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How much truth is in ESPN’s story describing problems in New England with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft

What is the fact and what is the fiction?

AFC Championship - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The big New England Patriots story today was penned by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, titled, “Patriots on the brink: A 40-year-old QB, a furious coach and cracks starting to show” and headlined, “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?

The general idea is that quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are butting heads so severely over a multitude of issues- from Brady’s trainer Alex Guerrero to the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo- that owner Robert Kraft had to step in and it might not have been enough. The story is very sympathetic to Belichick and paints an angle that Brady “won” the battle as Kraft decided to side with his quarterback over his head coach.

Let’s take a jump into what the story is actually saying and what the real takeaways are.

The Patriots immediately refuted the story

“For the past 18 years, the three of us have enjoyed a very good and productive working relationship. In recent days, there have been multiple media reports that have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate. The three of us share a common goal. We look forward to the enormous challenge of competing in the postseason and the opportunity to work together in the future, just as we have for the past 18 years. It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united.”

The above is the text from a joint statement by Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady refuting the story with no conditional terms.

“I don’t really know what to say,” Brady and Garoppolo’s agent Don Yee stated in response to the article. “It’s tough to have a response since it didn’t appear to me to have one on-the-record quote. All I can suggest is don’t believe everything you read.”

How often does ESPN do this?

It was DeflateGate and the famous 11 out of 12 football snafu in the 2014 postseason; a story about the Patriots cheating to kickoff the 2015 season; a recap of all the Tom Brady-centric nuggets from DeflateGate, including his emails and relationship with Alex Guerrero, during the 2015 postseason; coverage of Brady’s actual suspension from DeflateGate to start the 2016 season; and why Brady became “a lightning rod” during the 2016 postseason.

Some of these stories are reasonable to cover. Brady’s suspension deserved plenty of coverage and it makes sense to dedicate feature stories of teams that are in the postseason. But these are deep dives that were either untrue, speculative, or just served to rehash evergreen stories that will draw eyeballs. The Patriots are an easy target for these stories.

The tension between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick over Alex Guerrero is real

There has been an underlying story all season about the tension growing between Brady and Belichick over Brady’s trainer, from ESPN and Adam Schefter and the Boston Globe and the Boston Sports Journal. The fact there is tension is real. The question is “how much tension” and Wickersham suggests “a lot.”

Wickersham spoke with Patriots coaches that were definitely and validly concerned with younger players listening to Guerrero over the official team trainers, and that some might be going to the TB12 Sports Therapy Center to get more face time with Brady. Boston Sports Journal (BSJ) also reported that players were disputing the guidance of the team’s conditioning coaches due to direction from Guerrero, so this story isn’t created out of thin air.

We already knew that Belichick removed Guerrero’s access to the Patriots sideline and limited his access on site, and BSJ reported that Guerrero misled players to give “the impression that Belichick would no longer allow them to work with him.” Wickersham just reinforced those claims.

So there is definitely tension between Brady and Belichick as it relates to Guerrero that did not exist to such a degree prior to 2017. But most local reports say that neither Brady nor Belichick will allow it to affect them professionally, with both refusing to discuss the story out in the open.

There was no official “mandate” for Bill Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo

A big chunk of the story is dedicated to Robert Kraft forcing Bill Belichick to trade back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Now Belichick, as Wickersham notes, “was content to start Brady as long as he was the best quarterback [on the roster].” But he also wanted Garoppolo around as the future starter since Brady would be reaching unprecedented territory as a 41-year-old starter in 2018. Belichick apparently told this to Brady, which caused “a little blowup.”

Wickersham notes that the Patriots offered Garoppolo a multi-year extension that Garoppolo did not accept, which local beat writers immediately refuted. And so two weeks prior to the trade deadline, Kraft and Belichick held a long meeting to discuss the future of the team.

“The meeting ended with a clear mandate to Belichick: trade Garoppolo because he would not be in the team’s long-term plans,” Wickersham reports, “and then, once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him. Belichick was furious and demoralized, according to friends.”

Again, local reporters came out to refute the story by saying there was no mandate.

This could all be semantics, of course. Belichick could have inferred from his conversation with Kraft that Brady was still in the team’s long term plans and that Kraft didn’t want to part ways with Brady in a near-term transition to Garoppolo. In fact, Kraft has been pretty clear and open about wanting Brady to be a Patriot for life, so there was no interest in accelerating a succession plan if there was still more time left.

While Belichick has made it clear that he won’t be a part of an organization where the owner meddles on the football side of things, it’s probable that the events surrounding Garoppolo don’t qualify for what would serve as Belichick’s tipping point for “meddling.”

The Patriots couldn’t strike an extension with Garoppolo for him to serve as the back-up and the franchise tag would destroy the team’s cap in 2018, leaving the only remaining option was to trade Garoppolo and start again in 2018 with a new quarterback prospect. With Brady still playing at an MVP level (he was named First Team All Pro in 2017), there would be enough time for Belichick to develop another successor.

So trading Garoppolo made sense with Brady’s current level of play, regardless of how Belichick perceived the younger quarterback’s potential. Brady is still the best quarterback in the NFL and finding another prospect is more cost-effective than retaining Garoppolo under the franchise tag.

Side note about Garoppolo’s and Brady’s relationship: Wickersham says that “Brady is famously unhelpful toward his backups -- or, at least, a threat like Garoppolo,” and that 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.”

Garoppolo sees it differently.

“Tom helped me in so many ways,” Garoppolo said in his introductory press conference with the 49ers. “I mean, it was a special thing we had — on the field, off the field. Whenever I had a question, he always helped me out. I thank him for all the help he gave me in New England. It was time well spent. He’ll always be a good friend of mine.”

So. There’s that.

Garoppolo also apparently wanted to go to the TB12 Clinic after suffering his shoulder injury in 2016 and nobody answered the door until two weeks after his appointment and “only after a high-ranking Patriots staffer called TB12 to inquire why Garoppolo hadn’t been admitted.”

I’m just imagining Garoppolo knocking on the door for two straight weeks and wondering why no one was home.

Tom Brady is apparently tired of Bill Belichick’s coaching

“As his age has increased, Brady has become an advocate of positive thinking. 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.”

I’m imagining Brady bringing out his California Calm in team meetings by telling Belichick to just, “chill out, babe.”

Is Brady tired of Belichick’s schtick of yelling at him and saying that Johnny Foxborough could make all of his throws? Well, in the immortal words of Mike Gundy, “I’m a man! I’m 40!” Maybe Brady is over being treated like a kid and has shared that sentiment to others behind the scenes.

But I have a hard time believing that Brady is actually upset about not being named “Patriot of the Week.” It could be an off the hand sort of, “yeah, well, I’ll never win that award,” and that’s totally fine. I’m pretty sure Brady’s not too broken up about winning an in-house award at this stage of his career.

Again, this seems like an angle rooted in fact, but is overblown. Brady can roll his eyes at Belichick ripping him in meetings, but it’s not going to cause the end of their relationship.

Bill Belichick is just trying to set up the Patriots future

My favorite part of the story is how it paints Belichick in such a sympathetic light. He’s just trying to do what’s best for the franchise, and for Jimmy Garoppolo’s future, and for his sons, and for his legacy, and for Roger Goodell?!

“Belichick also has taken a longer view, as though he sees pieces of his impact leaguewide,” Wickersham writes. “He’s preparing assistant coaches for job interviews elsewhere, which he didn’t always do in years past. He has taken pride in Garoppolo’s 5-0 record in San Francisco -- and in the fact that Kraft has confessed to people in the building that trading Garoppolo might have been a mistake. He reset a toxic relationship with the Colts with the Brissett trade. He has even become good friends with Goodell. The two men had a long and private meeting during the off week after the regular season, when the commissioner visited Foxborough.

“Belichick always had a vision for how, after more than four decades in the NFL, he wanted to walk away, beyond setting up the team at quarterback. He wanted his sons, Brian and Steve, both Patriots assistants, to be established in their football careers. And he wanted the winning to continue without him, to have a legacy of always having the best interests of the franchise in mind.”

Which, you know, could all be true, but I’m pretty sure that the only sentimentality Belichick has is towards 1) his legacy; and 2) his kids. Trading Jacoby Brissett was not about creating a relationship with the Colts. He’s not interested in becoming BFFLs all of a sudden with Goodell.

And, sure, I don’t doubt that he wants the best for Garoppolo or for all of his assistant coaches, but their successes also serve a reflection of himself. The most common criticism of Belichick is that none of his assistants have ever succeeded at head coach (Bill O’Brien would dispute that claim) and I’m sure that Belichick is aware of that- and he wants to fix it. Maybe he’s not thinking explicitly about “oh, getting Josh McDaniels a job will help my legacy,” but he knows that a strong coaching tree would be another badge on his sash.

Ultimately, Belichick is the Tywin Lannister of the NFL and all he wants is for his family name to live on in the annals of history.

So where does this leave us? Prior to the story’s release, I wrote to a friend the following note (I’ve changed a few words for formatting and clarity):

“Basically, Brady and Belichick are annoyed with each other over Brady’s quacky doctor. Brady has nothing against Jimmy and didn’t tell Kraft to force a trade, but Belichick did want to keep Garoppolo. Kraft wants Brady to be a Patriot for life. They’re all generally fine with what has played out and have moved on.

“Belichick will draft Brady’s heir in this next draft. Brady gets to keep his TB12 studio by the stadium and players can use it and Brady can have his doctor in the stadium in a private room. Kraft gets Brady to stick around for life. Everyone is relatively happy and have compromised. That’s the full story.”

I’m going to stick with that original assessment. I’m sure there are strains on the Brady/Belichick relationship because of Alex Guerrero. I’m sure that Belichick wishes something could have worked out long term with Jimmy Garoppolo. I’m also sure that Kraft made it clear that he would prefer Brady to retire as a Patriot, but that he didn’t give Belichick an official “mandate.”

And I’m also sure that this won’t be the last season for Brady and Belichick and that I would be surprised if they broke up in 2019.

We’ve heard about strains in their relationship over the years. Remember when Brady and Belichick were supposed to be at odds during DeflateGate and how Belichick supposedly threw his quarterback under the bus. Or when Brady was mad about Belichick not re-signing Wes Welker or trading Logan Mankins. We’ve heard about all of these moments and yet they’ve stuck together and continued to win.

This is simply another bump along the way.