The Seth Wickersham piece, one year later

The end of the Patriots dynasty felt imminent after ESPN The Magazine's expose. Now?

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still chasing a sixth Super Bowl title as a unit.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still chasing a sixth Super Bowl title as a unit. –AP Photo

It was the talk of football and the talk of New England.

When Seth Wickersham’s ESPN The Magazine piece chronicling the tension within the upper reaches of the Patriots came out last Wild Card weekend, just about everyone whose life draws anything from the team got exactly what they wanted.

For Patriot haters, it was obvious manna. For diehards, it was grist for the “hate us because they ain’t us” mill. Talk hosts got the green flag to parse every team communique until the LEDs burnt out in their phone banks, overloaded by calls beginning with “I’m a huge Patriots fan, but …”

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As for the team? They curtly dismissed “media reports” with “speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate” in a joint statement, made a seventh straight AFC Championship game, a third Super Bowl in four years, and … lost, giving up eight scoring drives and 41 points with one of their best-known cornerbacks on the sidelines for mysterious reasons.

That had little to do with Wickersham’s thesis, however, which he summarized thusly:

“The three most powerful people in the franchise — [Bill] Belichick, [Tom] Brady and owner Robert Kraft — have had serious disagreements. They differ on Brady’s trainer, body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero; over the team’s long-term plans at quarterback; over Belichick’s bracing coaching style; and most of all, over who will be the last man standing. Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.”

Fifty-three weeks later, the band remains together, with another shot at a sixth Super Bowl as a trio. Where does Wickersham’s opus stand now? Let’s discuss some of the big points.

Alex Guerrero

Wickersham focused plenty on Brady’s longtime business partner and body coach, painting the picture of Guerrero as someone who grew in stature along with Brady, became a divisive force as he tried to woo players into his flock and was ultimately pushed back again by Belichick.

From Wickersham:

“Few in the building had a problem with Brady’s method — mostly based on stretching with bands, eating lots of vegetables, drinking lots of water, getting lots of sleep and, most of all, achieving peak ‘pliability.’ They did have a problem with what Brady and Guerrero promised the TB12 Method could do. They claimed it could absolve football of responsibility for injury: ‘When athletes get injured, they shouldn’t blame their sport,’ Brady wrote. 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. 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.'”

After a summer in which Guerrero was back in the headlines when Julian Edelman, one of an estimated 20 Patriots who trained with Guerrero at one time, was suspended four games for PEDs, there’s been just about zero mention of Guerrero during the season. That was the goal, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, who said in September that the team and the trainer came to a “compromise” allowing Guerrero some level of access to Gillette Stadium. Both Brady and Gronkowski still work with him, perhaps among others, but it’s far less in the open than it had been.

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Brady notably cut short a pair of interviews during the summer when asked about Guerrero, both in connection with Edelman’s suspension and independent of it. (The two have worked together since Brady’s 2008 ACL injury.) His new contract, according to a Globe report, featured no specific language about Guerrero or his access.

Tom Brady

Given the quarterback’s playing in a knee brace and compromised almost certainly because of an injury he suffered catching a pass in the loss at Tennessee, that quote about injury above rings out. As does the claim from an unnamed Brady friend that “Tom changed.”

The 41-year-old skipped the optional organized team activities this summer for the first time since 2010, opting instead for some globetrotting and time with family. Well within his rights, but time he once declared “lays the foundation for the start of training camp” and that fit into his belief that “you can’t get better by not doing anything.” The move was certainly viewed through the lens of the friction that Wickersham reported, as well as helped by the Patriots not having a true heir to his No. 1 QB throne on the roster.

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“When I look probably the last six months, it’s been the first time where I’ve taken a little break, I think, from what I’ve done and what’s been cyclical and monotonous,” Brady declared in the epilogue of his ‘Tom vs. Time’ series. “But I just think I needed something different this year. My family needed something different.”

That his numbers took a step down from 2017, when he won the MVP, is hardly an indictment of anything. At 41, Brady was still sixth in the NFL by ESPN’s QBR metric, just ahead of the Chargers’ Philip Rivers and just behind the resurgent Andrew Luck.

His top three targeted receivers from a year ago were all either gone (Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola) or compromised by injuries of their own (Rob Gronkowski). Brady did get Edelman back, but from a catastrophic knee injury in addition to the suspension. For the first time in his career, Brady’s top target was a running back (James White), and a quote from an unnamed staffer in the Wickersham piece still feels true: “As fragility has increased, nervousness has also increased.”

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Regardless all those caveats, Brady is aging, on the end of the known scale for starting quarterbacks and seems looking forward — toward what comes after football — more than at any point in his career. With that in mind, another something from the Wickersham piece, regarding the Jimmy Garoppolo trade:

“If we trade Jimmy, we’re the Cleveland Browns, with no succession plan.”

Jimmy Garoppolo

Jimmy G tearing his left ACL on a non-contact injury not even a month into the season ended any debate on which man was the right choice to lead the 2018 Patriots. Though that seems a silly question in the face of the real one, given a healthy Garoppolo could similarly end the debate for his team throughout the 2020s if he stays healthy. (Admittedly an open question, and one that could be a big problem for the Niners given that contract.)

Why a team as smart as the Patriots would trade both its young quarterbacks in the same year remains one of those questions with no real good answer, even when plausible explanations are offered. With Garoppolo a free agent to be, the team couldn’t pay both quarterbacks without having to rip the rest of the roster to pieces. With both quarterbacks represented by agent Don Yee, backroom deals couldn’t be done in secret from the other.

Whether it was a simple miscalculation by the team, involved a Kraft-Belichick meeting that — as Wickersham described — “ended with a clear mandate to Belichick” that left him “furious and demoralized” that he needed to trade Garoppolo, or some combination of it all, the Patriots don’t have a post-Brady plan.

Josh McDaniels with Tom Brady and the offense in December. —AP Photo

The future

Rather than give each of the big three one section, it’s worth reflecting on their relationship as much as it is Brady’s with his coach. They are individuals, but their symbiosis trumps that.

“We’ve been together 19 years, which is unheard of for a head coach, a quarterback and an ownership group. Thankfully, we’ve had a lot of success, and whenever that happens, you become a target. And we understand that,” Kraft said on CNBC in September. “There’s always tensions and issues and different things you’ve got to deal with, but that’s part of the privilege of owning a team and being successful. I have a little saying, that envy and jealousy are incurable diseases, and you’d rather be a recipient than a donor. That’s part of what’s going on now.”

Looking back at Wickersham’s conjecture that the blowup was imminent a year ago still has some use: “Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near. Both [Josh] McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are expected to become head coaches; other assistant coaches might leave to join their staffs or for college jobs, or even retire. The imminent exodus 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?”

McDaniels obviously stayed, leaving the Colts at the altar last season and ultimately not coming close to taking one of the eight open jobs this one. More than ever, this feels like his team whenever Belichick decides to make that last drive away from Foxborough. What will his team look like, though? Will he be the one to draft that next quarterback and, ultimately, determine both his and the Patriots’ immediate future?

It feels, strange to say, back-burner stuff. While there’s a lot of chatter about the end being near for Rob Gronkowski, that’s not as dynastic an idea. This year has been about football in New England, in so much as it will ever be with this group again.

Belichick conducts his business in such a way that his retirement will almost certainly be a surprise. Brady has certainly broadened his view beyond the sport, but he remains driven by winning and that he loves football because “it allows me to be who I am in a very authentic way that is hard for me to be when I walk off the field.”

Eventually, the ride will end and all the attempts at predicting the end will find their kernels of truth.