Robert Kraft had better be right

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Robert Kraft got off the team plane and decided to pick up the blitz for his head coach and quarterback, if only because he felt he had no choice. The walls were closing hard around him, threatening to collapse on top of his staggering NFL success story, and the owner of the New England Patriots figured he had better get as rough and tough as Bill Belichick got Saturday.

No, Kraft didn't put on a bizarre science fair to explain how the home team's footballs could lose air in the AFC Championship Game faster than Andrew Luck's offense did. Instead, the owner stepped to the microphone and read a speech proclaiming that Belichick and Tom Brady had committed no air-pressure felonies or misdemeanors, and that if the NFL's investigation proves just that, he'd "expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team, and in particular Coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they've had to endure this past week."

Kraft had better be right here. If he isn't, the three-time Super Bowl champ is going to be best remembered as one of the sport's biggest losers.

Spygate happened on his watch, and now this latest crisis might bleed all the air out of Kraft's legacy as the Everyman superfan who bought a team and built the sport's last dynasty. He called Belichick and Brady "my guys" and "part of my family" and employees who had never lied to him in their 15 years on the job. Kraft said that he was disappointed in how this story had been handled and covered, that he believed "unconditionally" that his Patriots were guilty of nothing, and that -- surprise, surprise -- his franchise is actually the home office for game-day integrity and fair play.

It was a hell of an entrance at the same hotel where the New York Giants stayed seven years ago, right before they beat the Patriots in University of Phoenix Stadium and denied them their dream 19-0 season. Kraft spoke after a Fox Sports report said that the NFL has a Patriots locker room attendant on video carrying those game balls from the officials' room to some place other than the field, and that this staffer is what investigators like to call a person of interest.

Kraft spoke after GQ published an unflattering profile of Roger Goodell that portrayed New England's owner as the commissioner's fiercest advocate, as a supporter who helped land him a compensation package of some $300 million over seven years, and as a public relations adviser who tried steering Goodell through the Ray Rice disaster and who lobbied fellow owners for endorsements when the commissioner was in dire need of them.

The GQ profile quoted one veteran NFL executive calling Kraft "the assistant commissioner."

Maybe that characterization inspired "the assistant commissioner" to take the fight to the commissioner for the sake of his own credibility. Maybe Seattle's Richard Sherman did the trick the day before by calling out Kraft and Goodell for getting cozy at the owner's house on the eve of the AFC Championship Game. Or maybe it was the Fox story that sent Kraft over the edge on the flight away from the approaching blizzard back home and toward the desert storm that won't subside until New England faces the defending champs with properly inflated balls (we assume) in Super Bowl XLIX.

If the NFL finds a staffer did indeed take a walk on the wild side with the Patriots' footballs and did break the rules by deflating them to Brady's liking, wow, Kraft will go down as a fool for believing his guys. And let's face it: If Shakespeare were alive and well as a 21st-century football fan, this would be the kind of tragedy he'd dream up -- an organization famous for its Kremlin-like secrecy and paranoia getting caught by the very cameras set up to track the outsiders in its midst.

As soon as Kraft was done with his unscheduled visit to the Super Bowl podium, Belichick took his place and said he had nothing to add to his own unscheduled news conference the other day, a performance met with ridicule in some corners for the coach's overcaffeinated theories and claims. Brady followed him and said he's "moved past" his hurt feelings after critics (and not just those in the media) assailed his own claims of innocence.

The quarterback didn't hear Kraft's passionate defense of the entire Patriots program, just a quick summation. "They said as I was walking in that he said some awfully nice things," Brady said.

Or some awfully reckless things. The NFL's outside investigator, Ted Wells, said he still has weeks to go before reaching a conclusion, and yet Kraft has already reached his. He is trusting Belichick, the maker of Spygate, and he is trusting Brady, a quarterback who has said in the past he prefers throwing deflated footballs. Whom should the fans believe? And if the Patriots did break the rules in the first half of a blowout victory over the Colts, were they guilty of outright cheating or simply the kind of gamesmanship that goes on at all levels of sports?

At least one football fan was worth asking after Kraft took the stage Monday night and said what he said. Tim Smyczek, a big Packers fan from Milwaukee, also happens to be the journeyman American tennis player who took Rafael Nadal to the 12th game of the fifth set at the Australian Open last week. That's when someone in the crowd shouted just as Nadal was about to serve, causing a fault that could have helped Smyczek's bid for a once-in-a-lifetime upset. Smyczek insisted that the all-time great replay his first serve, and Nadal won the point and then the match before calling the gesture of sportsmanship "amazing."

Smyczek said by phone that he did for Nadal what any good sport would do, and that his parents taught him long ago that integrity and character were far more important than the score on the board. "I don't know if I know enough about the inflation of a football to give an educated thought on Deflategate," he said, "but I guess I'd be able to tell if a tennis ball was 15 percent flatter than it should be.

"Tom Brady is a great player and Bill Belichick is a great coach, and you can't argue with their records, but this isn't the first time the Patriots have been caught up in stuff like that. If it was intentional cheating, I think that would really be a shame. As a fan I really don't want to believe it and I hope it's all a mistake, but maybe I'm really naïve."

Smyczek the Packers fan was informed that Kraft had unconditionally supported his coach and quarterback in his first public act at Super Bowl XLIX. "It reminds me a little of when Ryan Braun told his friend Aaron Rodgers he didn't cheat with [performance-enhancing drugs]," Smyczek said. "Rodgers was really disappointed when the truth came out, and you hope as a football fan that doesn't happen here."

In the end, Kraft needs the Patriots' story to stand up as much as anyone. If his designated BFF, Goodell, nails the Patriots on a video of an equipment guy taking a detour he shouldn't have taken, the commissioner won't destroy the evidence like he did in the Spygate case.

Those days are over. Kraft is out there on a wobbly limb now, and if he falls he'll end up a much bigger loser than he did the last time his Patriots played a Super Bowl in this corner of the Arizona desert.

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