This Patriots Season Isn’t About Football, It’s About War with the NFL

The games will take a backseat to the prolonged battle between the Patriots and league office.

Robert Kraft, Roger Goodell, Bob Betterman

Photo via AP

The Patriots’ nearly nine-month long battle with the NFL doesn’t appear to be cooling off as the regular-season begins. If anything, it seems to just be heating up.

You won’t have to watch too closely Thursday night to notice this rift. When the Patriots raise their fourth Super Bowl banner prior to kickoff against the Steelers, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will watch from home instead of Robert Kraft’s box. Goodell said on ESPN’s Mike & Mike this week he won’t be at Gillette Stadium because he was at the Patriots’ final two home games last postseason and likes to spread himself out.

That’s as believable as insisting Ted Wells was an independent investigator.

We all know the real reason why Goodell won’t be in Foxborough Thursday night: he’s afraid to show his face.

And for good reason. When presented with the choice of treating allegations about the Patriots deflating footballs like the minor equipment violation it is or turning it into a full-blown scandal—”-gate” suffix and all—Goodell chose the latter. He turned against arguably his biggest benefactor, Kraft, and acquiesced to those who want to take the Patriots down.

The biggest revelation to come out of ESPN’s more than 10,ooo-word rehashing of Spygate this week isn’t that low-level Patriots supposedly used to—gasp—steal the play sheet from other teams, but rather that Deflategate was, in the words of one anonymous owner, a “makeup call” for the way Spygate was handled. Many power brokers around the league feel Goodell didn’t look deep enough into the Patriots’ videotaping scandal eight years ago in order to protect Kraft, so when the Colts accused the Patriots of deflating footballs, Goodell was pressured to pounce.

That’s exactly what he did. Another NFL owner who’s quoted in the piece says if Goodell were in Congress, he’d be majority leader. The commissioner may have just suffered his most embarrassing defeat in court yet and needlessly railroaded Tom Brady on the heels of his third Super Bowl MVP, but his standing among owners has apparently never been better.

That is, except with Kraft. The man who went on national television last fall and said Goodell had been “excellent” on Ray Rice proclaimed he was “wrong to put his faith in the league” when Brady’s four-game suspension wasn’t overturned this summer. It was the capper of several months’ worth of retaliation from the Patriots.

The NFL spent its offseason slandering the organization, most notably with the lie that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs in the AFC Title Game were underinflated by two pounds of air. Instead of taking it, the Pats fought back.

The Patriots launched the Wells Report in Context, a truther website meant to counter the NFL-commissioned Deflategate investigation. It was on this site that the Patriots released emails between one of their attorneys and NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash, in which the Patriots asked Pash to correct the false information out there. Pash refused. The Patriots also published a letter NFL executive Dan Gardi sent to Kraft, which wrongly claims the air pressure in one of the footballs was as low as 10.1 pounds per square inch.

The Patriots didn’t submit to the witch hunt; they exposed it. It’s fair to say Goodell, a man who’s so drunk with power he reportedly doesn’t even allow his underlings to eat pizza unless he has the first slice, likely didn’t take too kindly to that.

It’s probably not a coincidence that ESPN and Sports Illustrated both published investigative pieces about the Patriots’ supposed evil, cheating ways within an hour of each other Tuesday, just two days before the season opener. Surprise, surprise, anonymous league sources were quoted extensively in both articles.

Judge Richard Berman’s decision to vacate Brady’s suspension may have quelled Deflategate, but the war between the Patriots and NFL is seemingly far from over. It’s clear there are many owners and league executives who have it out for the Patriots, and Goodell now appears to be driving the bus. The league’s appeal of Berman’s verdict is expected to last well into 2016.

The commissioner can say he wants the focus to return to football, but his actions say otherwise. Kraft may have accepted the draconian Deflategate penalties, but he didn’t lie down and allow the NFL’s parade of defamation to stomp his team out. The Patriots battled back; Kraft went rogue.

This season is about anything but football for the Patriots and NFL. It’s about proving a point, and the divide will be in plain sight for all to see Thursday.

Goodell won’t be there to celebrate what is arguably the greatest dynasty in modern NFL history. And Patriots Nation wouldn’t have it any other way.