New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady vowed on Wednesday to fight his four-game "Deflategate" suspension, and team owner Robert Kraft opened training camp by saying he continues to "believe and unequivocally support" the three-time Super Bowl MVP.
"It is completely incomprehensible to me that the league continues to take steps to disparage one of its all-time great players, and a man for whom I have the utmost respect," Kraft said. "I was wrong to put my faith in the league."
Taking the podium a day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld Brady's suspension, Kraft said he didn't fight the team's penalty — a $1 million fine and the loss of two draft picks — because he thought the league would go easy on the star quarterback.
Now, he said, he regrets his decision.
"I have come to the conclusion that this was never about doing what was fair and just," Kraft said, apologizing to fans and to Brady. "I truly believe that what I did in May ... would make it much easier for the league to exonerate Tom Brady. Unfortunately, I was wrong."
The NFL Players Association said later Wednesday that it will file a lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota challenging the punishment.
The NFL had determined the Patriots provided improperly inflated footballs in the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Investigator Ted Wells zeroed in on two equipment managers — one who called himself "The Deflator" — and said Brady was "at least generally aware" of the illegal deflation scheme.
Kraft said the Patriots did nothing wrong, but the team fired the two equipment managers whose text messages included discussions of football inflation.
"Six months removed from the AFC championship game, the league still has no hard evidence of anybody doing anything to tamper with the PSI levels of footballs," Kraft said.
Brady broke his silence in a 507-word Facebook post earlier Wednesday.
"To suggest that I destroyed a phone to avoid giving the NFL information it requested is completely wrong," he said. "There is no 'smoking gun' and this controversy is manufactured to distract from the fact they have zero evidence of wrongdoing."
Kraft said the team turned over every cellphone not belonging to a player — including coach Bill Belichick. The powerful owner, who had been one of Goodell's most loyal allies, said the league's claim that Brady trashed his phone to obstruct the investigation was just the latest in a series of statements and leaks that "intentionally implied nefarious behavior" where there was none.
"Tom Brady is a person of great integrity and is a great ambassador of the game, both on and off the field," Kraft said.
The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl for their fourth NFL title under Brady and Belichick.
Brady, who had earlier denied cheating accusations with the tepid "I don't think so," more forcefully defended himself in the Facebook post, claiming he cooperated with the investigation except where doing so would have set a bad precedent for his union brethren.
Goodell had cited Brady's cellphone swap as new evidence of the quarterback's failure to cooperate, but the quarterback said he replaced a broken phone only after his lawyers told league investigators they couldn't have it.
"Most importantly, I have never written, texted, emailed to anybody at anytime, anything related to football air pressure before this issue was raised at the AFC Championship game in January," he wrote.
The post was liked by 51,000 people — including his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen — in the first 30 minutes after it was posted on Facebook.
Special teamer Matthew Slater said Patriots players support Brady.
"The guys in this locker room, we feel we are part of a family," he said. "Good or bad things happen in life, you stick with your family."
Belichick had been scheduled to speak to the media first on Wednesday morning, but instead Kraft took the podium. As is his standard practice, Belichick declined to comment on the scandal.
"Nothing really to talk about there," he said. "We're going to take it day to day, just like we always do."