Let's start with a little story about Robert Kraft, a four-time NFL champ who knows how to lose a big game with common decency and grace. His New England Patriots needed about 17 things to go wrong in Super Bowl XLII to keep from becoming, at 19-0, the greatest NFL team of all time. Wouldn't you know it, all 17 things happened.
The Eli Manning escape, the David Tyree catch, the Asante Samuel non-catch, the whole thing. It was an excruciating defeat, especially with the Patriots trying to spike the Spygate scandal down all the haters' throats. And yet when New York Giants owner John Mara stepped down from the winners' podium, he found something he didn't expect.
There was Robert Kraft, waiting to congratulate him on a job well done.
"That is such a tough thing to do," Mara said recently, "because there is nothing worse than losing that game. They had a chance to go undefeated and to go down in history, and he's still standing there. I know I didn't want to see or talk to anybody after we lost the Super Bowl to the Ravens in Tampa, and here he was waiting for me both times."
Yes, Kraft did the same thing after Mara's Giants broke his heart again in Super Bowl XLVI.
This is a small window on a competitive man's soul, and on the respect he has earned around the league. Kraft is one of the NFL's good guys, and at heart he remains the rich superfan and season-ticket holder who lived the dream by buying his Patriots and turning them into the league's most successful franchise.
So what happened at another Super Bowl last winter, when Kraft demanded an apology from Roger Goodell, and what happened in Foxborough on Wednesday morning, when he called the commissioner's decision to uphold his four-game suspension of Tom Brady "unfathomable," doesn't turn Kraft into the second coming of Al Davis, not even close.
It does turn Kraft into another Deflategate victim of Tom Brady's.
The owner showed how much he cared about the game, and his own league-centric ethos, when he absorbed the $1 million fine and two lost draft picks over what he believed to be a misdemeanor that went unproven in Goodell's court. "I tried to do what I thought was right," Kraft said of his decision in May to lay down his sword. "I chose not to take legal action."
He chose to take the sack for Brady in the hope that the quarterback could talk Goodell into a two-game suspension or, better yet, a five-figure fine and clearance to pick apart the Pittsburgh Steelers on opening night.
"I was willing to accept the harshest penalty in the history of the NFL for an alleged ball violation," Kraft said, "because I believed it would help exonerate Tom."
The problem was Tom didn't do enough to help exonerate Tom. If Brady did as the NFL alleges, and had a cell phone he was using after the Deflategate story broke in January destroyed on or around the very March day he'd met with the investigators who wanted to see relevant texts and emails from that phone (not the phone itself), Brady handed Goodell the gavel he needed to keep the four-game penalty intact.
This isn't some shot at Brady's greatness. Again, most reasonable people who believe Brady was in on the scam with two low-level staffers also subscribe to these articles of faith:
Brady is still one of the two greatest quarterbacks ever, with a chance to supplant his idol, Joe Montana.
Brady would still have won his fourth ring with properly inflated footballs.
Brady is not a bad human being because he got caught playing loose with the rules before shredding the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
This is a classic case of the do-no-wrong class president and homecoming king called into the principal's office over a prank gone wrong, and refusing to admit he was responsible because people might think less of him for it. He's Tom Brady after all, the good son. Kids like Tom Brady don't cheat on exams. His owner clearly believes it.
"Tom Brady is a person of great integrity, and is a great ambassador of the game, both on and off the field," Kraft said. Way back when, as a scarecrow-looking rookie drafted in the sixth round, Brady famously looked his new employer in the eye and told him, "I'm the best decision this organization has ever made." Turns out the quarterback was a prophet, too.
But Brady didn't have the foresight in recent months to realize he needed to be less evasive to spare some unnecessary damage to his reputation. The circumstantial case against him was finally sealed by the trashed cell phone. Even Brady's biggest defenders, the cliched middle-aged guy in the Fenway bleachers wearing a David Ortiz jersey to bed and sleeping under a poster of Larry Bird's steal of Isiah Thomas' pass -- even that guy was shaking his head over the phone.
Brady fired a nasty spiral at Goodell on his Facebook page anyway, reaffirming his innocence and claiming he gave the league more information from his phone than it ever acknowledged. But the truth is, Brady shouldn't be half as angry as Bill Belichick, who lost two picks and a Hall-of-Fame quarterback (for four games) despite being cleared by Ted Wells' report, or half as angry as Robert Kraft, who gambled on his superstar's story and lost in a big way.
"I was wrong to put my faith in the league," Kraft said.
In this case, he was wrong to put his faith in his quarterback, too.
Kraft surely feels betrayed by a commissioner he helped make an obscenely wealthy man, a commissioner he helped shepherd through the Ray Rice mess and other crises of the day. Maybe deep down Kraft believed a little of what Richard Sherman said about that photo of the owner and Goodell at Kraft's home on the eve of the AFC title game: Roger the Dodger would ultimately go soft on one of his main guys.
Either way, Kraft is now on record regretting his choice to avoid waging an Al Davis-like war against the league in court. So be it. Nobody who builds something as special as the Patriots dynasty wants to see it reduced to this.
But in the end, Kraft isn't one of Deflategate's bad guys. He's a victim of circumstance and of a fearless quarterback.
Wednesday morning, Robert Kraft took the time to apologize to Tom Brady. It should've been the other way around.