With their biggest week of the year in front of them, the New England Patriots are once again in the center of the storm after leaving their own snowstorm behind in New England.
Their current plight involves trying to prepare for the NFL’s top defense in Super Bowl XLIX while answering incessant and legitimate questions about the under-inflated footballs they used to win the AFC Championship Game.
The NFL released a statement confirming that most of the footballs used in the Patriots’ AFC Championship win against the Indianapolis Colts were, indeed, below the prescribed inflation levels. The distraction is obviously mounting, as Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft addressed the issue at the outset of his arrival in Phoenix for the start of the Super Bowl XLIX preparations.
“I have spoken with Coach (Bill) Belichick. I have spoken with Tom Brady. I have taken the time to understand to the best of my abilities what goes on in the preparation of game-day 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,” Kraft said.
“Tom, Bill, and I have been together for 15 years. They are my guys; they are part of my family. And Bill, Tom and I have had many difficult discussions over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me. That is why I am confident in saying what I just said. And it bothers me greatly that their reputations and integrity, and by association that of our team, has been called into question this past week.”
The Patriots, of course, are no strangers to the controversy surrounding investigations. They were docked a first-round draft pick and several in the organization were fined in the Spygate scandal before another of their Super Bowls.
Brady said he will talk to the NFL investigators after the Super Bowl.
“I have moved forward and I have moved past those initial feelings and it’s all part of the process,” he said. “I kind of left those things behind and I wanted to move forward because that’s what the team expects of me. I think we’ve dealt with a lot of adversity this season and we’ve got to deal with it some more. So we’ll just keep fighting and like I said hopefully we go out and get a win. That would be the most satisfying thing at the end of the week.”
But try as they might, the talk won’t just go away. Some Patriots admitted it could add to the stress of their biggest week.
“Needless to say, it’s a difficult situation that we’re navigating through. But, as I’ve said all week, we just want to focus on playing the game,” receiver Matthew Slater said. “We don’t want this situation to take away from what we’ve accomplished as a team and where we are, the game we’re playing in.”
Sure, the Patriots are playing on the biggest stage and controversy surrounds them. But those that have been with the team for years are used to the pressure associated with playing for a perennial powerhouse that is often among the Super Bowl favorites.
Kraft, Belichick and others tried to put the controversies to rest before the annual Media Day that draws media from around the world and Kraft said on Tuesday he had said his peace on the matter. But Kraft also took a frontal approach the day before in labeling it as a media-driven story and insinuating it damaged the reputation of Belichick.
“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,” Kraft said. “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 (Ted) 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.”
Belichick, true to form, continually tried to steer the questions away from the controversy with vague answers and his typical M.O. of saying they are focused on the next task at hand.
“I appreciate the question. I’ve spent, as you know, quite a bit of time. I’ve had two lengthy press conferences about that. My attention is totally turned now and focused on the Seattle Seahawks and our game Sunday, and that’s where it’s going to stay for this week,” Kraft said.
“… I’ve covered everything that I can cover in the previous week and my attention is focused on the Seattle Seahawks. Our job is to get ready to play this game Sunday and that’s where it’s going to be from here on out.”
Whether a calculated move or just venting, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman fueled the controversy by saying a close relationship between Kraft and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would taint the investigation and result in no penalties for the Patriots.
“Everybody has their opinions,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said when asked about Sherman’s comments. “One thing I learned a long time ago is when you are successful you have a lot of people that are going to point fingers or doubt you, no matter what you do when you are successful. We’ve been successful for a while, so a lot of teams try to mimic what we do. It doesn’t bother me at all. We are going to just continue do what we’ve been doing. The game is won between the lines, not talking about it. You have to be able to go out and preform on that game and preform at a high level.”
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