The pressure is rising on Tom Brady.
The celebrity quarterback of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots appeared to become the prime suspect on Thursday in the absurdist football scandal known as Deflate-Gate.
Hall of Fame coach John Madden and former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward pointed the finger at Brady as the NFL searched for an answer to why footballs supplied by the Patriots for the AFC championship were mysteriously soft.
Even Bill Belichick, the famously succinct coach of the Patriots, suggested that Brady might have an explanation.
“Tom’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 told reporters. “I have no explanation for what happened.”
Brady addressed his teammates behind closed doors on Thursday, NBC News learned. He told them that he prefers the football “a certain way,” according to teammates, and told them to stay focused on the Super Bowl.
The Patriots said that Brady would face reporters at 3:45 p.m. ET. He had been scheduled to talk to reporters on Friday, but the team bumped it up by a day as interest grew in the scandal. The Patriots play the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1 in Super Bowl XLIX.
Brady laughed it off on Monday morning, hours after the Patriots routed the Indianapolis Colts. He told Boston radio station WEEI that any suggestion of tampering was “ridiculous.”
“I think I’ve heard it all at this point,” he said. “That’s the last of my worries. I don’t even respond to stuff like this.”
Then ESPN, citing unnamed sources in the NFL, reported that 11 of 12 footballs supplied by the Patriots for their offensive series were 2 pounds per square inch below the minimum league standard of 12.5.
Underinflated footballs are easier to catch and throw, particularly in difficult weather. It was raining during the game Sunday. The league inspected the footballs before the game, but they were returned to each team more than two hours before kickoff.
Madden, who coached the Oakland Raiders to a win in Super Bowl XI and spent three decades in the broadcast booth as the game’s most recognizable commentator, suggested to the website The Sports Xchange that Brady was the obvious suspect.
“Nobody, not even the head coach, would do anything to the football unilaterally, such as adjust the amount of pressure in a ball, without the quarterback not knowing,” he said. “It would have to be the quarterback’s idea.”
Ward, now an analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” told TODAY that “probably only Tom Brady and the ball boy” would have known about any deflating. And he was blunt in his description of what happened.
“It’s cheating,” he said. “Regardless of how you may want to spin it. It helps Tom Brady, provides a better grip on the football, especially in bad weather conditions like rain.”
Trash-talking Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman did not implicate Brady in the deflating, but he did take aim at Brady’s celebrity. Besides playing in five Super Bowls and winning three, the quarterback is married to a supermodel, is a GQ cover boy himself and has hosted “Saturday Night Live.”
“I think people somehow get a skewed view of Tom Brady that he is just a clean-cut, does everything right, and never says a bad word to anyone,” Sherman told reporters on Wednesday, according to Reuters, “and we know him to be otherwise.”
Brady and Sherman have a bit of a history: After the Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23 in 2012, Sherman posted a picture of a postgame encounter with Brady and the caption, “U mad bro?” Sherman told Fox Sports that Brady had taunted him and a teammate during the game: “Come see me after this win.”
Eric Kester, a ball boy for the Chicago Bears in 2003, told NBC News on Wednesday that he worked with quarterbacks to customize the footballs — scrubbing them to remove the slippery silicone sheen and inflating or deflating them slightly within legal range.
But that was before the footballs were delivered to the referees for inspection, about two hours before kickoff.
“My thought process was, ‘Let’s get the balls exactly the way our quarterback wants them, and if the refs reject one or two before the game, no big deal. But there’s no harm giving them our ideal balls and hoping they make it through inspection.’”
Brady himself said three years ago that he likes a more supple football.
Speaking of enthusiastic celebratory spikes by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady told WEEI, “I love that because I like the deflated ball. But I feel bad for that football because he puts everything he can into those spikes.”
Brady is certain to face much more scrutiny when he talks to reporters on Thursday afternoon.
Belichick pledged on Thursday that the team would inflate footballs for future games above the minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch, so any natural change during the game doesn’t take them below the legal limit. But he squarely denied wrongdoing.
“I honestly never — it probably has happened on an incomplete pass or something, but I’ve never touched a game ball,” he said. “I’ve told you all I know about the subject from my perspective.”
Peter Alexander of NBC News contributed to this report.