CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Tom Brady and Bill Belichick did not cheat. Shame on you if you believe they did.
So decreed Patriots owner Robert Kraft during a surprise appearance Monday, as he took the podium prior to scheduled press conferences for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Hours after FOX reported that the NFL had tabbed a Patriots locker-room attendant as a Deflategate "person of interest," Kraft responded with an elbow from the top ropes, doing just about everything shy of staring directly into a camera and challenging Roger Goodell to punish him and his franchise.
"As I said on Friday in my prepared statement, we welcome the league’s investigation and the involvement of Attorney [Ted] Wells," Kraft said. "I am confident that this investigation will uncover whatever the facts were that took place last Sunday and the science of how game balls react to changes in the environment. This would be in direct contrast to the public discourse, which has been driven by media leaks as opposed to actual data and facts. Because of this, many jumped to conclusions and made scarring accusations against our coach, quarterback and staff questioning the integrity of all involved.
"If the Wells’ investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure in the footballs, I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and in particular, coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week. I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported upon. We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation."
It was a stunning moment, really. If one thing seemed clear throughout a tumultuous NFL season, it was that the owners rather unanimously still supported Goodell.
This was, to say the least, a step back from what looked to be an unwavering relationship. Just Sunday, Seattle CB Richard Sherman even speculated to the press that the Patriots would escape punishment because of Kraft's relationship with Goodell: "Will they be punished? Probably not," Sherman said. "Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. ... You talk about conflict of interest."
Any thought (or hope) that the bizarre issue would be brushed under the rug for Super Bowl week vanished with FOX's report. According to Jay Glazer, "the NFL has zeroed in on a locker-room attendant in connection with the scandal of improperly inflated footballs." A surveillance video allegedly shows said attendant taking the AFC Championship Game's approved footballs from the officials' locker room into another, unidentified room at Gillette Stadium prior to kickoff.
The Patriots have denied any wrongdoing vehemently, with Belichick going so far as to hold his own press conference last week.
"We did everything as right as we can do it," Belichick said then.
Kraft repeated that sentiment, in a tone bordering on combative Monday.
"I have spoken with coach Belichick. I have spoken with Tom Brady," he said. "I have taken the time to understand to the best of my abilities what goes on in the preparation of gameday footballs. And I want to make it clear that I believe, unconditionally, that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or in violation of NFL rules."
The Patriots had better hope that's true, because they are all-in now. Belichick initially passed the buck on to Brady, and Brady denied any knowledge of what had occurred. Now, Kraft followed Belichick's most recent press conference by essentially daring the NFL to punish his team.
Should the NFL now indeed produce proof that the Patriots cheated, and especially if it can show that either Brady or Belichick had intimate knowledge of the illicit activity, then the organization will have nowhere left to turn. Kraft not only stated, unconditionally, that the Patriots played fair, he called out the all-powerful league in the process.
Part of his end game, no doubt, was to shift the spotlight off Brady and Belichick ahead of Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick's press conference opened with him declining to answer any follow-up inquiries on the situation -- "I appreciate the question, but ... my attention is focused on the Seattle Seahawks," he responded, multiple times -- and ended with him cracking jokes.
Brady barely had to address the subject at all, instead talking about how the Patriots have "fought through adversity" all year.
"As many of those things as we can put aside and deal with them at a later time," said Brady of the looming distractions, "that’s what we’ll do."
How does this all end? Who knows? Wells said Monday that the investigation will last several more weeks. And let's not forget that the minimum penalty for tampering with footballs used in game is a mere $25,000 fine for the offending franchise.
That's $725,000 less than the fine Belichick incurred for Spygate. New England also lost a first-round draft choice as part of that penalty. Should the league find the Patriots guilty this time around, the punishment could cover a wide range, up to and including suspensions for guys like Brady and Belichick.
Kraft, though, is wholly confident that will not happen. And he'll be damned if anyone suggests otherwise.
"Tom, Bill, and I have been together for 15 years. They are my guys, they are part of my family," Kraft said. "And Bill, Tom, and I have had many difficult discussions over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me. ...
"It bothers me greatly that their reputations and integrity, and by association that of our team, has been called into question this past week."