FOXBORO – Never mind what Robert Kraft was attempting to do last May when he folded the Patriots’ tent and said the team would “reluctantly” accept the league’s Deflategate penalties.
Forget about the fact there was really no other option than to do what he did in San Francisco.
The hole Kraft dug for himself when he opted for politics over optics is one he’s trying furiously to dig out of. Still.
Friday night at a draft party the team hosted at Gillette, Kraft’s main talking point was – again – that he didn’t abandon Brady last May.
“Number one, there is no finer ambassador for the game of football, and the New England Patriots, than Tom Brady,” Kraft said. “We always have had, and will continue to have, Tom’s back. Especially when he’s being treated unfairly. He knows that. All the decisions that this organization and I personally have made throughout this ordeal have been focused on putting Tom in the best possible position for success.”
Kraft believed taking the hit on the draft picks would satiate other owners enough to leave Brady alone. But they – and their arrogant marionette Roger Goodell – wanted more than to see Bill Belichick’s program stung. They wanted to see Brady brought to heel.
Once that dawned on Kraft over the coming months, he returned to the rhetoric he used when he began fomenting local outrage at the Super Bowl, demanding a league apology. He even ratcheted it up, speaking at the outset of training camp about having made a grave mistake when he put faith in the league to do the right thing.
But for too many New England fans, it was too late. In their minds, all it took was 24 hours of fellow owners giving him the stink eye in California for him to side with the billionaire boys club over Brady.
Kraft anticipated an unhappy reaction, saying last May, “I know that a lot of Patriots fans are going to be disappointed in that decision. But I hope they trust my judgment and know that I really feel at this point in time that taking this off the agenda, this is the best thing for the New England Patriots, our fans and the NFL. I hope you all can respect that.”
He never expected to be demonized the way he’s been. And, to Kraft, it’s maddening, saddening and hurtful that the vocal opinion in New England is that he screwed Brady.
He’s refusing to take the criticism in stride, which means every time he’s in front of a mic, he has to prove his bona fides.
“I have been in constant communication with Tom over the past 16 months and we’ve had numerous conversations this past week,” Kraft said. “We are both on the same page and he knows exactly where my allegiances, and the total team’s [allegiances] are, relative to the extremely unfair discipline that he has been subjected to. I share in our fans’ anger and frustration with the penalties the league has levied, and the entire process and how it was conducted. But please trust that I am always trying to do what I believe is best for this franchise, and pledge that I will always continue to do that.”
This is where Robert Kraft is at the age of 74. A man who figured he’d be praised and adored in the autumn of his ownership reign having to pledge allegiance over and over to HIS region and HIS team.
It’s got to be unfathomable to him how it got to this point.
Here’s a lifelong New Englander who – he’s always happy to remind everyone – sat on the metal benches with all the other bedraggled fans in the old stadium. A guy who used his business savvy to leverage purchase of the team, stubbed his toe a lot in his first few years, then made decisions and gave resources that allowed the Patriots to become the greatest dynasty in NFL history. A guy that built a kickass stadium and donated millions around the region. This is a guy that now feels compelled to explain himself and beg understanding every time he gets in front of a microphone these days.
I don’t think he deserves that.
There are plenty of things that I’ve eyerolled about with Kraft in my 20 years covering the team. From white-collared shirts to his weird game-day lifeguard chair to the subtle switch from Bob to Robert, the damn sneakers with the suits, slinging spirituality a little too cavalierly at times and his happy engagement in the NFL’s backroom lever-pulling and deal-making. For almost 25 years, Kraft has ridden a lead horse in the NFL’s stampede for money and power. The Game of Thrones environment that’s come with that, replete with throat-slitting, backstabbing and vengeance has visited Kraft’s kingdom.
You can second-guess his strategy. You can point out that he’s the one that made a king of Goodell and sowed bitterness with fellow owners by pushing them to do what Roger says. You can rightfully point out that Kraft wants too much the love and respect of both his fellow owners and his New England constituency and that he can’t have his cake and eat it too.
You can’t reasonably regard him as a “traitor.”
Unfortunately for Robert Kraft, plenty of people do. And plenty of them aren’t going to move off that spot.
At some point, he’s got to get his mind around that and accept that too.