By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots lost the Super Bowl on the fourth day of February in fairly perplexing fashion. Everyone involved with the franchise was pretty miffed about it. OK, fine. That's normal.
But we're now two months removed from that fateful loss to Philadelphia, and by all leaked accounts, the three most important Patriot participants are still steaming mad.
Rob Gronkowski's throwing some shade on Instagram. Bill Belichick's not liking it. And suddenly Tom Brady might not even be playing in 2018?
How'd we get here?
Clearly, some frustration has been building for some time in Foxboro. That much is undeniable at this point. But it's also April. It's time to figure it out.
That's been the missing piece of this whole matter. Instead of figuring out what can be done to harmonize the Belichick-Brady-Gronkowski relationship, the conversation has turned to Belichick trading Gronkowski and Brady deciding to walk away from the sport. That seems like an extreme outcome to a situation that probably doesn't need to go there.
The conversation can start here: How would all of the involved parties be feeling right now if Duron Harmon had closed on Zach Ertz just one step quicker on a fourth-and-1 with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. What if Harmon had made that stop, giving the football to the Patriots at the Philadelphia 45-yard line? Brady and Gronkowski would have gotten to work, needing to do what they had been doing all night, and they would have won the Super Bowl. The difference really was that fine; one yard on one play, and we're talking about the back-to-back Super Bowl-champion Patriots instead of spending every waking moment wondering why Malcolm Butler didn't play.
Perhaps when framed in such a way, the frustrations can be put into context.
Beyond that, if the root of the issues lies with the involvement of Alex Guerrero in the training and preparation methods for both Brady and Gronkowski, then it's time that everybody gets to make their cases. Brady and Gronkowski have the benefit of results in their favor, as they each had career years in 2017 under the guidance of Guerrero. Belichick can point out the stress that such presence can put on him, considering Guerrero's methods often go against the wishes of the Patriots-employed training staff.
Plus, there's this: instead of getting slapped on the wrist, the Patriots tend to get walloped over the head by the NFL whenever a potential violation of even the most insignificant rule or guideline might or might not take place. They are the most scrutinized organization in football. Given Guerrero's background and history, the team is simply protecting itself by creating a layer of separation.
If Brady and Gronkowski can't understand this, then I suppose there could be some issues. But there's been no evidence to show that either side has been willing to really converse about the matter. Instead, Brady has not-so-subtly included two separate scenes in his Facebook documentary that show the hoops he has to jump through just to get a pregame massage from his personal trainer. Gronkowski, through various back channels, has seemingly sought to let it be known that he was miserable all year long.
And many just assume that Belichick's solution will be to trade Gronkowski and tell Brady to pound sand. Is there not an alternative?
There's reason to believe that solving the issues could be as simple as addressing them. Look only at the Josh McDaniels situation to get a peek behind the curtain of how little communication can take place during a season and especially during a postseason.
"I wasn't 100 percent sure what the future was. So, where did I fit in? Were there any plans? I just didn't have much clarity on what my role was here moving forward," McDaniels explained recently.
Here was a coach who has been with the organization for 14 years, has engineered the best offense in football, and has been the right-hand man in Brady's ear for this late-career resurgence from the quarterback. He was under contract through the 2018 season, but "didn't have much clarity" on his future with the team. Mind you, he had been interviewing for head coaching jobs during the Patriots' postseason bye weeks, and it was well known. For the entire week in Minnesota, everybody knew that McDaniels would be off to Indy to be the head coach. And the reason McDaniels felt that would be the case was because his bosses simply had not spoken to him about his place in the franchise.
"Once I heard from Robert and Bill on that Tuesday [after the Super Bowl], it just gave me reason to pause and consider this whole situation," McDaniels explained.
So, if you take McDaniels at his word, then he was not at all spoken to about his role within the Patriots organization once, even as he went on interviews with the Giants, Bears and Colts. It wasn't until after the Super Bowl that his bosses addressed his importance to the organization and "crystallized" what his role would be moving forward.
Obviously, Belichick and Robert Kraft have been a bit slower in extinguishing this simmering friction involving Brady and Gronkowski. But with the first day of their offseason workout program now just 13 days away, it's probably time to try to solve the issue.
For Belichick, even with his cachet and his long list of accomplishments in the NFL, it might be difficult to convince anyone that trading Gronkowski would be doing what's in "the best interest of the team." That would be especially challenging when everybody is already a bit suspicious of the inexplainable Malcolm Butler benching in the Super Bowl. Bill's managed to look OK in dumping Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, and he ended up looking mostly fine in letting Wes Welker go back in 2013. But the one-two punch of the Butler mystery and a Gronkowski trade in a span of a few months might be more than the coach has ever endeavored in such a short time.
Every system, no matter how successful, has its limits -- even Belichick's "comply or else" mantra.
For Gronkowski, it might be time to adjust. His family and the Patriots have had their disagreements over the years, particularly as it concerns his health. The joint statements about injuries were certainly an unprecedented maneuver, and the disagreements about getting on the field in 2016 might have bled over into 2017 (when he was as healthy as could ever be possibly expected). But if Gronkowski is indeed only interested in playing with Brady, then whatever caused him "physical and mental anguish" in 2017 clearly didn't stop him from being the best tight end in the NFL. A concussion in the AFC Championship Game didn't stop him from utterly dominating in the Super Bowl. He proved capable of overcoming that "anguish" last year, and if the goal is to succeed alongside Brady, then he's already proven it to be possible. And it's probably more fun dealing with those issues while playing for New England than it would be to get traded to Cleveland.
For Brady, there's just not enough reason for the greatest coach-quarterback combination in NFL history to crumble to the ground. Two of the best football minds, two of the most successful men to ever partake in professional football, ending it all because of ... alternative training methods? It just doesn't add up.
Brady has set out to be the greatest quarterback of all time. He's already succeeded. But what has always set him apart has been his ability to stave off complacency, to seek out the next challenge, and to dominate whatever that challenge may be. Nobody had ever done what Brady did at age 39. Nobody had ever turned in a Super Bowl performance quite like Brady's showing in Super Bowl LI. Likewise for Brady at 40. Ditto for Super Bowl LII. His performance over the past two years is presumably why Belichick hastily dispatched Jimmy Garoppolo for a second-round pick in the middle of the 2017 season. The Patriots' quarterback of the future was who it's always been: Tom Brady.
After stating for at least the past five years that he plans to play at least until he's 45 years old, he's now suddenly going to quit at 40 because of some growing resentment with the coach? It just seems unnecessary.
And that's what what this whole situation feels like: unnecessary. Belichick has said countless times over the years, "There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady." There's no real reason he'll ever need to.
Two days after the Super Bowl, Belichick and Kraft addressed what had gone ignored with McDaniels' status. Now two months removed from the Super Bowl, it's well past due that they do the same with the two most important players on the roster.
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