FOXBOROUGH – Throughout the Deflategate saga, Patriots players and owner Robert Kraft have staunchly defended quarterback Tom Brady.
On Wednesday, during a surprise appearance at a pre-training camp press conference, Kraft continued to stand up for Brady, slammed commissioner Roger Goodell, and apologized to the team’s fans.
“I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” Kraft said.
Given his relationship with Goodell and his standing as owner of one of the NFL’s most visible franchises — and the reigning Super Bowl champion — Kraft’s statement was stunning.
“The decision handed down by the league yesterday is unfathomable to me; it is routine for discipline in the NFL to be reduced upon appeal,” Kraft said, referring to Goodell’s decision to uphold the four-game suspension given to Brady for his alleged knowledge of possible wrongdoing. “In the vast majority of these cases, there is tangible and hard evidence of the infraction for which the discipline is being imposed, and the initial penalty still gets reduced.
“Six months removed from the AFC Championship game, the league still has no hard evidence of anybody doing anything to tamper with the PSI levels of footballs.”
Also, in a post on his official Facebook page Wednesday morning, Brady stated directly, “I did nothing wrong, and no one in the Patriots organization did either.”
He also commented on the NFL’s charge that he destroyed his cellphone. Brady said his attorneys had already made it clear to investigators that they would never be given his phone (which he could not legally be compelled to do), and that he replaced his phone because it had been broken, not nefariously destroyed.
In May, after a protracted, expensive investigation led by attorney Ted Wells, the NFL announced Brady’s four-game suspension as well as an unprecedented punishment for New England: the loss of first- and fourth-round draft picks as well as a $1 million fine.
A little more than a week later, at the NFL spring meetings, Kraft announced he would accept the team’s penalty and not appeal. There was rampant speculation that Kraft taking the hit for the team would lead to a lighter sentence for Brady, although Goodell had directly said Kraft’s decision would have no affect on the Brady ruling.
Kraft affirmed on Wednesday he believed that’s exactly what would happen — and apologized to fans, many of whom were upset at the appearance that the owner rolled over for Goodell.
“I continue to believe and unequivocally support Tom Brady,” Kraft said. “I first and foremost need to apologize to our fans, because I truly believed what I did in May, given the actual evidence of the situation and the league’s history on discipline matters, would make it much easier for the league to exonerate Tom Brady.
“Unfortunately, I was wrong.”
Kraft hammered home the idea that the NFL’s aim all along has been to cast Brady and the Patriots in a negative light, focused on proving that it is correct and not being fair and thorough.
He mentioned the ESPN report just a couple of days after the AFC Championship game that 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in the game were found to have been underinflated by two pounds per square inch under the league-mandated minimum of 12.5 PSI.
The Wells report eventually proved that statement to be false, but no one from the NFL corrected the initial report, which was gobbled up by NFL fans who have been quick to call the Patriots cheaters in recent years.
“The league’s handling of this entire process has been extremely frustrating and disconcerting,” Kraft said. “I will never understand why an erroneous report regarding the PSI level of footballs was leaked by a source from the NFL . . . and was never corrected by those who had the correct information. For four months, that report cast aspersions and shaped public opinion.”
The shaping continued on Tuesday, Kraft continued, with Goodell’s 20-page report on his appeal decision highlighting the charge that Brady destroyed his cellphone on or just before the day he met with Wells and investigators.
Kraft backed Brady, saying the quarterback had offered the phone number of every person he had contacted with the broken phone to investigators, and that investigators had been given access to the phones of every non-player in the Patriots’ organization, including Bill Belichick.
“Tom Brady is a person of great integrity, and is a great ambassador of the game, both on and off the field,” Kraft said. “Yet for reasons that I cannot comprehend, there are those in the league office who are more determined to prove that they were right rather than admit any culpability of their own or take responsibility for the initiation of a process and ensuing investigation that was flawed.
“I have come to the conclusion that this was never about doing what was fair and just. Back in May, I had to make a difficult decision that I now regret. I tried to do what I thought was right; I chose not to take legal action. I wanted to return the focus to football.
“I have been negotiating agreements on a global basis my entire life. I know there are times when you have to give up important points on principle to achieve a greater good. I acted in good faith and was optimistic that by taking the actions I took, the league would have what they wanted.
“I was willing to accept the harshest penalty in the history of the NFL for an alleged ball violation because I believed it would help exonerate Tom.”
Kraft left the podium without taking questions, ceding to Belichick. But the coach, heading into his 16th season in charge of the Patriots, made it clear from the get-go that he was not going to talk about Deflategate, and true to form, never wavered.
“I think Robert took care of the other situation. Tom already had a statement. So nothing really to talk about there,” Belichick said in his opening statement. “I won’t really be dealing with that at all, just trying to get the team ready and prepare for the regular season as we always do and we did all spring. There’s no change for us on the football team.”
He continued with the theme of getting ready for the 2015 season throughout the next four-plus minutes, and would not talk specifics when asked about Jimmy Garoppolo, the second-year quarterback who will start any games Brady has to miss.
“I think everybody learned a lot this spring,” Belichick said when asked about Garoppolo’s development. “I think the rookies learned a lot. I think the veterans learned a lot. It’s the start of a season. It’s a preparation for training camp. Now is when we really get to go out there and execute and work on it at a higher tempo and higher level. Not today, but eventually that will be coming once we’re able to practice in pads.”
Asked how he might split reps between Brady and Garoppolo, Belichick responded that in training camp everyone gets reps and the whole team is evaluated.