The New England Patriots opened training camp Wednesday at Gillette Stadium and a freshly arrived Martian might have noticed no difference. Quarterback Tom Brady is present, preparing as if his four-game suspension for DeflateGate hadn’t happened by working with first-team players.
But owner Robert Kraft kicked off the activities with an unexpected appearance at the podium and took dead aim at the NFL and, by extension, Commissioner Roger Goodell. Saying that the NFL’s decision to uphold Brady’s four-game suspension “is unfathomable to me,” added in a bombshell statement, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league.”
Kraft, the man who helped end the lockout four years ago and an owner who has been called an assistant commissioner because of his closeness to Roger Goodell, had accepted the NFL’s penalties of the team in May and dropped his appeal, a decision he said he regrets now.
“I have come to the conclusion this was never about doing what was fair and just,” he said, yet another missile aimed straight at the NFL offices.
Kraft accused the NFL of using a sensational headline in its release about the Brady suspension Tuesday, a headline that he believes emphasized Brady destroying his cellphone to distract from an absence of evidence. Kraft apologized to fans and Brady for accepting the penalty in May. In addition, he questioned why the NFL never bothered to correct an initial, erroneous leak that indicated that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs were under-inflated in the AFC championship game.
“There are those in the league office more determined to prove they were right than to take any culpability” for what Kraft believes is a flawed investigation.
Kraft, who also stood beside Goodell during the fallout from the Ray Rice mess, left and replaced by Coach Bill Belichick, who opened with a Belichickian “it’s good to see everyone back here,” without a trace of irony.
He deflected Brady questions with answers that show Belichick-speak needs no training camp. After meeting with reporters for about 10 minutes, it was basically on to the 2015 season. “There is no change for us on the football field,” Belichick said. “We are going to take it day by day.”
Belichick preferred to let Kraft rally the fan base with raw, emotional comments in his unexpected appearance.
“In light of yesterday’s league ruling, I felt it was important to make a statement today prior to the start of training camp,” Kraft said, adding that he would not speak again until the legal process is completed. “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. In the vast majority of these cases, there is tangible and hard evidence of the infraction for which the the discipline is being imposed, and still the initial penalty 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. I continue to believe and unequivocally support Tom Brady.
“I, first and foremost, need to apologize to our fans, because I truly believe what I did in May, given the actual evidence of the situation and the league’s history on such matters, would make it much easier for the league to exonerate Tom Brady. Unfortunately, I was wrong.”
Kraft has always said that he thinks of Brady as another son.
“I tried to do what I though was right. I chose not to take legal action,” Kraft said of deciding to accept a $1 million fine and loss of draft picks as a team penalty. “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 of 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 repeated that he believes the Ted Wells report contains no hard evidence and said that it’s “reprehensible” for the league to try to ruin Brady’s reputation. (He didn’t say why he’d think the league would do this to one of its biggest stars.)
“Personally,” Kraft said, “this is very sad and disappointing to me.”