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Bedard: On ESPN’s Patriots story, and what I’ve been told about Kraft, Belichick and Brady

(Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

ESPN has unveiled its big Patriots story by Seth Wickersham, and it contains some interesting revelations about the current state of the Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady dynamic, including:

  • In the wake of Julian Edelman's injury, "New players felt the surest way to earn Brady's trust was to join Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and others by seeking advice from (Alex) Guerrero at his TB12 clinic -- and not team doctors, which Belichick preferred ... players openly discussed with Patriots coaches, staff and trusted advisors whether to follow Brady or the team, leaving them trapped: Do we risk alienating the NFL's most powerful coach or risk alienating the NFL's most powerful quarterback?"
  • " the team's private evaluations, (Brady) is showing the slippage of a 40-year-old quarterback even as he is contending for MVP... "As fragility has increased, nervousness has also increased," a Patriots staffer is quoted as saying.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo visited the TB12 center after his shoulder injury and found the doors locked. Guerrero vehemently denies ever refusing to see any player, and Garoppolo was eventually treated at TB12.
  • Brady met with Belichick in October about playing longer. The meeting ended in a "little blowup," according to a source.
  • The Patriots repeatedly offered Garoppolo four-year contract extensions, in the $17-18 million range annually that would go higher if and when he succeeded Brady. Garoppolo and Yee rejected the offers out of hand, for reasons that remain unclear, and the Patriots knew they couldn't make any promises to Garoppolo about the timing of a transition at quarterback without it getting back to Brady.
  • How the Garoppolo trade happened: Two weeks before the Nov. 1 trading deadline, Belichick met with Kraft to discuss the quarterback situation. According to staffers in the building, the meeting ran long, lasting half the day and pushing back Belichick's other meetings. The office was buzzing. The meeting ended with a clear mandate to Belichick: trade Garoppolo because he would not be in the team's long-term plans, and then, once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him. Belichick was furious and demoralized, according to friends. But in the end, he did what he asks of his players and coaches: He did his job.
  • Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it's time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.
  • On Deflategate: Kraft (defended Brady) even though many staffers in the building believed there was merit in the allegation, however absurd the case. ... Kraft has privately told associates he knew that he went too far in his attacks against the league. "I had to do it for the fans," he has told confidants.
  • (Belichick) 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 him might have been a mistake.
  • (Belichick) has even become good friends with (Roger) Goodell. The two men had a long and private meeting during the off week after the regular season, when the commissioner visited Foxboro.
  • (The season finale) didn't look like Belichick's last regular-season game as the Patriots head coach, but several coaches and staffers later remarked to each other that it felt like it could be.

Thought it was a good story that wasn't a bombshell, but it did a nice job of filling in the gaps in what has transpired recently, especially about the Garoppolo trade and the circumstances around it. The numbers on the Garoppolo extension shocked me (and I'm dubious — might be some revisionist history there), as did the Goodell revelation.

If you're someone who disregards anything with anonymous sources, you're not going to like this story. But nobody talks on the record about this stuff in the NFL, especially with the Patriots. As long as you have a history with an anonymous source and their info has checked out 100 percent in the past, they're essential in reporting sensitive stories.

What I've been told about the situation

As many of you know, I’ve been dancing around in the area of this story for a couple of weeks, through my appearances on Felger & Mazz and BSJ member Q&As. I never had it cold enough to write it like my Bill Belichick/Alex Guerrero piece. So I give Seth a ton of credit, if what he's reporting is accurate, for fleshing out the story. At least for me, this story proved difficult to completely nail down because you’re dealing with a very small circle of very powerful people. And it’s further complicated by the fact that all three of the subjects are very cognizant of their legacies that are closing rapidly on the horizon as they get closer to the end of their respective runs. So the stakes could not be higher for all three.

Here's what I have learned about how things have gone down in Foxborough, and how tenuous the future is — if it is at all:

  • Tom Brady knows what is going on around him — now more than ever — as he has always had a fear he would be traded by Bill Belichick. The team’s decision to not trade Jimmy Garoppolo this past offseason, when his demand would have been highest, agitated Brady.
  • Meanwhile, Brady’s rumored contract extension after last year’s Super Bowl has not materialized, meaning Brady’s cap numbers is set to jump from $14 million (8.4 percent of the team’s cap) to $22 million (12.4 percent) the next two seasons. Without an extension, Brady's contract is now easily traded or terminated.
  • The reason Brady was at such a discount through this season is because Brady and Kraft came to an agreement that he would take up less of the cap going forward to secure his place with the team. If Brady didn’t, Kraft couldn’t predict the future. From my MMQB piece in May 2015:

Right now, according to Spotrac, the Patriots are due to rank 16th, 15th and 20th the next three years, respectively, in the percentage of cap spent on quarterbacks thanks to Brady’s team-friendly contract. That is not an accident. After losing the 2012 AFC Championship Game to the Ravens, Kraft told Brady on a shared flight to California that if he wanted to get paid what he’s worth in a year or two, it probably wasn’t going to be tenable for the team. The Patriots did not want to pay 18 percent of their cap to a quarterback (as they were at the time), even one as great as Brady. Kraft told Brady that he was basically going to have to play at half price, which he will do from this year through the end of the contract in ’17 (it was extended in March 2016), to help the team give him the supporting cast to win championships and enhance his legacy. Brady thought about it, and agreed. The extension was announced in late February 2013. Also keep in mind that, also to help the team, Brady has never maximized the guaranteed money in his contract.

  • Sometime in September, right around the time Brady fitness guru Alex Guerrero and Brady were launching their TB12 Method book, Belichick sent word to Guerrero that he would have the same access to members of the team not named Brady as other personal fitness personnel, and that meant no more team flights and sideline access. Again, this did not sit well with Brady.
  • Put all of those things together — Garoppolo, the contract and Guerrero — and Brady was edgy. He wondered, after all he had done for the Patriots, why was his place on the team for 2018 not totally secure (at least in his mind)? Brady started to get in Kraft’s ear about it. Repeatedly. All the evidence was telling Brady that Belichick intended to trade him after the season and go with Garoppolo. Brady wanted to know where the security and loyalty was? He took less money and that enabled them to win two of the past three Super Bowls, and were favorites to make it three in four years? Why, considering all that, did Brady not have any assurances of being on the Patriots in ’18?
  • Brady never said or hinted about wanting Garoppolo traded. Didn't happen. Brady just wanted some assurances of his future.
  • As the trade deadline neared, and Brady playing some of the best ball of his career and looking like an MVP candidate — he obviously wasn’t looking like a 40-year-old QB as Belichick feared — Kraft decided to demonstrate his loyalty to Brady and told Belichick to trade Garoppolo. If Belichick wasn’t going to do the contract extension, or tell Brady of his plan with Garoppolo, then Kraft was going to do what was in his power to make his favorite player more comfortable.
  • Belichick wasn’t happy about it — he believed Garoppolo was the QB to lead the Patriots long after he was retired — and he begrudgingly traded Garoppolo. He did not seek out offers or the highest value. He respects Garoppolo, wanted to give him a chance to succeed, so he left a message for Kyle Shanahan, whom Belichick thought a lot of, to call him the next day, Oct. 30 (date of the trade deadline). The deal was done for a second-round pick with little discussion.
  • The truth is, Belichick had no plans of trading Brady and sticking with Garoppolo. He just wanted to take all the time he could before making a decision, which was likely going to be to tag Garoppolo and then trade him, if Garoppolo didn’t agree to another attempt at a bridge deal. Belichick had no idea if Brady was going to suffer a major injury down the stretch or in the postseason. Brady could get into a car accident on Feb. 25, for all Belichick knew. Belichick doesn’t try to predict the future. He was going to keep Garoppolo as long as he could, and if Brady was still playing like he was 30, a decision would have to be made. Belichick was not going to trade Brady if he was playing like the MVP and champion of three of the past four Super Bowls. No way.
  • Now, if Brady struggled down the stretch, and then looked like Brett Favre in the 2007 NFC Championship Game … all bets were off. Again, as much time as possible to make a decision...
  • So Belichick, Brady and Kraft were all unhappy in some respect. Someone broached the subject of a meeting to get all three back on the same page before the first Miami game. It never happened, and it’s not known if the meeting has happened since.
  • As far as I have been told, that’s the extent of the situation. All three are irritated to some degree — Belichick about Garoppolo and Kraft’s meddling in football, Brady on Guerrero and his contract, and Kraft about the whole thing (although he’s more like Switzerland in all this) — but no one I’ve spoken with thinks this thing is driving towards a cliff. Belichick is not likely going anywhere, but his solo counsel approach leads to speculation in the building. He will get over it and start finding the next Garoppolo. Brady, who currently has no desire to do another deal to help the team, will keep working like he always does. Kraft will go back to minding his own business.
  • No one I’ve spoken with thinks this situation comes close to derailing this season. It’s not Armageddon, and everyone is still a professional at the end of the day.

Is anyone wrong in this?

Not in my mind. I think everyone here was right, and at some point, after the season is over, they’ll realize that and it will business as usual.

Brady was correct that Garoppolo should have been dealt in the offseason, and the Patriots should have drafted another QB if they thought Jacoby Brissett was not up to snuff. Brady was also correct to want loyalty since his contract paved the way for the Patriots to stock the team to win two Super Bowls in three years, and maybe three in four. Brady’s contract gave the Patriots a huge advantage over other teams.

Belichick was correct to want to hang onto Garoppolo for as long as possible because you never know what might happen with a 40-year-old quarterback. Belichick was also right to be miffed at Kraft for doing what he said he would never do: insert himself into football decisions. (Belichick was wrong to not get as much as he could for Garoppolo in a trade).

Kraft was right to accelerate Belichick’s timeframe on Garoppolo with a display of loyalty for Brady. Brady deserved at least that for what he’s done for the franchise, especially in recent years. So what if Belichick had to go back out and find the next Garoppolo? That’s what he gets paid the highest salary in the league to do.

At the end of the day, or this season, the Patriots still have the best quarterback and coach in the league, and they'll be favorites to win it all again this season and the next. The only thing in my mind that's changed is the Patriots have to find a new successor for Brady. Garoppolo may indeed be a worthy heir to Brady. But then again, he might not. Garoppolo may be 7-0 to start his career, but he still has much to prove, especially with a full season of pounding and when teams have tape of him to pick apart.

Unless Belichick walks away because of this situation — and I highly doubt that will happen — nothing has really changed. The Patriots will likely roll on with business as usual.




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