It seemed impossible two months ago that Roger Goodell's credibility could erode any further.
At the height of the NFL's September of Shame, Goodell had the approval rating of a politician who had raised taxes a dozen times and dropped a baby he was trying to kiss. If Goodell told you the sun was shining, you would invest in an umbrella factory. The stutter-step of the Ray Rice suspension, combined with a very public game of hide-the-evidence, and the emergency duct-taping of the Adrian Peterson situation made Goodell look duplicitous, reactive and foolish.
But those of us who watched Goodell duck and dodge his way through Bountygate and smaller scandals expected him to find some clever exit strategy. It wasn't about doing the right thing, but playing a crafty shell game with all of the wrong things. He was going to find a public relations lifeboat, even if he had to knock some people over to get to it.
The lifeboats are now full. Goodell's credibility is disappearing beneath the murky waves. And he thought it was unsinkable.
Former judge Barbara S. Jones, serving as neutral arbiter of Ray Rice's appeal, has overturned Rice's indefinite NFL suspension. In a 17-page decision, Jones ruled that the NFL's decision to increase Rice's initial two-game suspension for hitting then-fiancee Janay Palmer, based on the league's assertion that Rice misled them about the severity of his actions during the initial incident, was "an abuse of discretion and must be vacated."
In other words, Goodell took things too far, which is his default strategy after not taking things far enough. He overreached his authority after not using his authority properly in the first place. He veered away from the median and steered into a ditch. That's becoming his standard driving technique.
Jones' decision reminds us of many things we already knew and confirms a few things we all suspected. We all knew that Rice struck his wife in a casino elevator in February; we had all seen video of Palmer on the floor, and no one claimed she slipped on a bar of soap. The league had conducted a full investigation. Rice admitted to just about every particular of the crime. The original two-game suspension was never based on any misunderstanding of what happened in the elevator, and the league's initial justifications never claimed that anything less than an act of domestic violence had taken place.
It's a version of events that the NFL had been subjecting to its Ministry of Truth treatment since the infamous "elevator video" of Rice striking Palmer became public. The league had to assert that Goodell had never seen the tape, so the league denied ever receiving the tape. Jones determined that Rice himself had a copy of the tape, yet the NFL did not ask for it. She also essentially ruled that the evidence on the tape was irrelevant, as the NFL already had all the pertinent facts.
In the NFL's version of events, Rice had to have somehow "lied" about his actions to Goodell, so we were left wondering about some alternate version of events that created mitigating circumstances for the man dragging his unconscious fiancee down a hallway. According to Jones' decision, no such alternate version exists.
In short, the conclusion is Goodell lied, lied continuously, and lied sloppily.
But Rice's "starkly different sequence of events" was Goodell's story, and he stuck with it for nearly three months. No one uses procrastination as a management tool like Goodell, except for the American judicial system. Fans, reporters and television networks may forget details, but lawyers and judges tend to keep things written down, dated and organized. Jones had the minutes from hearings and documented accounts at her disposal.
Reading her decision, it is hard to see where Goodell thought he would have a chance of upholding the suspension. Perhaps the delay itself was his goal: It has created a de facto 11-game suspension. But everyone from the union to the fans has gotten wise to the commissioner's stall tactics.
Rice's successful appeal comes just two weeks after Adrian Peterson's suspension, another example of justice-by-waiting-around that has potential to backfire when Peterson's own appeal is heard. If Rice can be protected from double jeopardy, perhaps Peterson is eligible for "time served" for his long imprisonment in the "Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List" Bastille. Goodell may no longer have the non-punishment punishment at his disposal. He could also lose much more.
Roger Goodell does not need to have any credibility with you or me. He does not need credibility with the players. Credibility with the union would help—it is a lot easier to do business when the base level of trust between labor and management is better than "keep your hand on your wallet at all times"—but it is not essential. Goodell needs credibility with his bosses, the NFL owners.
How many more of these bungles will they tolerate before their votes of confidence erode into something else? That is a hard question to answer, though Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti certainly did not enjoy having to play both sides against the middle when the league was in "Tape? What tape?" mode.
Goodell gave Rice a soft suspension because he thought it was a wise public relations move: Rice was popular, and a quick return could be spun as a redemption story. It was a simple case of misreading public sentiment. Goodell imposed the indefinite suspension as a public relations move: We were outraged by the video, and Goodell (who had already admitted that his initial suspension was too lenient) decided to double down in response to the public outcry instead of simply moving forward.
The Exempt List gambit was a public relations move to hide Peterson and others in the gulags until the heat died down. The two months of silence on the Rice-Peterson front was a public relations move designed to push these stories beneath headlines of the playoff chase.
Eventually, the owners will decide they need to make a public relations move of their own. A strict commissioner is tolerable. A lenient commissioner is tolerable. A commissioner so focused on the bottom line that discipline is an afterthought would be, to the owners, very tolerable.
But a commissioner who compounds bad decisions with worse ones, oversteps his power and bungles into blind corners that leave everyone looking ridiculous will soon be intolerable to a group of owners whose golden goose is their league's image. He who lives by public relations dies by public relations.
It won't happen today or tomorrow. Those who expected Goodell to be stabbed on the steps of the Roman Senate in September won't see it December, either. But wait until the new Personal Conduct Policy is ratified. Listen to the whispers when owners start to spend time talking to one another after the season. Keep your ears open around the spring meetings. If Goodell is still stuck in this disciplinary quagmire, if league business is still dominated by appeals of appeals of appeals, there will be calls to action.
The owners may not like the appearance of a palace coup, and appearances are what this is all about. Goodell could be left to twist, with many of his powers stripped and his reputation tattered, for a lame-duck year or two. He could even make it to the end of his 2018 contract as a puppet king whose every decision is scrutinized, appealed and overturned.
Justice delayed endlessly—it would be a taste of Goodell's own medicine.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.