By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- ESPN on Friday released a 4,600-word story which questioned whether it is the "beginning of the end" of the dynastic Patriots run involving owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The story was seemingly inspired by both the team's sudden change of course on Jimmy Garoppolo and the team's limiting of access to Brady's trainer and business partner, Alex Guerrero. Seth Wickersham set out to to dig for the deeper reasoning for moves that, on the surface, seem to indicate some friction and disagreement among the three most important power brokers in the franchise.
The Patriots contested the story, telling Wickersham that he had included "several inaccuracies and multiple examples given that absolutely did not occur."
Yet, citing "interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team's inner workings," Wickersham reported on "serious disagreements" among the three men.
Here's a brief synopsis.
Some Staffers Inside The Patriots' Organization Believe This Might Be The Final Year That Kraft, Belichick And Brady Work Together
Wickersham described a "palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group."
How that shakes out is hard to tell. Robert Kraft surely won't sell the team. Brady is under contract through 2019 and is in position to win a third Super Bowl in four years (for the second time in his career), and his TB12 center operates out of Patriot Place. And Belichick certainly would not leave a job where he has total roster control and is never questioned about his football decisions for an organization that didn't offer both.
If Belichick were to leave the Patriots, then his affinity for the Giants would figure to factor in. But the Giants have already hired a new GM in Dave Gettleman, which would seemingly rule them out of a potential surprising jumping of ship from Belichick. The Bears, Cardinals, Colts and Lions also all have GMs in place.
Nevertheless, Wickerhsam suggests the Patriots are "threatening to come undone the only way possible: from within."
"[Week 17's win over the Jets] didn't look like Belichick's last regular-season game as the Patriots' head coach," Wickersham wrote, "but several coaches and staffers later remarked to one another that it felt as if it could be."
Some people who don't know Belichick's future saying "it felt as if it could be" is not exactly hard news, but it does undoubtedly pass for some juicy gossip that will help fuel some talk radio discussions over the coming months.
Alex Guerrero And The TB12 Center Refused To Treat Garoppolo For Two Weeks After Injury
In what may be the most vivid picture painted, Wickersham described Garoppolo essentially banging on a closed door in an effort to receive treatment on his injured shoulder in 2016.
"As he later told Patriots staffers, when he arrived, the door was locked," Wickersham said of Garoppolo. "He knocked; nobody was there. He called TB12 trainers but nobody answered. He couldn't believe it, Garoppolo told the staffers, and that night ended up visiting team trainers instead. Guerrero vehemently denies ever refusing to see any player, and Garoppolo was eventually treated at TB12 -- but it was two weeks after he showed up for his original appointment, and only after a high-ranking Patriots staffer called TB12 to inquire why Garoppolo hadn't been admitted."
The story is used to describe a contentious relationship between Brady and Garoppolo, something that Brady has publicly denied. Wickersham, though, said Brady felt "liberated" after the team traded Garoppolo in late October.
"Kraft hugged Brady when he saw him that week, in full view of teammates," Wickerhsham wrote. "A few days later during practice, some players and staffers noticed that Brady seemed especially excited, hollering and cajoling. Brady was once again the team's present and future. ... The owner was in Brady's corner. 'He won,' a Patriots staffer says."
Worth noting: Kraft is an affectionate man, and his hugs (and smooches) with teammates are captured in photos and on video on a weekly basis. As for Brady's standard level of cajoling? Well that's hard to to know.
Some Players Believe The TB12 Method Is 'A Cult'
Brady's no doubt been obsessive about his training methods and eating habits, as evidenced by his training center, his book, his line of exercise equipment and dietary supplements, and more. Some believe it may have gone too far.
"The method also was so consuming and unwavering in its rules and convictions that, while it helped some players, it felt 'like a cult' to others, one Patriots staffer says," Wickersham wrote. "The way TB12 began to creep into Brady's life worried people close to the QB, many of whom were suspicious of Guerrero. 'Tom changed,' says a friend of Brady's. 'That's where a lot of these problems started.'"
Later, Wickersham wrote: "Many Patriots players and staff believe that Brady is a good man who has a hard time saying no to Guerrero."
Kraft And Belichick Held A Very Long Meeting That Ended With Mandate To Trade Garoppolo
Bill Belichick runs a tight schedule, so if he were to ever miss or cancel a meeting, it would have to be for an emergency only. But it apparently happened two weeks prior to the trade deadline, in a meeting between Kraft and Belichick that lasted "half the day."
"The office was buzzing," Wickersham wrote. "The meeting ended with a clear mandate to Belichick: trade Garoppolo because he would not be in the team's long-term plans, and then, once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him. Belichick was furious and demoralized, according to friends."
It's noteworthy that Wickersham cited Belichick's friends. He did that in November, in an ESPN story about Brady that was co-written by Tom Junod, saying that Belichick's friends believe he'll only coach two or three more years and that he wanted to coach Garoppolo and win a Super Bowl with a quarterback not named Brady. In a radio interview, Belichick denied the veracity of any unattributed quotes and called it "fake news."
Undeterred, the friends are back.
There Is A 'Lingering Sadness' Around The Patriots
The team is 13-3, despite major injuries to Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower. The 40-year-old quarterback is the league's MVP. The head coach will set a new record when he mans the sideline for his 37th postseason game next weekend. The duo can further grow the gap between themselves and everyone else in history if they can win a sixth Super Bowl together next month. For Kraft, business is booming.
Yet ... there is a sadness. A "lingering sadness."
"Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near," Wickersham wrote. "The imminent exodus [of Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia] raises the question going forward: Is it possible that Belichick would rather walk away than try to rebuild the staff with a 41-year-old Brady and another year of Guerrero drama -- all while trying to develop a new quarterback?"
Appropriately, Wickersham answered his own question: "Belichick being Belichick, those around him know nothing of his plans."
And as evidence for this deep sense of urgency, Wickersham included this tidbit: "Belichick seems to be grinding harder than ever, as if more than a sixth championship is at stake. Before the Patriots played the Steelers in December, he told players, 'I brought you here for games like this.'"
The Patriots won the game in thrilling fashion. How that messaged differed from any other pregame message from the past 18 years is not clear.
Bill Belichick Has Apparently Become Friends With Roger Goodell
Talk about a bombshell. The coach loves the commissioner?
"[Belichick] has even become good friends with Goodell," Wickersham wrote. "The two men had a long and private meeting during the off week after the regular season, when the commissioner visited Foxborough."
Of all the lines of this story that are difficult to believe, it is truly hard to see how Belichick befriended the man solely responsible for tarnishing his legacy by regarding filming from the wrong location as "cheating" to the general public. Nevertheless, it's in there.
Also of note: The team "quietly parted ways" with John Jastremski and Jim McNally, the two mysterious protagonists/antagonists of "DeflateGate."
Tom Brady Was Mad That Belichick Never Named Him 'Patriot Of The Week'
Consider this the second-most difficult to believe part of the story.
"Patriots staffers have noticed that, this year more than ever, he seems to volley between unwavering confidence and driving insecurity," Wickersham wrote. "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."
The greatest quarterback of all time being bent out of shape for not receiving an imaginary accolade from a coach seems difficult to believe. It almost seems as if the unnamed staffers who were interviewed might have been pulling the reporter's chain; that's how out of character this story seems to be.
The story also indicated two things. One: That Belichick has, as always, been critical of Brady's play in front of the team, and that Belichick continued this method of coaching after Brady had an objectively bad performance against the Texans in the divisional round last year. Second: That Brady does not like being lambasted in front of the team anymore.
What wasn't said: Whether Brady disagreed with Belichick's assessment of that Texans performance.
According to Wickersham, Belichick told the team, "This will get us beat. We were lucky to get away with a win."
Brady seemingly agreed wholeheartedly with that assessment, saying after his two-interception night, "We'll never turn the ball over as much as we did and think it was a great game."
Is there a disagreement there? Doesn't seem so. Nevertheless.
Alex Guerrero Was Painted As A Bit Of A Homewrecker
Not only does the story suggest that Guerrero is pushing the buttons of Brady, but it also indicates that Guerrero may have actively tried to drive a wedge between players and Belichick.
"Several players told staffers and coaches that Guerrero gave them the impression that Belichick would no longer allow them to work with him," Wickersham wrote. "In the view of many Patriots, it was an example of Guerrero trying to split the organization by turning players against Belichick."
He also wrote: "Players openly discussed with Patriots coaches, staff and trusted advisers whether to follow Brady or the team, leaving them trapped: Do we risk alienating the NFL's most powerful coach or risk alienating the NFL's most powerful quarterback?"
One more: "As Brady gained power, so did Guerrero, who became an even more divisive force in the building."
The message on Guerrero from Wickersham was pretty clear.
The Patriots 'Repeatedly' Tried To Sign Garoppolo To A Contract Extension; He Declined
Why is Jimmy Garoppolo no longer in New England? This is why.
"The Patriots repeatedly offered Garoppolo four-year contract extensions, in the $17 million to $18 million range annually that would go higher if and when he succeeded Brady," Wickersham reported. "Garoppolo and [agent Don] Yee rejected the offers out of hand, for reasons that remain unclear, and the Patriots knew they couldn't make any promises to Garoppolo about the timing of a transition at quarterback without it getting back to Brady."
Garoppolo wanted to be a starter. Brady was the best starting quarterback in the NFL in 2017. Garoppolo's chance wasn't coming. A change was made.
Belichick Was/Is 'Skeptical' That Brady Could/Can Last Into His 40s
Brady apparently met with Kraft about playing long term, but Belichick remained "skeptical of a long-term contract extension" and his meeting with Brady led to a "little blowup."
That's believable and in line with the way Belichick has managed his roster over the years, as the head coach is unlikely to believe his player will be the one exception to aging and decline.
The "blowup" would be noteworthy, but regardless, we'll know how this problem ended when/if Brady signs a contract extension.
It's worth reiterating that none of the charges or assertions have been confirmed by the Patriots. But given the team's sudden change in philosophy that led to trading Garoppolo, and given the team's sudden revoking of access to Guerrero, it's been clear that there have been shifts in power dynamics within the organization this year.
Whether that is a sign of dysfunction or whether it's an unavoidable aspect of doing business in the NFL? That remains up for debate. In the meanwhile, Wickersham's long piece will certainly become a talking point in the football world.
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