Patriots push back against bombshell ESPN report

A wide range of friction points among the three highest profile members of the Patriots — owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady — is threatening to undo one of the great dynasties in NFL history, according to ESPN in a story published Friday morning.

The bombshell nature of the piece is evident in that reports that it would be published, and what its substance might be (some described it as “a hit job”), surfaced late Thursday, ahead of when the article went live.

The story — written by Seth Wickersham and appearing under the headline “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?” — asserts that dysfunction finally has reared its head, after nearly two decades of virtually unparalleled success in New England.

By late morning Friday, Kraft, Belichick and Brady had released a joint statement, lamenting the need to respond to “multiple media reports that have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate,” adding, “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.”

The timing of ESPN’s story is noteworthy, as the trio alluded. The piece appears on the eve of an NFL postseason in which the Patriots (13-3) will attempt to defend their Super Bowl 51 title, the fifth won with the Brady-Belichick-Kraft troika leading the way.

That very success, in fact, is where the fissures in the franchise may have begun, ESPN poses in a paragraph that encapsulates what it says could be evolving into an untenable situation: 

“Brady, Belichick and Kraft have raised expectations and possibilities so high that virtually no other team in the Super Bowl era could truly comprehend what it’s like to be them. Brady and Belichick weren’t only pushing the boundaries of what a team could accomplish. They also were challenging basic understandings of how a group of high achievers escape the usual pulls of ego and pride. For 17 years, the Patriots have withstood everything the NFL and opponents could throw their way, knowing that if they were united, nobody could touch them. Now they’re threatening to come undone the only way possible: from within.”

In promoting the nearly 5,000-word story, ESPN says it is based on “interviews with more than a dozen Patriots staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner-workings,” all of which led to the conclusion that Belichick, Brady and Kraft “have had serious disagreements.”

Brady’s agent, Don Yee, issued a statement Friday morning (via NFL Network) in which he didn’t completely refute the reports of a rift, though he did say, “It’s tough to have a response since (the story) didn’t appear to me to have one on-the-record quote. All I can suggest is don’t believe everything you read.”

According to ESPN, ego, achievement, credit and more are at the heart of what’s described as a devolving relationship, at least between coach and quarterback, with a 76-year-old team owner left at times to broker peace.

The fundamental differences between Belichick and his football-first Patriot Way and Brady with his TB12 Method, that includes “body coach” and business partner Alex Guerrero, led to cracks appearing this season, ones that even all the success apparently couldn’t cover.

The unanswerable question posed in the story’s headline — IS this the beginning of the end? — will play out in the days, weeks and maybe months ahead. Then it will take years to put into perspective what the NFL has witnessed in this 17 years of amazing success.