In 2007, the NFL conducted an investigation as a result of a game between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets in which the Patriots were believed to have been videotaping the Jets defensive signals from an unauthorized location. Much was made of it as all the Patriots previous successes were brought into question, and the videotaping scandal was even given a Nixon-esque moniker: Spygate. Eventually the Patriots were docked a first round pick in the 2008 NFL draft as well as fines.
Beware The Pissed Off Playoff New England Patriots
During the 2014 AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts levied accusations that the Patriots football (that the Colts acquired after a turnover) was distinctly flatter than the normal NFL football, which is against the NFL’s rules. After another investigation the NFL concluded that the Patriots were cheating and once again levies fines and strips the team of their 2016 first round draft pick and 2017 fourth round draft pick.
This investigation gets more personal as the league sought to look at quarterback Tom Brady’s phone and figure out what involvement, if any, he had with the deflated footballs. Months later they determined his level of involvement merited a suspension of four games which, after many appeals and legal battles, was eventually served during the first four games of the 2016 NFL season. Once again, a catchy nickname is applied to a Patriots investigation: Deflategate. (Seeing a trend in the nicknames?)
A Rift Amidst the Three Legends?
Now, just a few days ago via an ESPN article by Seth Wickersham detailed a burgeoning rift between the big three of the Patriots: Owner Bob Kraft, a notoriously generous man who regards Brady as an additional son; Head coach Bill Belichick, without question one of the greatest coaches in NFL history; and Brady, who has more super bowl rings than any quarterback in NFL history and is considered a favorite to win the 2017 NFL Most Valuable Player Award at 40, an age when most quarterbacks are either retired or in severe decline. The article won’t be rehashed, but suffice to say it relates that each man is seeking to ensure he receives his “due credit” for the team’s continued successes since 2001, when they won their first super bowl.
In other words, despite all the naysayers and finger-pointing done by opponents after all the “gates,” the article states that the team is beginning to show cracks and maybe even a decline via internal issues. There is no “I” in “team,” but there is a “me” and all three strong-willed and powerful men, who have obviously contributed much to the team’s success, are ensuring that “ME” is getting the due. And Wickersham definitely seemed to do his due diligence in both time and covert interviews with people in the inner workings of the team.
However, there is perhaps another theory. A theory that says maybe there is some truth to these whispers in the Patriots team headquarters, but discovering the “why” they were quietly revealed may highlight more of the bond and brotherhood between these men rather than a growing fracture.
First, examine a potential motive by looking at the ramifications of the two previous investigations. Clearly such accusations and punishments, such as the removal of high-value first round draft picks, would do no team any favors. Yet seen in 2007, post Spygate, the Patriots reached the super bowl and only lost to the New York Giants after an amazing play which included the non-mobile Eli Manning deftly eluding the Patriots pass rush and threw the “helmet catch.” The Patriots reached the super bowl 18-0, the only team in NFL history to have that record and closest any have gotten to an undefeated 16-game season.
The next investigation for Deflategate highlights the 2016 Patriots, since they lost that year’s first round pick and Brady was suspended the first four games. All they did was once again reach the super bowl and overcome the largest deficit in NFL super bowl history (down 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons, an offensive juggernaut that year) to win it. Clearly neither investigation hindered the team’s on-field production, and it may even be said the team is best when backed into a corner. Saying “it’s us against the world”, is easy when the entire NFL world is levying accusations against you, true or otherwise.
Another motive includes motivation. The greatest of the great athletes in any sport have always managed to manufacture motivation out of nothing, sometimes even literally making things up so as to inspire themselves to greater heights and successes. Brady is no exception, and it has been repeatedly reported he carries the chip of being the 199th selection in the 2000 NFL draft on his shoulder still to this day.
The past few years his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, has been steadily improving and was widely regarded as Brady’s eventual successor, despite Brady’s many remarks of wanting to play into his mid-40s. The team has refused to trade Garoppolo, even with many teams offering a bevy of picks, which only fueled the talk of him eventually succeeding Brady. Then suddenly a couple of months ago the Patriots traded Garoppolo to another team, leaving Brady with no discernable successor. Once again, the team was entirely reliant on their 40-year old QB.
Wickersham’s article mentions this as a critical sticking point between the owner and coach, and related a meeting between the two that resulted in the owner ordering Belichick to trade Garoppolo. Financially speaking, it would have eventually gotten hairy to try and pay both Brady and Garoppolo under the team’s salary cap, especially with Brady having continually demonstrated a willingness to take lesser salaries in order to help facilitate a better team around him. But the order from the owner shows a non-Patriots-like emotional bond superseding the team. Indeed, the team is everything, especially in the eyes of Belichick.
The day the article came out it dominated the sports talk, including talk radio. Dan Patrick discussed it on his radio show and mentioned he always read articles, especially with hidden sources, and tries to determine who would benefit the most from the information being released, thus highlighting the potential source. Patrick said that after reading about Belichick being ordered to surrender Garoppolo (for only a second round pick, when months prior teams were reportedly offering first round picks), Brady’s trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero (whose medical practices are questioned by many) potentially talking bad about Belichick behind his back to the many Patriot players he tended, and Belichick’s hand being forced to severely restrict Guerrero’s access to the team building after he seemingly was usurping the team physicians’ authority, he determined that Belichick emerged as the most sympathetic figure out of the three.
Belichick, a sympathetic figure? And when would Mr. “We’re on to Cincinnati” ever reveal anything to the media, whom he has no love for? It doesn’t make sense, unless you remember that the team and its success is everything to Belichick. No one is more important than the team, and this is emphasized by the culture he has carefully cultivated since 2000. Of course he has an ego, everyone does to varying degrees, but he is as much a “live in the moment” person as anyone, and his moments consist of the next opponent, period.
So there’s coach Belichick, knowing he can’t hang onto Garoppolo forever without messing up the team’s salary cap and flexibility. Plus, he has a quarterback he knows he can trust, and after seeing him perform in his 40’s, knows he can keep his salary cap manageable and not have to keep two high-paid quarterbacks on the roster. However, he also needs to keep Brady and the rest of the team motivated. It’s a long season, and no matter how self-motivated someone might be, a little external push never hurts.
Belichick doesn’t love the media, but he will use whatever tool is at his disposal. He gets a staffer or two to contact Wickersham and give him a few details about a problem. A month or so later Wickersham writes the article, revealing the inner issues apparently prevalent. Not only does this surprise Bob Kraft, but Brady is incensed. He knows he doesn’t care so much about credit as he does about success. Who would have said this? Is the media making things up about us just to try and get clicks and interest? Instantly not only is Brady more focused and pissed off than ever, but the entire team is galvanized with the solidarity of a united group of teammates and ownership alike.
The pissed off 2007 Patriots finished their 18-0 season in the super bowl, barely losing to the Giants. The pissed off 2016 Patriots finished their season setting records while winning the super bowl. How will the pissed off 2017 Patriots finish?