HOUSTON − Of course, it was awkward. It was always going to be awkward, no matter what anyone said.
All you had to do was pay attention to the body language in Press Conference Room B at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The forced smiles, the halfhearted handshakes. The quick exit Roger Goodell made from the stage after presenting Tom Brady with the Pete Rozelle Trophy for being MVP of Super Bowl LI and posing for photographs. The even quicker exit Brady made from the entire room after speaking with reporters.
On Monday, the moment that had been talked about for almost a year finally arrived.
Goodell, the NFL commissioner who had suspended Brady for illegally underinflated footballs two postseasons ago, had to present the quarterback who fiercely fought the punishment in court with an award that is, in fact, a football. A silver one, just like the Lombardi Trophy that sat next to it on a table, but the irony was impossible to ignore.
Brady took the high road with his comments. He didn't bash the commissioner as others, including his father, had on his behalf. In fact, he called it an "honor to be here and have the commissioner present us with this trophy."
Goodell took the high road, too. He said Brady may have "cemented his legacy as not just a great Super Bowl performer but maybe one of the greatest players of all time" in leading the Patriots from a 25-point deficit to their 34-28 overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.
Deflategate never was specifically addressed, but it was the overinflated elephant in the room.
"We faced a lot of adversities over the course of the year and overcame them with a lot of mental toughness," Brady said, adding that it took a "miraculous effort" for the Brady-Bill Belichick Patriots to win their fifth Super Bowl.
As Brady spoke, Belichick sat off to the side, next to Goodell. He listened as reporters tried to get Brady to acknowledge the rift with the commissioner and the NFL, probing into Brady's emotions, which were overflowing on the field after James White's decisive 2-yard touchdown run on the first possession of OT. Brady dropped to his knees and cried for several long moments. His mother's battle with cancer no doubt was on his mind, but it's likely his thoughts included being forced to watch the first four games of the season due to his suspension.
The Patriots and Brady are easy for fans of the NFL's 31 other teams − and especially the Buffalo Bills − to hate because their past also includes the shadiness of Spygate and they always win and Brady always delivers in the clutch. But when it came to the heavy handedness of the Deflategate penalty, Goodell became more of the villain. He went so far as to skip both of the Patriots' home playoff wins, choosing instead to attend both of the Falcons' postseason games.
Ever since Deflategate took on a life of its own in the sports world, the popular story line was that Brady, who already had established himself as the NFL's greatest quarterback/player in history, would carry extra motivation into each game. He would play with an overwhelming sense of vengeance, looking to take out his anger and disgust with Goodell and the league on every Patriot opponent.
He would get his pound of flesh … and more hardware for the trophy case.
Belichick quietly listened to the line of questioning. And after Brady grabbed the silver football and bolted for the door, it was the coach's turn to lend some perspective to the moment.
He did so, just as effectively as he kept his team together through its shocking meltdown through the better part of three quarters and found the right buttons to push after seemingly hitting all of the wrong ones on the way to falling behind, 28-3.
"With all due respect, I think it's really inappropriate to suggest in Tom's career he's been anything other than a great teammate, a great worker and has given us every single ounce of effort and blood, sweat and tears that he has in him," Belichick said.
He wasn't performing his usual monotone, say-almost-nothing act for the media. Belichick was lecturing. He was setting the record straight, or at least his version of straight.
"And," Belichick continued, "to insinuate that this year was somehow different, that this year he competed harder or did anything to a higher degree than he ever has in the past, I think, is insulting to the tremendous effort and leadership and competitiveness that he's shown.
"For the 17 years that I've coached him, it's been like that. Every year, every day, every week, every practice. I don't care if it's in May, August or January, Tom Brady gives us his best every time he steps on the field."
Still, he was never better than he was in Super Bowl LI. He put up Super Bowl-record numbers by completing 43 of 62 passes for 466 yards and two touchdowns. He battled back from uncharacteristic misfires and drops by his receivers. He battled back from an interception that was returned for an 82-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 21-0 lead and what many foolishly thought was a likely knockout punch. He battled back from five sacks and eight hits.
It's hard to imagine that only his pure talent and standard work ethic were all that made that happen.
Goodell and the rest of the NFL got exactly what they wanted − a punishment that held up in court and sent a message to the rest of the players that even the game's biggest star isn't above the league's law. They also got the most exciting Super Bowl, the first to go to overtime, ever played.
When his portion of the news conference ended, he picked up the prize for his incredible performance and said, "I'm taking this home."
No one asked if he was going to wipe off the commissioner's fingerprints.