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Speculation about the Patriots’ inner workings is starting early this offseason

We are one week into the offseason and have already reached “the Patriots are dysfunctional” territory.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are as secretive as any organization in professional sports, but that has not stopped behind-the-scenes information from leaking out on occasion.

Some of it is coming from well-established reporters who have spent years building a reputable network within league circles and at One Patriot Place. A lot of it, however, falls into a different category — one that might be located anywhere between hearsay or exaggeration.

One of the best example for that came in the 2003 season. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson went on the air to proclaim that “they hate their coach” after Bill Belichick traded long-time team captain Lawyer Milloy to Buffalo just days before the season opener.

There was, of course, no mutiny or the like. As Rodney Harrison later put it, players might have been bitter about the move but it did not boil over into any real hatred for Belichick. Five months after the move, by the way, the Milloy-less team went on to win its second Super Bowl in a three-year span.

Fast forward almost two full decades, and to new talk about the Patriots.

With their offseason underway there is not a lot to write or talk about when it comes to the team. As a result, every bit of information that is either reported or directly announced by the club is closely — sometimes too closely — analyzed and scrutinized.

Take Belichick’s end-of-year press conference last week. When asked whether or not quarterback Mac Jones would resume his starting position heading into 2023, Belichick did not make any definitive statement in favor of the former first-round draft pick.

“Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league,” he said. “We have to all work together to try to find the best way as a football team, which obviously the quarterback is an important position, to be more productive than we were this year. So that’s incumbent upon all of us. We’ll all work together on that. Look for better results.”

So, that means Jones’ position is not secure, right? That is one way to read into Belichick’s statements. Another is that he also did not categorically rule it out.

Nonetheless, the statement did cause a stir in Boston and beyond. Several outlets shared their perspective on the matter. WEEI, which hosts both on weekly radio segments, even went as far as to wonder whether or not the relationship between the two men was “beyond repair” and if Jones should lobby for move.

The grey area created by Belichick in his statement left room for interpretation of that kind, and for follow-up speculation and debate to arise — and for rumors to start popping up.

One of those was recently discussed by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and ex-NFL quarterback Chris Simms. The subject of their debate was an apparent disagreement between Belichick and Jones during the season.

According to Simms, who spent time as a coaching assistant in New England in 2012, Jones’ frustration about the state of the team’s offense led to him reach out to outside counsel. Belichick was not thrilled about that, he noted.

“Mac Jones wasn’t happy. He was telling people he wasn’t happy. He was calling people about, ‘Hey, can you help us with ideas and do stuff like that?’” Simms said. “From my understanding, Belichick found out all these things. He found out that Mac was talking to people, and all this, and there was some back-channel conversations going on behind Belichick’s back. And I think that’s where it did get personal.”

Whether or not all of that happened like that only a handful of people truly know. The same is the case for whether or not there is any real drama, or if the situation was handled professionally and to the satisfaction for all involved.

The speculation about a personal disagreement between the two most important people in the Patriots’ organization, however, is attractive material to tackle in the offseason. Finding dysfunction or possible signs of a downfall in what has been the NFL’s model franchise for more than two decades, frankly, sells.

Obviously, that does not mean that that is the driving motivation behind what Simms said on the air or that there is no merit to his reporting. But the road from “here is what happened” to “here is what I think happened” is not a long one, and the latter oftentimes gets mistaken for the former.

One of the best recent examples of that came in the aftermath of the Patriots’ unprecedented press release last Thursday. The team put out a 39-word statement informing the public that a) it has begun discussions with linebackers coach Jerod Mayo about a contract extension, and b) would begin interviewing offensive coordinator candidates soon.

New England being so open about its inner workings is something that has not happened a lot since Belichick’s arrival in 2000. The motivations behind it remain in the dark, but as was the case with his statements about Mac Jones there is plenty of room to interpret.

One way to do so would be to see it in the context of another recent piece of information released by the club, a letter from team ownership to season-ticket holders. In it Robert and Jonathan Kraft promised a “critical evaluation” of New England’s football operations following a disappointing 8-9 season.

The outlook of the team getting back on track is an attractive selling point, a stance that was also shared by ESPN’s Mike Reiss (one of those well-connected reporters):

My take is that it made sense on multiple fronts: It was a way for Belichick to publicly acknowledge his 2022 miscalculation (he had said if it didn’t work out to blame him) and move forward; it was a way for the Patriots to decisively declare to the NFL that there won’t be a repeat of last year’s process, and the Rooney Rule will be followed; it was a way for owner Robert Kraft to communicate directly with fans, with a hopeful message that things will be different in 2023.

With the Patriots usually operating in that aforementioned grey area, however, it is not surprising to see fans and media members alike try to interpret the press release differently.

Doing so is certainly legitimate — after all the team’s modus operandi invites a more critical stance — but at a certain point speculation might start to overshadow what we actually know. That is true for Belichick’s statements on Jones and last week’s press release alike.

And, to be fair, what is being said only goes so far when it comes to information conveyed. Mac Jones can play quarterback is about as basic a statement as you can find; the same is true for “the team will begin interviewing for offensive coordinator candidates beginning next week.”

But to make the leap from these statements to speculating about internal disconnect between Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick seems like an ambitious thing to do, even though there might very well be some fire behind the apparent smoke. If more than two-decades of the so-called “Patriot Way” have taught us one thing, though, it is that the team’s power players rarely air their grievances out in the open — either directly or indirectly.

That does not mean it never happens; just last year Robert Kraft publicly complained about the team not having won a playoff game since Super Bowl LIII in February 2019. Despite that streak continuing for at least another year, however, the man ultimately responsible for the football team is still in his position.

Talk about actions speaking louder than words.

Does that mean there is or isn’t any dysfunction between Belichick and Jones or Kraft and Belichick? Well... maybe.

What there is, however, is plenty of talk about it one way or the other. But all of it too should be viewed with a critical eye. Because, make no mistake, the Patriots after all these years still invite a lot of hearsay and exaggeration.

Welcome to the offseason.