Talk about sucking the air out of a room.
In an awkward press conference on Thursday morning, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did his best to deflate the soft ball controversy dogging his Super Bowl-bound team -- but instead he might have suffered a costly fumble. Belichick offered few explanations as he addressed the media for the first time since the Patriots were accused of deflating almost a dozen balls in last weekend's conference championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, telling reporters he was "completely and totally unaware" of the situation until the day after the game.
"When I came in Monday morning, I was shocked to learn of the news reports about the footballs. I had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation until Monday morning," he said, adding that he has learned more about the football-inflation process in the past three days than he has in his 40 years of coaching in the NFL.
An ESPN report on Wednesday, based on anonymous sources, said that the NFL found 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in Sunday's game were deflated "significantly below" requirements. A deflated football allegedly can be easier to grip in the rain, which came down heavily at Gillette Stadium last Sunday when the Patriots beat the Colts 45 to 7. The controversy, deemed "Deflate-Gate," has shifted national focus on the Super Bowl from the upcoming game to accusations that the Patriots got there by cheating.
But a source from the NFL told NBC Sports the footballs were checked four hours before the game began, and met the standards for air pressure. The source did not confirm to NBC that 11 of the 12 footballs were under-inflated.
Belichick, the league's longest-tenured active head coach, said he has never discussed the air pressure of footballs with any player or staff member before a game.
"To me, the footballs are approved by the league and game officials pregame, and we play with what's out there. That's the only way that I have ever thought about that," he said.
“Tom [Brady]’s personal preferences on his footballs are something that he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide,” Belichick added, directing the media to the Patriots' star quarterback.
NBC's Peter Alexander reports that Brady addressed his teammates behind closed doors Thursday and told them that he prefers his footballs "a certain way." Brady is scheduled to meet with the media Thursday at 3:45 p.m. ET.
The NFL, which continues to investigate the inflation situation, hasn't commented on the brewing scandal. The Patriots face a potential fine or loss of draft picks if the league finds the team broke rules by deflating footballs. Previously, the NFL fined the Patriots $500,000 for secretly videotaping an opposing team's defensive coach's signals in 2007.
Belichick noted the team's full cooperation and quick responses to requests by NFL officials during the ongoing investigation.
Belichick has coached the Patriots to six Super Bowl appearances. He said his coaching mentality has been to make things as difficult as possible for the players. Anytime the athletes complain about the quality of the footballs during practice, for example, he makes them worse. "And that stops the complaining," he added.
"I'm sure that any current or past player of mine would tell you that the balls we practice with are as bad as they can be: wet, sticky, cold, slippery. However bad we can make them, I make them," he said.
"In the future we will certainly inflate the footballs above that low level to account for any possible change during the game," the coach said.
When reporters questioned him on Thursday about the previous controversy or what he would say to disappointed fans, he repeatedly responded: "I don't have an explanation for what happened" and "I've told you everything I know."
Belichick's news conference lasted for almost 15 minutes, longer than his typical addresses to the media. The team is preparing to face off against the Seattle Seahawks in this year's Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.
The notoriously gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on the latest accusations this week, saying: “Having been a receiver, I like a softer ball. That’s all I can tell you.”