By Danny Picard
BOSTON — The headline reads, “Is this the beginning of the end?”
The author is Seth Wickersham. The outlet is ESPN. The team being dissected is the New England Patriots.
The word I use to describe it is “exaggerated.”
That’s also how the Patriots reacted, in their joint statement from Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady on Friday morning.
“For the past 18 years, the three of us have enjoyed a very good and productive working relationship,” the statement read. “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.”
This was in response to an ESPN report released at 1 a.m. on Friday, claiming that Kraft, Belichick, and Brady “have had serious disagreements” and because of that, there’s “a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.”
In the story, Wickersham said he interviewed more than a dozen Patriots “staffers, executives, players, and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings.”
No surprise that all sources are anonymous. That doesn’t affect the credibility of the author or the story. But it does have a Deflategate feel. And by that I mean, it reeks of an exaggeration of the facts.
Deflategate was foolish. I believe Brady wanted the footballs at a certain PSI, but I also believe it was in response to the officials’ incompetence. And it had little-to-no impact on the Patriots’ success.
Brady suddenly became a cheater and a villain. In the court of public opinion, his legacy was tarnished.
Back over here in the real world, where the need for a competitive edge is omnipresent, it should’ve been a non-issue.
After reading ESPN’s latest Patriots feature, I walk away with a similar reaction.
The disagreements and business decisions that are now being dissected in Wickersham’s story are not uncommon in professional sports, especially when a historically-successful NFL franchise like the New England Patriots is involved.
That’s not to say Wickersham’s sources lied to him. But it’s evident that the dramatization of some behind-the-scenes conflict exists in this 4,500-word feature that confirms exactly what we all know to be true: the Patriots are a multibillion-dollar professional sports franchise that’s in a very unique spot.
Which brings us to the biggest piece of hard news here: the Jimmy Garoppolo contract talks.
You could convince me the headline to Wickersham’s report should’ve read, “Garoppolo rejected four-year deal before being trade to San Francisco.” Without Garoppolo, this story would be nonexistent. Yet, somewhere buried in the middle paragraphs are the details of contract negotiations between Garoppolo and the Patriots.
According to Wickersham, “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.”
Wickersham continued, “Garoppolo and [his agent Don] 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.”
I consider it a stretch to call this “breaking news,” but at least it’s the first time we’re seeing some details of contract talks between the two sides. Those details — if you believe the story — show that it wasn’t just Belichick who wanted to keep Garoppolo. Obviously Kraft did too. If not, the team would’ve never made him repeated offers.
It explains the trade to those who have yet to grasp the idea that Garoppolo — a free agent at season’s end — wanted to be a starting quarterback next season. That opportunity was not available to him in New England, unless the Patriots moved Brady.
Wickersham’s story confirms that the Patriots didn’t trade Garoppolo during the offseason because they were still trying to sign him to a four-year deal. As the trade deadline approached, and as Garoppolo continued to reject their “repeated” contract attempts, that’s when Belichick met with Kraft. And then Kraft reportedly laid down his mandate: trade Garoppolo.
I can’t blame Kraft for not wanting to throw away $25 million on a one-year franchise tag for a backup quarterback who probably wouldn’t sign that extension next year either. And again, unless they decided to trade Brady while he’s still playing at an MVP-caliber level, the franchise tag was the only realistic option for the Patriots to keep Garoppolo.
This is all common sense though. And still, people can’t understand why the Patriots made the trade.
It was a business decision. And at the end of the day, the Patriots are in the business of winning Super Bowls. Brady and Belichick are three wins away from their sixth championship together. You can yell at me all you want about how Belichick didn’t want to trade Garoppolo. But if it’s all fire and brimstone in Foxboro like ESPN is attempting to portray it, then let’s be honest, Belichick didn’t have to trade anyone.
If this is the beginning of the end, as the headline teases, and Kraft’s mandate made Belichick so furious that he wanted out of New England because of it, then he could’ve just kept Garoppolo, left the organization in the offseason, and let everyone else deal with the Brady vs Garoppolo dynamic.
What, you mean to tell me that if Belichick told Kraft he wasn’t trading Garoppolo at the deadline, then Belichick would’ve been fired mid-season? C’mon now. How bad would that make Kraft and Brady look? Much worse than they do today, that’s for sure.
But Belichick didn’t do that. Because he’s not an idiot. He traded his backup quarterback for a second-round pick that he’ll probably use to draft another backup quarterback for everyone to fall in love with.
If you want to exaggerate the facts, then I guess you could describe all of these meetings, disagreements, and difficult business decisions as some type of tension. You could then use that perceived tension to ask, “Is this the end?”
Or you could understand that this is just how shit works and move on, and get ready to watch the Patriots make a serious run at back-to-back Super Bowl championships.
People are talking about this team as if they went 6-10 and missed out on the playoffs. One of them is the guy who wrote this latest ESPN story.
Wickersham made an appearance on Friday’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter. He said, “You know, when you think about it for a second, it raises so many questions. Why does the NFL’s most shrewd and smartest long-term strategist trade two quarterbacks in a two-month span, when your starter was 40 years old and appearing on the injury report every week?”
I feel like I’m losing my mind over here.
He answered all of those questions in his ESPN feature story. And I just tried to answer them for you as well. If you can’t understand it by now, then you never will.
It’s as if everyone’s lost sight of the fact that Belichick is still very much interested in winning a Super Bowl this year. Call him a “long-term strategist” all you want, but when your short-term quarterback is the greatest of all-time and is still one of the best in the league, that becomes a pretty important factor to any decision you make, even if you have the long-term in mind.
With a 40-year-old quarterback, there’s no question the end is near. But I’m getting a palpable sense that some people outside of the Patriots organization would like it to end right now.