NEW YORK – The NFL came down hard on its biggest star and its championship team, telling Tom Brady and the Patriots that no one is allowed to mess with the rules of the game.
The league suspended the Super Bowl MVP Monday for the first four games of the season, fined the New England Patriots $1 million and took away two draft picks as punishment for deflating footballs used in the AFC title game.
"Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question," Troy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, wrote to Brady.
The Patriots lose next year's first-round pick and a fourth-round choice in 2017.
Brady would miss the season's showcase kickoff game on Sept. 10 against Pittsburgh, then Week 2 at Buffalo, a home game against Jacksonville and a game at Dallas. He would return the week of a Patriots-Colts AFC championship rematch in Indianapolis.
Brady would be replaced by Jimmy Garoppolo, a 2014 second-round selection from Eastern Illinois who won the Walter Payton award as the best player in the FCS. He has thrown 27 NFL passes, including one touchdown.
Brady has three days to appeal the suspension to Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee. His agent, Don Yee, said "the discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis" and that Brady will appeal.
"And if the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells Report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic," Yee said in a statement.
The Patriots said in a statement they thought the punishment was too severe.
"Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league," the statement said.
"Today's punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.
"Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered."
The league also indefinitely suspended the two equipment staffers believed to have carried out the plan, including one who called himself the Deflator.
Vincent wrote letters to the team and Brady saying a league-sponsored investigative report established "substantial and credible evidence" that the quarterback knew the employees were deflating footballs and failed to cooperate with investigators.
The investigation by attorney Ted Wells found that Brady "was at least generally aware" of plans by two Patriots employees to prepare the balls to his liking, below the league-mandated minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch.
The Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 and went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
The fine matches the largest the NFL has handed out, to Ed DeBartolo Jr., then the San Francisco 49ers' owner, who pleaded guilty to a felony for his role in a Louisiana gambling scandal in 1999.
Vincent told the Patriots the punishment was handed out regardless of whether the flatter footballs — which can be easier to grip and catch — affected the outcome of the blowout win over the Colts. Vincent said the flattening of balls probably began much earlier.
"While we cannot be certain when the activity began, the evidence suggests that January 18th was not the first and only occasion when this occurred, particularly in light of the evidence referring to deflation of footballs going back to before the beginning of the 2014 season," he wrote.
"It is impossible to determine whether this activity had an effect on the outcome of games or what that effect was."
In his 243-page report released by the league last week, Wells found that the team broke the rules again, this time by deflating the game footballs after they had been checked by officials. Although the report did not conclusively link the four-time Super Bowl champion to the illegal activity, text messages between the equipment staffers indicated that Brady knew it was going on. Investigators said Brady's explanation for the messages was implausible.
"It is unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady's knowledge and approval," the report said.
The NFL allows each team to provide the footballs used by its offense — a procedure Brady played a role in creating — but it requires them to be inflated in that range of 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch. Brady has expressed a preference for the lower end of the range.
After Monday's announcement, the Patriots' odds for winning another title dropped from 7-1 to 10-1, according to the Glantz-Culver line.