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It was late Tuesday night when the text from a Patriots player arrived on my phone. The message was simple and succinct. Yet also powerful.
“It’s us against the world,” the player wrote.
Us against the world.
Then, just hours later, on Wednesday morning, came one of the most staggering news conferences I’ve seen in 25 years of covering the NFL. Robert Kraft—responding to Tuesday’s statement from commissioner Roger Goodell, who denied Tom Brady’s appeal of a four-game suspension for his part in Deflategate—destroyed Goodell and initiated what can only be called a sort of NFL civil war. The last time we saw this was when Al Davis owned the Raiders.
This was one of the key parts of Kraft’s statement:
Tom Brady is a person of great integrity and is a great ambassador of the game, both on and off the field.
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 any 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.
At one point, Kraft continued to say, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league.”
It cannot be stressed enough just how remarkable this statement was. Kraft is the most powerful owner in the country’s most powerful sport, and he just took his commissioner and his disciplinary process to the woodshed. I believe it is Kraft, not NWA, who is Straight Outta Compton.
What we are now seeing, what we will continue to see all season, is Revenge of the Patriots. They aren’t just mad. They aren’t just hurt. They are now hellbent on getting even.
They will do this in a number of ways. With speeches like Kraft’s. With actions like Brady going to federal court.
But, mostly, they will do it with winning. Their anger, their sense of injustice—no matter if misplaced—will serve as a sort of nuclear fuel. There will be no cooling off by Kraft and the team anytime soon. No turning of cheeks. Just kicking the crap out of teams on the field.
Us against the world. The Patriots thrive on this. I believe they will, to borrow a phrase from Johnny Football, wreck this league on the field.
While New England has had some of this league paranoia since Spygate, Deflategate has ramped it up considerably. Some of their angst is understandable. The process the NFL used to reach a (correct) conclusion was indeed flawed. When Kraft expresses anger about the various leaks, he has a point.
Now, Kraft is wrong about the NFL purposely trying to destroy Brady. There is no logical reason for the NFL to destroy its version of Captain America. Kraft also cannot explain why Brady destroyed his phone (cracked it/dropped in the toilet/dropped down a flight of stairs, whatever) just as he was meeting with investigators.
This passage from Goodell’s 20-page statement is also critical:
Indeed, a player of Mr. Brady’s tenure in the league and sophistication, and who was represented by highly experienced counsel (both personal and NFLPA-engaged), cannot credibly contend that he believed that he could, without consequences, destroy his cellphone on or about the day of his interview with the investigators when he knew in advance of the interview that the investigators were seeking the cellphone for the evidence that it contained. And the belated attempt by his representatives to remedy this failure to cooperate—ultimately by asking the NFL to track down nearly 10,000 text messages sent to or received from a substantial number of other individuals—is simply insufficient. The NFLPA and Mr. Brady’s representatives have identified no instance in or outside the NFL in which such conduct has been deemed satisfactory cooperation with an investigation.
Finally, the CBA-mandated standard NFL Player Contract, which Mr. Brady signed, makes clear and provides notice that, in the event of a finding of conduct detrimental, the Commissioner may “suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely.”
No matter to the Patriots. They see all of this as a grand conspiracy, the league versus Tom, and now they are going to fight back hard, on the field and off it.
Another Super Bowl appearance coming this season? I think highly possible. This isn’t hyperbole. This is how I feel. If Brady misses the first four games, well, the Patriots have started slow before and won. And they’ve found ways to win games without Brady before, too.
Remember, the brains of this operation is Bill Belichick—to me, the greatest coach of all time. He is a great manipulator of locker rooms (and I mean this in a good way). He will channel all of this anger and present a dangerous, unified football team to the rest of the league. He will be the Us against the world ringleader.
The Patriots are still in a relatively weak division, which they’ve won six straight times and 11 of the past 12 seasons. The conference is tough, but even with Brady missing four games—if that happens—they can still beat the Colts or Broncos.
None of this is a statement on Brady’s guilt or innocence. I think the NFL is right about Brady. But that doesn’t matter now. What matters is the Patriots are angry. And you wouldn’t like the Patriots when they’re angry.
“We’re all upset over how Tom is being treated,” the player also texted. “What they’re doing to Tom is just wrong.”
You saw a sense of this outrage—just a smidge—when several players met with the media on Wednesday. The players were instructed by Kraft in his speech to not talk Deflategate for the rest of the year, and it sounded like they were additionally coached. But there were snippets of what the Patriots player told me.
Said receiver Matthew Slater: “All of us in here are part of a family…and you stick with your family, no matter what the outcome.” Slater added that Brady was the heartbeat of the team.
Don’t be fooled by the calmness of his voice. Listen to his words.
The Patriots are furious. More than furious, they are on a mission. It’s the Patriots against the world.
And the rest of the league needs to watch out.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.