It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention, but sports media personalities have been predicting the end of Bill Belichick & Tom Brady’s run with the New England Patriots for almost as long as the two have been together.
This September will make 16 years since Tom Jackson claimed the Patriots “hate their coach” and that was before they saw a single snap in their fourth regular season together. Considering the Patriots went on to win the next two Super Bowls, one might think they would have learned early on that giving these guys motivation wasn’t a great idea, but people who cover sports for a living are notoriously thick headed and rarely change their minds about anything, regardless of what happens in reality.
To the chagrin of many, every single report of the Patriots’ demise through Super Bowl LIII has proven premature.
Of all the reports about windows getting slammed shut, and model wives breaking up the band, few have had as much of an impact on Patriots coverage than Seth Wickersham’s article from January of 2018: http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/page/hotread180105/beginning-end-new-england-patriots-robert-kraft-tom-brady-bill-belichick-internal-power-struggle
It’s a fantastic piece filled with quotes from people “inside the walls” of Gillette Stadium who were willing to put everything on the record except their names. One might wonder how trustworthy such reporting is, but fear not! Wickersham has been a member of not one, but TWO Pulitzer Prize winning teams, and several noble journalists who wouldn’t dream of carrying water for the NFL like Peter King went to bat for Wickersham and his reputation.
You can trust his work, caller!
Wickersham’s story paints a picture of a once proud franchise with a storm brewing from within; disagreements, pettiness and resentment abound between Belichick, Brady & team owner Robert Kraft, over a variety of conflicts including but not limited to:
-Brady being upset about Belichick not giving him enough credit in 2017, in particular, not having been awarded the Patriot of the Week honor when Brady felt he deserved it
-A tug of war between Belichick, Brady, and the quarterback’s “body coach” Alex Guerreo, with Brady supposedly steering players in the personal trainer’s direction for treatment against the wishes of the team medical staff, (which would coincidently benefit Brady’s TB12 Sports Medicine Clinic)
-Kraft forcing Belichick to move Jimmy Garoppolo against the head coach’s best wishes
-Belichick leaving friends with the impression that the dynamic that existed at that point within the Patriots was unsustainable
WOW – the Patriots were a MESS at the end of the 2017 regular season.
Or were they?
In the almost year and a half since Wickersham’s article came out, NE has gone 5-1 in the playoffs. The single loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a hard fought Super Bowl LII, was devastating, and would have set back many other franchises. But NE bounced back a year later with an amazing 2018 playoff run capped off with a Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams in a defensive masterpiece that set a Super Bowl record when they held the 2nd highest scoring offense of the season to less than 10% of their average PPG for the regular season.
That doesn’t FEEL like a team that was coming apart at the seams, but maybe Wickersham’s article was ‘right at the time?’
Maybe the Patriots DID lose Super Bowl LII because of the supposed dysfunction behind the scenes.
Maybe the stories about Belichick and Kraft are right. Maybe the head coach only benched Malcolm Butler because he resented the way Kraft forced him to move Jimmy G.
I mean, all we’ve heard for the last 20 years is how arrogant Belichick is… I suppose it’s possible he was upset enough to piss away a chance to win an unprecedented 6th Super Bowl as a HC, but not so upset that he wouldn’t come back and coach the next couple of years, right? It sounds ludicrous and asinine, but it IS possible I suppose.
It’s also possible, and far more likely in my opinion, that the Patriots simply lost Super Bowl LII to a better team.
Maybe the Eagles were a team of destiny that year. I mean, yeah, Nick Foles, WAS a backup quarterback like so many Patriot detractors like to point out, but he also put up an absurd QBR of 141.4 against the #1 defense in the league two weeks prior in the NFCCG. NE held him to a significantly lower rating of 106.1 in LII… but that’s still pretty damn good against a lot of the guys who performed the way they did against Atlanta in LI & L.A. in LIII with the notable exceptions of Dont’a Hightower who was on IR and of course, Butler who was on the bench.
Here’s the thing that no one wants to admit about Malcolm Butler: the guy got torched in LI, and he did not have a great year in 2017.
You don’t have to take my word for it, Butler himself suggested they had reason to bench him when he spoke about the practice week leading up to LII against Philadelphia:
“Preparation is the best way to win. And maybe they didn’t see 100 percent, mentally or physically, Malcolm Butler that they usually see.’ (http://www.espn.com/blog/tennessee-titans/post/_/id/26447/malcolm-butler-refuses-to-be-defined-by-his-super-bowl-moments)
It’s possible that benching Butler was the right decision, and they lost anyway. We’ll never know.
One thing I feel pretty strongly about: as arrogant as Belichick may be, I’m hard pressed to think he’s arrogant enough to do something that wouldn’t put him in the best possible position to win that game.
Feel free to disagree.
Despite the insistence of insiders emboldened by Wickersham’s report that the S.S. Patriot was taking on massive amounts of water, the ship stayed afloat after that loss and throughout the 2018 off season, navigating its way around glaciers of OTA no shows, rumors of the star tight end running off to join the circus or some shit and yes, more reports of current and former Patriot players hating their coach.
All the while, Kraft, Belichick and Brady maintained there were no cracks in the armor and they were as dedicated to winning together as ever.
A year ago at this time, the local football news was an endless barrage of literal nonsense. Despite Brady being under contract, and specifically telling Jim Gray shortly after LII that he would indeed be back for the 2018, the media crapped themselves for a few days last spring over a report that Brady had not yet agreed to return to the team in 2018. They were literally making stories up.
The local scribes were crawling over each other’s soulless bodies to get that next Alex Guerrero / TB12 nugget of information. No matter how benign it may have been, it was still a way to discuss the Foxboro soap opera they so desperately wanted readers & viewers to believe existed and mattered.
People who got paid to cover sports were writing thinkpieces about how Rob Gronkowski’s most recent “69 LOL” post on Instagram was a thinly veiled shot at both Bill the GM AND Bill the HC, while anonymous fans had to take matters into their own hands and start breaking stories themselves, like Edelman’s PED violation and impending suspension.
SOMEHOW the team, and therefore, the region survived the most tumultuous offseason ever and moved on to the 2018 regular season which had it’s own low points. Among other things, that star tight end who decided against a future rolling around on the floor with clowns was showing his age on the field and a pair of devastating late season losses against Miami and Pittsburgh looked to be the final nails in the Patriots’ coffin.
Despite those factors and the holy trinity still resenting each other (as evidenced when Belichick didn’t give Brady an “atta’ boy” that one time he was coming off the field), the team still managed to secure the second seed, and more importantly a bye for a playoff run that turned out to be one of their most impressive & dominant.
The divisional round was nothing short of a clinic, (thanks for coming LAC), as was the first half of the AFCCG. Amazingly, they did what everyone said they couldn’t do, and won the AFCCG on the road, at Arrowhead Stadium no less. Cue the aforementioned defensive dominance of the Rams, and Brady & Belichick’s relationship seems stronger than ever and people can realistically ask each other “imagine if they win #7?” without putting the cart before the horse.
Sure, winning cures all, but maybe there wasn’t as much there to be cured as we were led to believe. There’s going to be tension at any place of employment after 17 years, let alone such a high pressure environment with larger than life egos and salaries involved. I believe there was and almost certainly still is some tension in Foxboro, about Guerrero & otherwise; but I also believe these guys are professional enough to work through that stuff, and know that what they have is too special to get derailed by insignificant crap.
Maybe Kraft really did force Belichick’s hand in moving Jimmy G, or maybe as suggested elsewhere, he held onto his backup for as long as humanly possible to make sure his #1 was good (it had to be one or the other, there was no way they could have kept both QBs and been competitive in 2018).
Remember Brady was in the midst of an MVP winning season when Jimmy G got traded. Sure, Belichick gambled away what was possibly another great franchise quarterback & opted to hang onto the most accomplished QB in the super bowl era to see what more they could do together… that doesn’t sound like the easiest of decisions. I’m glad I didn’t have to make it, and in the short term, it would appear he made the right one.
I believe Seth Wickersham does have sources inside Gillette Stadium… I’m not saying Josh McDaniels is one of them, but what I am saying, is that many people, including me, think Josh McDaniels is one of them.
Looking back almost 18 months later, it would appear the events Wickersham wrote about, if they even really happened, weren’t nearly as significant as they were made out to be.
His tales of dysfunction and those from the writers who trampolined off his work for months* were at best grossly overexaggerated. The Patriots went on to appear in the next two Super Bowls, adding an amazing 6th title to their trophy case and are still the class of the league.
Does that sound dysfunctional to you?
The icing on the cake for Patriots fans, is the recent implosion of two other powerhouse franchises in the NFL. Both the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs in 2018 and have had potential franchise derailing drama behind the scenes this offseason.
What’s most humorous about the situations those teams are in as compared to New England’s: There’s no shortage of former teammates ready to bad mouth Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger ON THE RECORD. Considering Wickersham can’t get anyone to go on the record about the Pats, it’s probably fair to question the validity and / or motivation of his sources. (it’s also not the first time he’s had to rely exclusively on anonymous sources when writing about New England… weird, right?)
Tension was indeed tearing apart not one, but two premier teams in the NFL last 18 months. Neither one was the team Seth Wickersham spent two whole months in 2017 researching and portraying as such in his article.
I would say it was time well spent, Seth, but it wasn’t… you blew it.
*Seeing Tom Curran go all in on this story as passionately and forcefully as he did last year was… something… and that’s all I have to say about that.