Reports of a story on the New England Patriots by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham set NFL circles ablaze on Thursday night, with speculation about what would be within it.
The story came out early Friday, and it detailed some tension between team owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. There are tones of a power struggle, and even some hints that this season could be the end of the Patriots dynasty as we know it. There’s a lot of detail about Brady’s trainer Alex Guerrero, and plenty of insight into the Jimmy Garoppolo trade that might impact the NFL for years.
The Patriots put out a statement Friday morning in the wake of the ESPN story.
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
It was certainly worth the read, and here are six main takeaways:
Belichick’s future will be a hot topic in upcoming weeks
“Belichick being Belichick, those around him know nothing of his plans,” the ESPN story says. Yet, throughout the story it infers that Belichick could be on his way out. Wickersham writes that there’s “a palpable sense in the building” that this could be the final year together for Belichick, Brady and Kraft. Well, Kraft isn’t selling the team and the Patriots aren’t moving on from probable NFL MVP winner Brady to insert Brian Hoyer at quarterback. That leaves Belichick.
The story says “several coaches and staffers” felt Week 17 could have been Belichick’s last regular-season game, though there’s no evidence either way. Perhaps Belichick was “furious and demoralized” at having to trade Garoppolo (we’ll get to that move in a moment), and isn’t happy about Kraft’s involvement, to whatever extent he was involved. But NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, who is a trusted source on that beat, wrote he expects Belichick and Brady back because Belichick wouldn’t leave in a huff after spending 18 years building the Patriots dynasty.
The Jimmy Garoppolo trade
The enduring part of the ESPN piece will be what happened with the Garoppolo trade. One thing that isn’t in the story: Brady never demanded Garoppolo be traded. ESPN did write there was a “clear mandate” from Kraft to Belichick to trade Garoppolo. Kraft said Garoppolo, a free agent after this season, wouldn’t be in the team’s long-term plans. Brady, according to ESPN, certainly seemed happy that Garoppolo was traded. But there’s nothing in the story that says he forced it or demanded it, either.
Belichick might not have wanted to trade Garoppolo, and the Patriots might think he’s a top-10 player, as the ESPN story states. But there was no easy way out of this. The Patriots either made offers or discussed them with Garoppolo. The proposed deal would have been for four years and between $17 million and $18 million (ESPN said offers were made, Curran wrote no formal offer was made, but it’s clear that rough parameters were discussed), but that wasn’t realistic. Brady is at an MVP level and Garoppolo, whose contract expires in March, wouldn’t sign up as a backup for who knows how long when he could become a starter in 2018. And after how he has played with the San Francisco 49ers following the trade, he will likely get more than $17 million-$18 million per season, too.
It’s also worth noting that Curran wrote he was “told more than once that Robert Kraft didn’t tell Bill Belichick he wasn’t allowed to trade or release Tom Brady.” Curran wrote that he was told that conversation never happened. At some point, the Garoppolo trade (or a Brady trade, or release) had to happen. There was no other way out of this situation. To paint it as the owner forcing Belichick against his will to trade Garoppolo — and certainly, the Patriots trading him for well less than they should have gotten for such an intriguing quarterback raises eyebrows — probably isn’t fair. There was no realistic scenario in which Garoppolo and Brady were going to both be Patriots next season, and it has nothing to do with anyone’s relationship with each other. It had to do with Brady still being one of the best quarterbacks in the game and Garoppolo being a free agent.
Brady wasn’t excited to mentor Garoppolo
While the Patriots had to make a big decision before losing Garoppolo for nothing, it’s clear Brady was playing the Joe Montana/Brett Favre role in mentoring Garoppolo. Which means, he wasn’t mentoring Garoppolo at all.
The ESPN story said the two quarterbacks were friendly but Brady “didn’t see it as his role to advise Garoppolo, even on matters as trivial as footwork, as nobody had helped him during his climb.” There is a great passage in the story about Garoppolo showing up for a scheduled meeting with Brady’s trainer Alex Guerrero at the “TB12” clinic, and the doors were locked. That hardly seems accidental. Brady seemed to be happy after the Garoppolo trade, making a show to hug Kraft that week in view of everyone, according to the ESPN story. There’s a quote from a Patriots staffer saying, “He won,” in regards to Brady.
It’s a good reminder that one of the most overdone narratives in the NFL is believing a backup to a great quarterback is a certain path to success. A starting quarterback has enough on his plate without teaching his backup how to play. Favre got a lot of criticism for stating that out loud about Aaron Rodgers, but it’s true. The NFL is also a business, and most human beings in any field wouldn’t want someone coming in and taking their job. That’s reality, no matter what ideals we have in our head about what NFL life should be like. Brady didn’t become Garoppolo’s quarterback coach in addition to leading a 13-3 Patriots team. This shouldn’t be a shock, but it probably will be treated as such.
The Alex Guerrero issue didn’t help anything
Guerrero, Brady’s trainer and business partner, is a big part of the ESPN story. His presence is painted as being divisive among players, not knowing whether to use Guerrero and the “TB12” clinic, or team doctors. The specific example given is that after Julian Edelman’s injury, those receivers wanting to take his place in the offense didn’t know whether the best way was to use Guerrero and get Brady’s trust, or go with the team personnel. It sounds like a very odd dynamic.
Guerrero was eventually told he could work with players on his own but wasn’t allowed on the sideline or to treat players other than Brady at the team’s headquarters anymore. That became a big story in December. It seems hard to believe that the Patriots dynasty is about to be broken up over a personal trainer, but it probably didn’t help if there was underlying tension.
Brady is tired of Belichick’s criticism
One strange thing about Brady and Belichick is that even though the two are inseparable in NFL history, and they have become arguably the greatest coach and quarterback ever thanks in large part to each other, you don’t often hear one speak in gushing tones about the other. It doesn’t seem like the two go on vacation together, let’s say. Curran wrote that the relationship between Brady and Belichick is “strictly business,” and that’s no surprise.
The ESPN story talks about Brady bristling at Belichick’s criticism. Wickersham wrote that Brady has always been a target in film sessions, in part so Belichick could make the statement that no player is above criticism. But the story says Brady’s positive thinking as he has gotten older hasn’t always meshed well with Belichick’s negativity. One memorable sentence in the story is that Brady is irked he hasn’t gotten “Patriot of the Week” honors all season, a strange concern for someone who is likely going to win his third NFL MVP award. The story says this season Brady “seems to volley between unwavering confidence and driving insecurity.” Maybe that comes along with understanding his football career is nearing an end, or perhaps it goes all the way back to the guy who still is bothered he wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the draft.
Because it involves Brady and Belichick, the criticism aspect seems like a juicy tidbit. My guess is that if you went around the NFL and got honest answers from all players, a vast majority aren’t thrilled to be criticized by one or all of their coaches.
This will be a distraction, and could turn into a rallying cry
Just imagine how awkward Belichick’s next news conference will be. Brady’s too, for that matter. The Patriots famously hate dealing with anything other than football. Now, as the playoffs start, they’ll be asked about rifts between the coach, quarterback and team owner, Belichick’s future, reliving the Garoppolo trade, Brady’s trainer and how well Brady and Belichick are co-existing. That will seem like multiple root canals to someone like Belichick, who on his best day doesn’t enjoy talking about any of that stuff.
But the Patriots have proven, time and again, that they’re able to take things that would derail other teams and turn them into an “us against the world” mentality. It would be no surprise if, behind closed doors, this all becomes another way for Belichick to focus his team on winning Super Bowl LII. And they’re already favored to do just that.
What happens after the season might get interesting. Or, Kraft, Belichick and Brady will continue to co-exist for many more years. No matter what, the Patriots’ postseason run got a little more interesting.
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