Something has changed this season among Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft.
The New England Patriots may be the odds-on favorites to win a record-tying sixth Super Bowl this season, but according to an expansive report by ESPN's Seth Wickersham, "the dynamics have been different" this year between the three men most responsible for a dynasty that has lasted nearly two decades.
The headline for the article is "For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?" It's a question that likely sends chills down the spines of Patriots fans everywhere.
Same with this quote from the story: "Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group."
It should be noted that although Wickersham talked to "more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team's inner workings," none of those people went on the record with any of their comments. The only statement Wickersham got on the record came from the Patriots organization, which responded to specific questions by stating that there are "several inaccuracies and multiple examples given that absolutely did not occur."
On Friday morning, the Patriots released a joint statement from Kraft, Belichick and Brady. "In recent days, there have been multiple media reports that have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate," they stated.
"It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united."
Still, there's some pretty fascinating stuff in Wickersham's report. A lot of the behind-the-scenes friction it describes involves Brady's personal trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero, a man who once had seemingly unlimited access within the team but as of this year is no longer permitted by Belichick to be on the team sideline or at the team's headquarters.
Another reported source of stress within the organization is the 40-year-old Brady's well-publicized plan to play for several more years. According to the article, Kraft ordered Belichick to trade highly touted backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo "because he would not be in the team's long-term plans." The coach "was furious and demoralized" by the demand but ended up trading to Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round draft pick in November.
"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," Wickersham states in his report.
There are other suggestions throughout the article that the Kraft-Belichick-Brady era could be near its end:
— "Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near;"
— "A fifth Super Bowl triumph healed some of those wounds, but there's no guarantee that a sixth will fix the rest. Something has to change, that much everyone knows;"
— "It didn't look like Belichick's last regular-season game as the Patriots' head coach, but several coaches and staffers later remarked to one another that it felt as if it could be."