The New England Patriots coasted into the playoffs and locked up a Super Bowl bid once again, but things might not be so rosy behind the scenes. A report from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham says that tensions between the team’s twin icons, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady, have festered to the point that the situation might just be untenable going forward.
In the middle of it is Robert Kraft, the team’s owner, who inserted himself into the fray in a meeting with Belichick this season that ended with Kraft instructing his head coach to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, according to the report. In the end, Kraft will be tasked with trying to find a resolution between his coach and his quarterback, if finding any middle ground is even possible at this point.
In some ways it was inevitable, and it’s worth pointing out the fact that both Belichick and Brady were able to put their egos aside and get along for 17 seasons, seven Super Bowl appearances, and five wins. But nothing lasts forever.
So this is how the Patriot dynasty ends?
What are the reasons for their reported beef?
The quick version of it is this: Brady and Belichick are both “ruthless and proud self-made men, both secure though still unfinished in their legacies,” as described in the article. How do you keep that kind of ego in the same room, on the same page together for nearly two decades without it unraveling?
Things have finally come to a head over four main issues — the role of Brady’s personal trainer and business partner, Alex Guerrero; the succession plan at quarterback; Belichick’s coaching style; and irreconcilable differences over who’s responsible for the team’s unprecedented success over the years.
Guerrero, the TB12 method have created problems for Belichick and the team.
Brady’s insistence in recent years that he’ll play into his 40s stems from his relationship with Guerrero, his various training and lifestyle methods, and, as our own Matt Ufford called it, the “pseudoscientific grift” that Brady and Guerrero have built into a lifestyle business.
The faith Brady espouses in his program and its impact on his career has led to other players feeling pressured to turn to Guerrero and the TB12 method. For some it’s worked fine. Others describe it “like a cult.”
The ESPN report says players feel pressured to use the program, even over the team’s own medical and training staff. Guerrero even went so far as to blame the team’s training staff for making a few players’ injuries worse.
Guerrero pushed back against those claims in a blog post that was published Friday in response to the ESPN report:
With every one of these clients, my only goal has been to help them bring forth positive changes in their body & mind. I have always tried to be respectful of the staff each player answers to, and I have never tried to create divisiveness or conflict. My ultimate goal has always been to do my very best to help the player get back on the field and help their team. I have never had any motive other than that. My approach is and always has been to give people information based on my beliefs — then let them follow their own path toward what they believe works best for them. Ultimately every decision is up to each individual athlete.
Because of his relationship with Brady and the fact that he treated so many other players, Guerrero had nearly unlimited access to the team. But Belichick curbed that this year, exiling him from the sideline and locker room. After Belichick spelled that out in an email to Guerrero, several players reported that Guerrero had told them that Belichick had barred him from treating them. Some saw that as an attempt by Brady’s trainer to turn players against Belichick, dividing the team.
How does Jimmy Garoppolo figure into this?
Despite Brady’s claims that his TB12 program can keep him playing into his 40s like he was still young, he hasn’t been as great as he was in his 30s. Naturally, Belichick saw the need to groom a new quarterback — Jimmy Garoppolo — as Brady’s eventual replacement.
Brady and Garoppolo had an amicable relationship, but it didn’t go beyond the surface. The veteran wasn’t mentoring his potential replacement, which isn’t an especially new phenomenon in the NFL. But did Brady feel more threatened by Garoppolo than just not wanting to spend time giving him pointers on footwork?
The ESPN report relays an incident from last season, after Garoppolo hurt his shoulder in the second game of the season while filling in for the suspended Brady. Garoppolo set up a visit to the TB12 clinic, but when he showed up at the scheduled time, nobody was there. He finally got in two weeks later but only after a “high-ranking Patriots staffer” called to find out why he hadn’t been treated.
Brady started talking more with Kraft and Belichick this fall about wanting to play into his 40s, being the team’s franchise quarterback for years to come. Kraft was willing to accept that idea. But committing to Tom Brady indefinitely created a problem for the Patriots because Garoppolo, who Belichick viewed as Brady’s replacement, was scheduled to be a free agent after the 2017 season.
Belichick didn’t want to trade him.
“If we trade Jimmy, we’re the Cleveland Browns, with no succession plan,” is how one person inside the team described it.
The Patriots made a modest, $17-$18 million per year, offer, but Garoppolo and his agent, who also happens to be Brady’s agent, rejected it. After resisting lucrative offers in the spring to trade Garoppolo, Belichick was finally instructed by Kraft to trade him.
Stop here for a second and reflect on that, because it’s a MAJOR plot point in this whole thing — one that might ultimately do more to break up the Belichick-Brady-Kraft triumvirate than anything else.
Belichick has always believed that owners should not be involved in football decisions, and when that happens, he believed it was time to get out. He was “furious and demoralized” by Kraft’s order.
Following that decision, according to the report, New England’s head coach “left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.”
Did Brady force the Patriots to trade Garoppolo?
No. That is not at all in the ESPN report, but the rumor circulated the night before the report was released.
Brady still denied he was happy to see Garoppolo go on his weekly radio appearance on WEEI after the ESPN story broke.
“I think that is such a poor characterization,” Brady said. “In 18 years I have never celebrated when someone has been traded, been cut. I would say that is disappointing to hear that someone would express that, or a writer would express that because it is so far from what my beliefs are about my teammates and I think I am very empathetic about other people’s experiences. I know those situations aren’t easy.”
Belichick STILL hasn’t given Brady a ‘Patriot of the Week’ award this year.
It sounds funny, because it is. But it also encapsulates the growing divide between the quarterback and the head coach.
Belichick has never accorded Brady any special treatment compared to other players. He takes his fair share of criticism, same as everyone else. In fact, he might even take more, part of the coach’s method of showing the rest of the team that no player is above, ahem, The Patriot Way.
Brady was always accepting of it, but that changed in 2017. After a win over the Texans in the playoffs last season, Belichick was reportedly a little tougher on Brady than usual over a rough outing.
“This will get us beat,” he told the team after replaying a Brady interception. “We were lucky to get away with a win.”
The coach’s style conflicts with another aspect of the TB12 method: Brady’s advocacy of positive thinking.
From the ESPN story:
Belichick’s negativity and cynicism have gotten old, Brady has told other Patriots players and staff. He feels he has accomplished enough that he shouldn’t have to endure so much grief. Patriots staffers have noticed that, this year more than ever, he seems to volley between unwavering confidence and driving insecurity. Brady has noted to staff a few times this year that no matter how many game-changing throws he makes, Belichick hasn’t awarded him Patriot of the Week all year.
For what it’s worth, Brady says he has won the award.
“I have won it plenty of times. Again, it’s hard to even answer that question. There’s really no basis for it. It’s hard to — I don’t know. I just shake my head,” Brady said, via WEEI.
What are the Patriots saying about the report?
As you’d expect, the Patriots refute any rumors about a rift:
Joint statement from Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady: pic.twitter.com/i555gWZIi6— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 5, 2018
Owner Robert Kraft told Sports Illustrated's Peter King on January 6 that he did not hold an extended meeting about quarterbacks with Belichick.
“Until Monday at the trade deadline—I believe that was Oct. 30—the last time I talked to Bill about Jimmy’s situation was in a group with Bill, [club president] Jonathan [Kraft], [director of player personnel] Nick Caserio … a small group of us, I think in June. That is the last time I talked to Bill about it. I would see Nick occasionally and say, ‘Anything going on?’
“I assumed once the season started, we’d talk again at the end of the season about it. The next time I spoke with Bill about it was the Monday before the trade deadline. He called me on that Monday and said he got a deal with San Francisco, Jimmy for a second-round pick and [quarterback] Brian Hoyer. Turns out they had to cut Hoyer and then we got him. But really, this was basically a second-round pick and Brian Hoyer for Jimmy. Bill asked me if I was OK with this. I was really taken aback a little bit. I wanted to think about it. I talked to Jonathan, who was okay with it, and I called Bill back and said, ‘OK.’”
Kraft also said Wickersham's story was “a total fabrication and fiction. I am telling you, it’s fiction.” He also shot down reports of trading Belichick, too. Despite the numerous reports, Kraft praised the five-time Super Bowl-winning head coach.
"When you’re lucky enough to have someone exceptional, you let them do their job and you get out of the way.”
But keeping Brady and Garoppolo, according to Kraft, would have been difficult. He said New England would have had to place a franchise tag on Garoppolo to keep him for another season.
What happens next?
Kraft was supposed to meet with Brady and Belichick in December, but that didn’t happen. He’s expected to sit down with them at some point during the offseason, after their Super Bowl run, in an attempt to find a solution.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are both expected to take head coaching jobs this year. (Belichick has spent time this year getting both ready for head coaching jobs, something he doesn’t usually do to a large extent.) Indoctrinating a new staff, building a team around a quarterback in his 40s, and trying to find and groom a new quarterback this year may be more than Belichick wants to do next season, not to mention dealing with Brady’s personal fitness guru.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that rumors are already circulating of a possible exit for Belichick after the playoffs. According to the New York Daily News, the vacancy with the New York Giants was an attractive option that Belichick has noticed. But New York hired former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, so that one’s off the table.
Bill Belichick also said that he plans to coach the Patriots in 2018. When asked, he said, “Absolutely.”
On the Saturday before the Patriots’ divisional game against the Titans, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said that Belichick, Brady, and Kraft plan to meet to hash things out:
From @NFLGameDay: The #Patriots triumvirate plans to meet after the season to relieve the tension and hash out their issues. pic.twitter.com/HeaBdqJV8L— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 13, 2018
In advance of the team’s AFC title game showdown with the Jaguars, Kraft told the NFL Network he believes the three power brokers can co-exist.
#Patriots owner Robert Kraft, on @nflnetwork, saying that he believes he can keep Tom Brady and Bill Belichick together for the foreseeable future: "Everyone has to get their egos checked in and get it together."— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 21, 2018
As the Patriots get ready to make a run at a sixth Super Bowl win, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that even another Lombardi Trophy might not be enough to hold the dynasty together.
One thing’s for sure — the idea of another Patriots Super Bowl run was anathema to most fans. Not anymore.