SAN FRANCISCO -- Four years ago, when Robert Kraft was playing a critical role in brokering a deal between NFL owners and players to end the lockout, he talked about the importance of getting the lawyers out of the room.
Nothing against those lawyers, of course, but the message was that the best way to reach a resolution was to put the legal folks on the sideline and let those most invested in the game of football build bridges. A trust had to be restored after a sometimes nasty back-and-forth. Kraft was a big part of that happening.
The same rules now apply in the Deflategate standoff between the NFL and New England Patriots.
If Kraft and commissioner Roger Goodell are truly committed to putting this behind them and moving forward for the betterment of the NFL, which ultimately is in their best interest, the next 24-36 hours are critical. They find themselves in the same place at the NFL’s annual meetings -- the Ritz-Carlton -- and tensions between them are naturally high.
They know what needs to be done.
The first thing is to politely tell Jeff Pash (NFL general counsel) and Daniel Goldberg (Patriots counsel) that they aren’t needed at this time. Everyone else, including the hard-working public relations folks, can head to the exits as well. This is a closed-door face-to-face meeting between two people, Kraft and Goodell, who have worked closely and productively in the past, and developed a liking for each other in the process.
That foundation matters.
Then the grievances can be aired out. Kraft can rail on Goodell for what he feels is excessive punishment from an unfair and overaggressive process led by some of Goodell’s underlings and attorney Ted Wells. No, it hasn’t been the NFL’s finest hour. Despite incomplete evidence, the league has tarnished the reputation of one of its greatest ambassadors, quarterback Tom Brady, to help dig itself out of the spiraling-out-of-control situation. The reputation of Kraft's Patriots, despite incomplete evidence, has also taken a hit. This is bad business.
But Goodell can turn it back on Kraft and point out that by so publicly and aggressively challenging the league, dating back to the Super Bowl when Kraft demanded an apology from the NFL if it couldn’t find conclusive evidence of tampering footballs, he was defiantly breaking ranks and undercutting the commissioner and league office in the process.
So let's discuss a possible endgame here. Just as Kraft said in his role to help end the lockout, the best deals are usually those when each side gives a little and neither is truly happy.
It would be surprising if Goodell significantly alters the penalties against the Patriots that he already approved, but simply by acknowledging some of the league’s missteps and taking accountability for them, it would be a conciliatory act that goes a long way. For example, it was inexcusable for the NFL to send a letter to the Patriots after the AFC title game and incorrectly state one football measured as low as 10.1 pounds per square inch, and also to never correct a significant media leak that 11 of the team's 12 footballs were at least 2 psi below the allowed limit when measured at halftime, which unfairly painted the Patriots as guilty in the public eye for the 103 days of the Wells investigation. Is a public apology for those actions asking too much?
For Kraft, that might be enough for him to end the fight and extinguish the threat of taking this to court or appealing to the league to reduce the penalties (he has until Thursday to do so). Kraft was already begrudgingly ready to concede May 6 when the Wells report was released -- he didn’t agree with the findings, yet was thinking "greater good" at the moment -- but changed course when the league handed down such a harsh punishment five days later.
We’ll soon find out how dug in each side truly is.
As of early Monday night, there was no indication that Kraft and Goodell had this type of one-on-one meeting at the Ritz-Carlton. Maybe it happens Tuesday.
Much like the lockout four years ago, there’s a bridge to be built here as long as they keep the lawyers out.