwide search to procure an independent arbitrator -- himself.
Goodell apparently believed he could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted and, if necessary, make up the rules as he went along.
But then Berman called "Shenanigans!" He shredded the NFL's position by declaring that Goodell "dispensed his own brand of industrial justice."
Berman's ruling is steeped with irony. Goodell, who during his NFL reign has put a premium on transparency, was reprimanded for failing for make Pash available to the NFLPA in the appeal hearing.
Goodell also was called out for failing to provide documents, summaries and notes of witness interviews during the Wells investigation.
We can only guess why Goodell refused to allow Pash to speak. Was it arrogance, was it flawed legal advice or did Pash actually have something to hide?
What was so damning in those documents that prevented the NFL from sharing them? And where are those papers now?
Probably in the same bin as the Ray Rice video.
The NFL botched these proceedings at every turn. It thumbed its nose at the most basic legal requirements and stubbornly insisted on requiring acknowledgement from Brady on validity of the Wells report findings.
I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but you do have to wonder why the NFL was so hell-bent on tarnishing the legacy of one of its most ardent ambassadors and successful players. We know other franchises don't like the Patriots. They win too much, they talk too much, they strut too much. And yes, with Spygate a permanent blemish on their record, they (specifically Bill Belichick) are also proven cheaters.
The delight with which some of the other heavyweight owners reveled in New England's misfortune was palpable. They urged Goodell to pursue this at every turn, but how do they feel now that their commissioner and their sport have suffered yet another embarrassing beatdown?
What Berman, in essence, told Goodell is it's not OK to tailor your league's guidelines to your liking. It's not OK to punish someone for alleged "general knowledge" of the deflated footballs and liken it to steroid use. It's not OK to suspend a player for an equipment violation when the CBA clearly states first offenses of that nature shall result in a fine.
Few were shocked to learn the NFL will appeal Berman's ruling. So what if it will drag out a case almost everyone is weary of discussing. So what if most people have already made up their minds about Brady. To some, he will forever be a cheat. To others, he will forever be a persecuted martyr, a pawn in a game much bigger than football.
We all know it stopped being about deflated footballs eons ago. It's about power and reputation and vindication and justification of the laughable amount of time and money that Deflategate has required.
Here's the other thing: the longer Deflategate slogs on, the less we talk about the NFL's horrific missteps in curbing domestic violence or the very real concussion crisis that confronts our country's most popular game.
Common sense would tell you that Goodell would want to put this behind him. It's good for business when Tom Brady is on the football field. Ratings are higher, interest peaks and the revenue keeps on flowing.
But if the NFL drops its appeal, it acknowledges defeat. It loses.
Roger Goodell needs a win at all costs.
What he doesn't seem to realize is his legacy is already set in stone, as a commissioner who cares more about saving face than saving The Shield from another legal humiliation.