We are going to miss these New England Patriots when the dynasty finally falls, and Bill Belichick returns to his coach’s cave, never to return, and Tom Brady retires to a palace with jeweled remote controls and hot and cold running brain-water. They have managed to gift us with two of football’s biggest on-field scandals of the last half-century, including one of the most idiotic public controversies in sports history. At the same time, they have put up a record of success matched by few franchises in any sport. They have done so with the same owner, the same coach, and the same star quarterback, sliding easily between the perils of the NFL’s free-agent era and discarding star players before those players have begun to go demonstrably downhill, only to have them head south on rocket skates as soon as they arrive with another franchise.
And now, thanks to a story in ESPN Magazine, the Patriots enter this year’s playoffs—as we say in the political pundit game—shrouded in controversy. Author Seth Wickersham reported that some cracks have appeared in the successful foundation that has supported the dynasty in Foxborough. The basic fault lines put Brady, his controversial trainer Alex Guerrero and owner Robert Kraft on one side, and Belichick and his loyalists on the other. Among other things, the story says that Brady’s loyalty to Guerrero and his methods have distanced the quarterback from his coach, and that Brady and Kraft clashed with Belichick over the fate of franchise-quarterback-to-be Jimmy Garoppolo, dealt to San Francisco at a bargain rate last October. (Elsewhere in the story, it’s asserted that the relationship between Garoppolo and Brady had deteriorated badly, and that, once, Garoppolo made an appointment at the TB12 training center set up by Brady and Guerrero, only to find the door locked. Also, Brady and Garoppolo have the same agent, which is completely ridiculous.) Denials, of course, have flown thick and fast, but what is plainly clear is that somebody—or somebodies—talked to Wickersham and that, since Belichick comes out of the piece better than does anyone else, one would not be out of line to conclude that a lot of the story came from the Belichick side of the controversy that everyone now says doesn’t exist.
The basic outline of the story has been obvious for a while, and it centers around Brady’s relationship with Guerrero, a shadowy personal trainer who once was fined by the Federal Trade Commission to settle a claim that he’d been peddling supplements as a cure for cancer. He then moved on to what he perceived to be his true calling: revolutionizing athletic training. He found a willing acolyte in Brady, who soon began talking like someone who’d seen Jesus in his wallpaper. The two have produced a book, and the word “pliability” has become something of a punchline, even though Brady continues to play at a high level as a 40-year old. Most of what Guerrero and Brady are selling seems relatively harmless. (Who can argue with drinking lots of water, even if it doesn’t prevent sunburn, as Brady apparently believes?)
Unsurprisingly, Belichick’s patience with the sudden descent of Blade Runner lifestyle coaching on his franchise was not unlimited. (Brady’s devotion to the training method, and his proselytizing for it, apparently unnerved some of his teammates.) First, Belichick revoked Guerrero’s permission to attend meetings with the team’s medical staff. Then, in what counts as a bombshell regarding this particular franchise, the coach took away Guerrero’s sideline and Patriots facilities privileges. And that’s where everything stood until Wickersham’s piece appeared. At which point, the Patriots fan base, which believes that ESPN, the NFL, the EPA and possibly the Bavarian Illuminati are in league to destroy the team, went predictably bananas. (Seriously, there is no fan base in America more paranoid than the New England partisans, a strange development for a team that once had to play a home game in Birmingham due to lack of interest in Boston.) The team circled the wagons as only the Patriots can, and then everyone was, you know, on to Tennessee.
Going forward, there are two compelling narrative lines to keep in mind. The first is the genuinely strange presence of Guerrero, and his unprecedented relationship with the signature player in the history of the franchise. For his entire career, Brady was the ultimate low-maintenance guy, a fanatic in the film room and someone with an almost religious view of what being a teammate meant. Outside of his obvious intellect and athletic ability, Brady profited mightily from his authentic image as an Everykid from California who worked himself into being the best quarterback the NFL ever has seen, the sixth-round draft choice who conquered the world. There was very little exotic about him, even when he married a supermodel and started cliff diving in Central America. Was his technique perfect? Of course, it was.
Very likely, all of that is still largely true. But the whole TB12 Method phenomenon has knocked Brady’s established public persona into a very odd place. Suddenly, there’s something about him that’s not familiar. And Guerrero’s previous run-in with the FTC doesn’t fill one with a great deal of confidence. Sooner or later, Brady might come away looking like he bought a bag of magic beans. But, for the nonce, Belichick’s star pupil has bought the whole package, and it’s Belichick’s job to roll with it.
The second narrative strain is simpler: None of this matters a damn.
Truly, if the Patriots do not defend their Super Bowl championship, it will be because the team’s occasionally erratic defense has a bad day, or because its patched-up offensive line finally collapses around Brady. It’s not going to be because Robert Kraft treated Bill Belichick badly, or because Belichick thinks Brady’s new guru is a quack. It is not going to be because of the ESPN Magazine piece, either, although it will be blamed by the talk-radio Ostrogoths if New England loses this weekend, which doesn’t seem remotely likely. It will be another piece of evidence proving the Grand Unified Conspiracy against the Patriots.
This is a team that simply does not do distractions. Even its distractions don’t distract it. My own theory is that, for all of Belichick’s hooded grimness, the basic appeal of the Patriots is their willingness to be imaginative in what they do. The team’s imagination always has been one of its more obvious characteristics. Fourteen years ago, when they beat Carolina for their second Super Bowl, linebacker Mike Vrabel caught a touchdown pass. Three years ago against the Ravens, Belichick came up with an unusual formation that nearly caused John Harbaugh’s head to explode. (The NFL, because it’s the NFL, outlawed the funky formation two months later.) New England approaches the game creatively—including the way it works the deepest footnotes of the rulebook. This puts some serious haunts in the mind of the opposition, which comes to believe that almost anything can happen at almost any time. It also gives the impression, often justified, that the Patriots are playing at a level above the rest of the league. Plus, it’s fun to play that way.
Ever since that first Super Bowl victory, what New England has managed to do is create a kind of hive mind—not a faceless machine but, rather, a deep connection among all concerned that anything is possible. Linebackers can catch touchdown passes. There are more gray areas in the rules than you think there are. Sixth-round draft picks can end up with five (or six) Super Bowls, and they can marry supermodels and jump off cliffs and still win with whatever personnel surrounds them. The Patriots share a common imagination that can elevate them beyond petty concerns, and if this is the last season that it works, and even if it’s the last season in which that imagination is shared between coach and quarterback, it’s still more than worth watching. I’m just happy that Alex Guerrero got a hold of Tom Brady before Gwyneth Paltrow did.
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