No more ducking, Roger Goodell.
For two years, the NFL commissioner has been conspicuous in his absence from any game involving Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. But no more. Since Goodell won’t come to New England, Brady and the Patriots will take the game to him.
Ever been to one of those uncomfortable parties where the host has invited someone while praying he or she won’t show up, and then the person does? Yeah. Super Bowl LI is going to be just like that, only way more awkward because the entire world will be watching.
“For a number of reasons, all of you in the stadium understand how big this win was,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, making not the slightest effort to be subtle and drawing an enthusiastic roar in response.
“But we have to go to Houston and win one (more).”
Brady refused to get drawn into the fray, saying his teammates were his only motivation and claiming not even to have heard the fans taunt Goodell with chants of, “Where is Roger?”
But this entire season, or what he’s played of it, has doubled as Brady’s revenge tour, designed to force a showdown with Goodell in Houston.
Even for a four-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP, Brady is playing at a ridiculously high level. He threw two interceptions during the entire regular season, the fewest of his career, while completing 67% of his passes. In Sunday’s 36-17 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he shredded what had been one of the toughest defenses down the stretch for 384 yards, a Patriots postseason record. Brady finished 32 of 42, with three touchdowns, as he became the first player to reach seven Super Bowls.
Now all that’s left is for him to flash that Cheshire Cat grin as he accepts the MVP trophy from Goodell two weeks from now.
And if you’ve followed the Deflategate saga at all, you just know that’s coming.
“Tom did what Tom does,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “He’s fired up and laser-focused.”
For those trapped on a remote island for the last two years, a recap: The Indianapolis Colts accused the Patriots of using deflated footballs in the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Based on fuzzy science and some shadiness by Brady and two New England equipment guys, the NFL decided that the Patriots were, in fact, cheating. New England was docked a first-round draft pick and fined $1 million — the largest fine in NFL history, mind you. Kraft opted not to fight the punishment imposed in May 2015, hoping Goodell would show some leniency toward Brady.
Goodell takes the protection of his beloved “shield” personally, and anyone he feels is playing fast and loose with the rules is going to feel his wrath. Even if that person is a future Hall of Fame quarterback and current NFL poster boy.
Goodell suspended Brady four games — a harsher sentence than some domestic abusers have gotten. The punishment was delayed while it went through the court system, but Brady finally served it at the start of the season.
For two years now, Kraft and New England fans have seethed at the injustice of it all, believing Brady and the Patriots were targeted as payback for all of their success. (Four Super Bowl titles — and counting — since 2001 for those keeping track.) All that vitriol once reserved for the New York Yankees was turned on Goodell.
And don’t think the commish doesn’t know it.
Once a close friend of Kraft’s — Goodell was a guest at the owner’s pre-AFC Championship Game party two years ago — he’s been avoiding the Patriots as if they have a highly communicable disease. He skipped the season opener here in 2015, an unheard-of slight for the NFL’s kickoff party.
After being in Atlanta for last week’s divisional round, fairness would have dictated that he come to New England for the AFC title game. So, too, the prospect of a better game, honestly.
But to the surprise of no one, Goodell decided it was better that he again go to Atlanta, where he could roam the sideline without worry.
“He’s like Waldo right now,” Bennett said. “He didn’t want to come here.”
But there will be no hiding in Houston. Goodell is going to have to face Brady, on the biggest stage the NFL has.
“The boys showed up and played today,” Brady said. “We’ve got to do that again in two weeks.”
Where is Roger? Heading to Houston for the Super Bowl, same as Brady.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.