When the New England Patriots were penalized first- and fourth-round picks in May 2015 because of Deflategate, the reaction around the league could only be described as massive joy. Fist bumps and high-fives flew inside NFL front offices and locker rooms.
"When they were busted," one front-office executive said, "I thought, 'Good! The league finally caught those cheating douchebags.'"
Based on interviews then and now, this was the consensus sentiment among team executives, coaches and players at the time. The Patriots obviously cheated. Everyone knows they did, and the league got it right.
In the year since, something really strange and unexpected has happened.
I spoke to many of these same sources, 10 interviewed in total, and they now have completely the opposite view. They believe the NFL got the investigation wrong—or mostly wrong—and that the Patriots never cheated. They believe that's the new consensus around the league.
What they say next is even more staggering.
"I hate the Patriots. I despise them," said one NFC team executive, who like everyone else interviewed, asked to remain anonymous for fear of angering the league office. "But they really should get those picks back."
This is the part where you drop your glass of water in shock, and it falls in slow motion toward the floor, like in the movies.
This shift in perception of the Patriots and what they did to deserve the loss of these draft picks—in addition to a $1 million fine and a four-game suspension for Tom Brady, which has since been vacated on appeal and then reinstated upon further appeal—has become one of the biggest stories heading into this draft.
A significant portion of the league now believes the Patriots did not in fact deflate footballs in the 2015 AFC title game against the Indianapolis Colts. And begrudgingly, these people also believe the Patriots should get those picks back.
It seems unbelievable that any team would want the hated Patriots to have their draft picks returned. It's like Tokyo rooting for Godzilla.
The reason, though, is a selfish one. Players, coaches and executives have come to view the Patriots' situation as a referendum on commissioner power. Many of the sources I spoke to used the same word: "railroaded." As in, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell railroaded the Patriots. As in, the commissioner used his power unfairly and arbitrarily.
They think, in effect, that what happened to the Patriots could happen to any of them.
It's not that they have sympathy for the Patriots. It's about fear of Goodell's power. If Goodell can punish the most influential franchise in football so harshly based on questionable science and investigations, they wonder, then what does that mean for the rest of us?
We should clarify several things before we go further. First, many of these team officials still despise the Patriots. Mostly, they admit, because the Patriots win. But also because they think the Patriots skirt the rules more than other teams, though there's no proof of this.
Second, the Patriots won't get those picks back. Will never happen. The NFL has already decided that, despite owner Robert Kraft writing Goodell and requesting they be returned.
Third, these team officials say it's not that they want the Patriots to get their picks back. They don't.
"A weakened Patriots team," said one general manager, "is good for us."
It's that they believe the Patriots should get them back. They like the idea of it because the Patriots getting their picks back would mean Goodell getting a thumb in his eye.
"The Patriots aren't victims," said another general manager, "but they are a cautionary tale for the rest of the league. They're a reminder the commissioner can do whatever he wants, and there isn't a damn thing any team can do about it."
One of the things that sparked this almost unfathomable pseudo-compassion toward New England was the punishment recently handed down to the Chiefs. Team officials say they see parallels between that case and Deflategate.
The Chiefs were docked their 2016 third-round pick and 2017 sixth-round selection for violating the NFL's tampering policies for improperly contacting receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Among the sources I spoke to, while no one felt sorry for the Chiefs, there was a palpable sense of disbelief over the severity of the punishment, mainly because teams tamper constantly and the league knows it.
The Chiefs released a statement responding to the NFL, part of which reflects what many teams feel.
"While we respect Commissioner Goodell and the process," the statement read, "we believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline enforced in similar matters—particularly given the league's inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents."
Privately, the Chiefs were far more furious than their medium-temperature statement suggested. One Chiefs official said the team's main complaint with the punishment is that "the league office makes up their disciplinary policies as it goes along."
Team officials could not remember a penalty as harsh for tampering as the one Kansas City received. In 2008, the 49ers were penalized a fifth-round pick for tampering with linebacker Lance Briggs. The Lions were penalized a seventh-round pick for tampering in 2011. Jets owner Woody Johnson was fined $100,000 for tampering with Darrelle Revis in 2014. None of those penalties was as severe as the Chiefs'.
The punishment for tampering has usually been mild, just as the punishment for altering footballs is usually mild. The NFL rulebook states teams caught tampering with footballs are subject to a $25,000 fine.
Goodell's critics—both in the league and the union—say most of his punishments have no basis in precedent or reason. Or, they say, one particular punishment is levied and then increased when there is public outrage. This is what happened in the Ray Rice case. Goodell punished Rice two games initially for the assault on his then-fiancee. The NFL changed the suspension to an indefinite one only when there was outcry in the media after video of the attack surfaced.
Even one of the appeals judges in the Brady case noted the unevenness of Goodell's use of power. Judge Robert A. Katzmann, the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, strongly dissented, noting that Goodell’s punishment of Brady wasn't warranted based on the findings of the Ted Wells report.
“It is ironic that a process designed to ensure fairness to all players," he wrote, "has been unfairly used against one player.”
Goodell's supporters say one simple thing in response: Don't cheat. If you don't cheat, they say, or break the rules, then you're not subject to discipline. To them, it's that simple.
Goodell is also doing what some owners desire, say a number of team officials. There is a group of hardcore owners who for years have felt teams and players flaunted the rules, and they want Goodell to send strong messages that the league won't tolerate anything of the sort.
All of this history feeds into how teams have re-evaluated the Deflategate saga over time.
What changed the minds of the team officials and players regarding New England's guilt? It was two main things:
1. The ideal gas law. The law shows that the footballs may have deflated on their own. "I dismissed this when I first heard about it," one general manager said, "and then I read up on it and thought, 'There's something to this.'"
2. The leak of fake PSI numbers. ESPN reported that 11 of the 12 footballs were under-inflated. That proved not only to be false but purposely planted to sway public opinion. It's assumed by most teams, including the Patriots, that the leak came from someone in the league office.
Even the most hardened Patriots haters inside team offices despised this manipulation. It cannot be stated enough, team officials say, how angry some teams were that steps were taken to basically frame a franchise.
Did the Patriots cheat? To many of the sources I spoke to, that's not even the question. The league did not prove that the Patriots cheated, so the question is: How could it punish them anyway? While hatred for the Patriots remains fully intact, they all wonder what's to prevent what happened to the Patriots from happening to them.
In typical Bill Belichick form, I'm told, he put Deflategate behind him long ago. Belichick is so focused, a laser looks at him and says, "You're more focused than me." This is what he does. This is what he always does. There's a job. Do your job. It's that simple.
"At this point, we're just trying to go through the draft process and learn the players and learn the draft," Belichick said at the owners' meetings last month. "How that matches up to how many [picks we have] and where we pick is something maybe we'll look at later."
At the Patriots' predraft press conference last week, director of player personnel Nick Caserio was asked by a reporter if he and Belichick have talked privately about the ridiculousness of not having a first-rounder.
"Our philosophy is we control the things that we can control," Caserio said. "Our job is to prepare for the draft, and whatever our picks are then be prepared to pick. A lot of that is out of our hands. There's nothing we can do about that, so there's no sense in spending extra time on it. ... We're just going to try and prepare for the draft and take advantage of our opportunities when we pick."
The Patriots have two picks in the second round (60th and 61st overall), two in the third round, five in the sixth round and two in the seventh.
The Patriots, said one opposing general manager, can still "have a hell of draft. They have a lot of picks." Many across the league fully expect Belichick to package picks and try to move up higher in the draft, maybe back into the first round.
But even if they do well in the draft, there's little question the loss of that first-rounder could potentially damage the team for years to come. This is why: The Patriots are pretty damn good at the draft, particularly in the first round.
Not perfect, but good. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit had a good summary of how much first-round selections have helped the Patriots, factoring in other picks or players gained by trading them:
Think of this: the Patriots have converted their first round picks over the past nine seasons into Randy Moss, Jerod Mayo, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, LeGarrette Blount, Dominique Easley, and Malcom Brown, plus other prospects that haven't panned out like Brandon Meriweather (although he probably should be on that first list if shorter-term impact players like Hernandez and Ryan are), Shawn Crable, Taylor Price, Josh Boyce, and others.
To sum it up, New England has a track record of making the most of its first-round picks.
Not every team has that track record. It's a big part of why the Patriots are the Patriots and why other teams aren't. It's a big part of why other teams hate the Patriots.
Wanting to see things go wrong for the Patriots is a natural and powerful instinct.
And yet, in this climate, fear of the commissioner's wrath is even more powerful.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.