The Patriots’ long-term championship future was shaken Friday by an ESPN report that described “a palpable sense in [Gillette Stadium] that this might be the last year together” for the most successful owner-coach-quarterback combination in NFL history—Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who have combined to win five Super Bowls and 15 division titles in their 18-year NFL relationship. Now one of the triumvirate is striking back at the notion that the team is fraying, and at parts of the ESPN report.
Owner Robert Kraft told The MMQB that he believes “absolutely” Belichick will be the coach of the team in 2018. He disputed the part of the story about the team’s October trade of Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers, saying he did not order the trade and did not meet at length in the weeks before the trade with Belichick.
Much of writer Seth Wickersham’s story detailed the relationship of Brady’s fitness guru, Alex Guerrero, with the team, and Belichick’s decision to limit Guerrero’s access to players. But also in his story about the shaken foundation of the franchise, Wickersham detailed how Kraft ordered Belichick to trade Garoppolo: “Two weeks before the Nov. 1 trading deadline [the deadline actually was Oct. 31], Belichick met with Kraft to discuss the quarterback situation. According to staffers, 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.”
In a telephone interview, Kraft disputed all tenets of the story.
“Until Monday at the trade deadline—I believe that was Oct. 30—the last time I talked to Bill about Jimmy’s situation was in a group with Bill, [club president] Jonathan [Kraft], [director of player personnel] Nick Caserio … a small group of us, I think in June. That is the last time I talked to Bill about it. I would see Nick occasionally and say, ‘Anything going on?’
“I assumed once the season started, we’d talk again at the end of the season about it. The next time I spoke with Bill about it was the Monday before the trade deadline. He called me on that Monday and said he got a deal with San Francisco, Jimmy for a second-round pick and [quarterback] Brian Hoyer. Turns out they had to cut Hoyer and then we got him. But really, this was basically a second-round pick and Brian Hoyer for Jimmy. Bill asked me if I was OK with this. I was really taken aback a little bit. I wanted to think about it. I talked to Jonathan, who was okay with it, and I called Bill back and said, ‘OK.’”
Kraft called the report that he and Belichick met for half a day during the season about Garoppolo “a total fabrication and fiction. I am telling you, it’s fiction.”
Wickersham, reached Saturday morning, said, “I absolutely stand by my story.” He said he worked on this story for two months.
Wickersham, often working with fellow ESPN investigative reporter Don Van Natta, has an excellent history of NFL reporting, including stories about the Jerry Jones/Roger Goodell rift, the long Super Bowl hangover inside the Seattle Seahawks, and about the moves of the Rams and Chargers to Los Angeles and the Raiders to Las Vegas. Those stories, with the benefit of history, have largely been shown to be accurate.
In the wake of Wickersham’s story, the organization issued a statement from the three men saying that multiple stories “have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate … As our actions have shown, we stand united.”
The Patriots clamped down on commenting on this story further until Kraft’s response to The MMQB.
Kraft also dismissed talk that he would consider trading Belichick to any team. He praised his coach, saying, “When you’re lucky enough to have someone exceptional, you let them do their job and you get out of the way.” And he said it would have been difficult to keep both Brady and Garoppolo going forward, noting that the Patriots would likely have had to put the franchise tag on him in order to even try to keep him in 2018. The cost of keeping two franchise-cost quarterbacks on a contending team would be difficult.
It’s unknown why there is such a gap between what Wickersham reported and what Kraft has vehemently denied.