Tom Brady smiled away the Tuck Rule on the way to his first Super Bowl victory, flashing that dimple-chinned grin that said, "I had it all the time."
The New England Patriots' illegal videotaping. His name popping up in baseball's steroid investigation. Shenanigans with the NFL injury list. An out-of-wedlock child with the actress he jilted before marrying the world's richest supermodel.
Nothing stuck to Teflon Tom.
But the league investigation into the deflated footballs used in this year's AFC championship game might do what none of the other controversies and near-misses could: tarnish the legacy of Tom Brady, a four-time Super Bowl champion and the title game's reigning MVP.
"What I see is that he goes from being 'Tom Perfect' to 'Tom Not-So-Perfect' in some people's eyes," Marc Ganis, president of sports business consulting firm SportsCorp, said Wednesday after the release of the NFL's report on the scandal that came to be known as "Deflategate."
In a 243-page report, NFL investigator Ted Wells found that Patriots employees violated the league rules covering game balls, and that Brady was "at least generally aware" of the plans to doctor the footballs to his liking. The report found some of Brady's claims were "implausible," adding: "It is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's knowledge and approval."
The findings were forwarded to the league's disciplinary chief for potential punishment. Brady could be fined or face a suspension that would keep him out of Week 1 — the marquee league opener at which the Super Bowl banner would traditionally be raised.
The Patriots did not respond to a request for a comment from Brady or coach Bill Belichick, who was exonerated in the report. The team canceled a previously scheduled availability for Thursday.
Owner Bob Kraft issued a spirited statement in defense of his team and questioned Wells' conclusions. "To say we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC Championship Game, would be a gross understatement," he said.
But Wells concluded there was no plausible explanation for the deflated footballs except deliberate tampering. And text messages to and about Brady led the investigator to conclude that he was aware, if not more actively involved, in the scheme.
Regardless of his punishment, Brady's legacy is now tied to the scandal. But the main effect of that, Ganis said, could be to solidify opinions that are already largely entrenched: Opposing fans will continue to doubt him, and fans in New England, where he was once seen as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, will rally to his defense.
"As far as his marketability goes, he is still arguably the most marketable player in the NFL," said Ganis, who grew up a New York Jets fans and is now based in Chicago.
"Tom Brady has been the face of the NFL, with Peyton Manning, for a number of years. He has been an extraordinary ambassador, with cross-over popularity," he said. "If this is all there is, it will be something that is talked about him when he is elected to the Hall of Fame."