The cloud that has hovered over the Patriots' Super Bowl victory for the last three months finally began to deliver its rain Wednesday.
A 243-page NFL investigation found that it is "more probable than not" that Patriots personnel were involved in "a deliberate attempt to circumvent" league rules and that quarterback Tom Brady "was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities . . . involving the release of air from Patriots game balls."
While the report, provided by lead investigator Ted Wells, was not able to provide direct evidence of tampering with the inflation of footballs used by the Patriots in the AFC Championship against the Colts, it paints a damning picture of staffers systematically lowering the air pressure in game balls during several seasons.
Jim McNally, the officials' locker room attendant, refers to himself as "the deflator" in text messages with John Jastremski, a Patriots equipment assistant. Texts between the two also reference Jastremski giving McNally a "needle" to be wrapped in cash along with sneakers and footballs autographed by Brady.
"We believe it is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's knowledge and approval," the report stated. "Based on our interviews and assessment of McNally and Jastremski, we also do not believe that they would personally and unilaterally engage in such conduct in the absence of Brady's awareness and consent."
The report also rebuffs the Patriots' claim that atmospheric conditions during the game led to 11 of the 12 game balls used by the Patriots to be underinflated when measured at halftime.
"We do not believe there was any wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing by Patriots ownership, head coach [Bill] Belichick or any other Patriots coach in the matters investigated," the report states. It also clears equipment manager Dave Schoenfeld.
The NFL has not announced any discipline, and spokesman Greg Aiello would not speculate on a time frame for that.
Before the Super Bowl, Patriots owner Robert Kraft defended Brady and Belichick and expressed disappointment over how the NFL handled the early stages of the investigation. In a statement, Kraft said: "That sentiment has not changed."
Kraft's statement points to the lack of "any incontrovertible or hard evidence" on the deflation of footballs in the AFC title game and adds that "the time, effort and resources expended to reach this conclusion are incomprehensible to me." He does, however, "accept the findings of the report and [will accept] any discipline levied by the league."
The NFL began its investigation after the Patriots beat the Colts, 45-7, Jan. 18 at Gillette Stadium. The Colts complained several balls were underinflated, and the NFL confirmed that 11 of the 12 were under the limit of 12.5 psi when measured at halftime.
The report includes many texts between McNally and Jastremski from October to January that imply Brady was requesting footballs deflated below 12.5 psi. The texts imply Brady previously was upset with the game balls.
The report found that before the AFC title game, referee Walt Anderson was unable to locate in the officials' locker room the balls that had been cleared for use. McNally had removed them from the locker room without permission and brought them into a bathroom, "locking the door and remaining inside the bathroom with the game balls for approximately one minute and forty seconds, an amount of time sufficient to deflate 13 footballs using a needle."
McNally did not mention taking the footballs into the bathroom in his initial interview with NFL Security, and the report notes his "subsequent varying explanations for the bathroom stop and decision not to utilize readily available bathroom facilities" in the officials' locker room or other well-populated areas.
It called Brady "a constant reference point" in discussions between McNally and Jastremski "about inflation, deflation, needles and items to be received by McNally."
Brady refused to provide investigators with emails, text messages and phone records. He also denied knowledge of or involvement in efforts to deflate game balls and claimed he didn't know McNally's name or responsibilities until after the events of the AFC Championship Game.
The report says: "We found these claims not plausible and contradicted by other evidence."
It also notes increased communication between Brady and Jastremski (via forensic imaging of Jastremski's phone) immediately after the AFC title game, when stories began to circulate about the controversy.
All of which add up to the report's findings despite the lack of any so-called smoking gun.
"Indeed, in our view," the report states, "a contrary conclusion requires the acceptance of an implausible number of communications and events as benign coincidences."