The Patriots under Bill Belichick have rarely been scrutinized during his eighteen-year tenure as the team’s head coach, but entering this offseason the tone around New England has begun to change. Following a year that saw what was reported as nothing less than a power struggle between the head coach, ownership, and the team’s star quarterback, New England may be struggling to maintain its identity. The trading of backup quarterback and rising star Jimmy Garoppolo prior to the trade deadline to San Francisco for what was viewed as below value (a second-round pick) was the first event in a string that attempted to stabilize the relationship between the Patriots leadership. Some NFL insiders had Garoppolo pegged as the future of the Patriots and the quarterback Bill Belichick most wanted to work with moving forward, but Garoppolo’s departure, reportedly spurred by owner Bob Kraft, was an attempt to keep Tom Brady and the nuclei of their success in New England intact.
The dynamic between the Patriots head coach and quarterback, like many relationships that last nearly twenty years, has become strained. The seemingly unlimited access of Tom Brady’s personal health guru Alex Guerrero to Patriots players may have contributed to the rift in the locker room where half the team consulted Guerrero at the TB12 facility, and the rest of the team relied on team doctors. The undermining of the Patriots training and conditioning staff was the first form of fractionalization in the locker room that Belichick had to contest. Guerrero’s access even landed him on the sideline of Patriot’s games and it wasn’t until the second half of the season that Guerrero was prevented from being on the Patriots’ sideline during games. Further complicating matters, at one point in time, Jimmy Garoppolo was prevented from seeing Guerrero and the training staff at the TB12 facility and was only seen two weeks after when reports of the incident landed in the media.
Belichick is known for his control over the holistic operations of the Patriots. Every aspect of the Patriots’ culture is monitored and carefully crafted, and Belichick has been remarkably successful in the face of an evolving social media that has drastically changed during his tenure. The access of fans to players has increased dramatically with the invention of platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, yet the Patriots have rarely had incidents where players have spoken out of line, even high profile players such as Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco adhered to the norms established in the Patriots locker room for dealing with the media. When players come to New England there has been an expectation of normative behavior that was all part of a winning tradition, but there are signs of that culture changing in New England beyond what we saw during the 2017 campaign.
All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski used Twitter to wish former teammate Danny Amendola luck after the receiver signed a two-year deal with the division rival Miami Dolphins. The Tweet garnered attention due to the emphasis on “FREE” and “HAPPY”. Gronkowski, who many have reported has debated retirement since last year’s training camp due to concerns over health and his declining enjoyment in the game, has been the prominent story of the offseason for the Patriots who recently released talented Tight End, Martellus Bennett. Reading into Gronkowski’s comments of may suggest a confirmation that the businesslike culture in New England has worn on Gronkowski. Former players have made similar suggestions, and recently Lane Johnson spoke out against the Patriots’ culture, stating he wouldn’t sign with New England. Though he has never been a part of the Patriots’ locker room, he has played with former players LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long, and his opinions may be representative of some of the perceptions around the league.Perhaps after a few Super Bowl victories Gronkowski is looking for a change of scenery where he can play the game in a fun atmosphere at the expense of success, or maybe he just wants out altogether. The Patriots are of course hoping that an offseason provides Gronkowski with a much-needed break. If his strategy is to try to use his position to negotiate a new contract as it has been suggested by some, then he is likely out of luck, Belichick has rarely renegotiated deals, and when he does, the restructuring generally favors the Patriots (see Amendola’s contract restructure).
During the “Tom vs.Time” series, it was suggested that entrepreneur and wife of Tom Brady Gisele Bundchen had been diverting attention away from her career to take care of the family while Tom has devoted most of his time to focusing on his conditioning and playing career. In January, Gisele had reached out to friend and former NFL player AJ Feely in an attempt to convince Tom to stop playing. But, Tom has never been shy to suggest that he will play until his mid-forties if his play and body allows. Traditionally, players have broken down well before the age of forty. I am not willing to bet against him, but time always wins, and the only force more influential than time is a wife.
Bottom line, so long as the Patriots continue to be in the mix and favored to win the Superbowl, I don’t see Belichick struggling to recruit talent during the offseason. For veterans that have not had the opportunity to make a deep playoff run, six rings are an impactful negotiating tool, and the promise of success or career revitalization has allowed for New England to get better than market value contracts from many talented veterans or underperforming stars looking to prove their value on the market for the following year. New England is finally nearing the end of the back nine of their dynasty, but so long as they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick we would be foolish to suggest anything is over now.
Moving forward it is almost assured that the Patriots dynasty has been left in the hands of Jonathan Kraft and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels. McDaniels, who had accepted the Colts head coaching vacancy prior to backing out of the deal to return to New England was dropped by his agent who said the move was ‘career suicide.’ To go to such lengths to stay in New England indicates that McDaniels is confident that when Jonathan Kraft takes over, and Bill Belichick moves on, he will be slated as the next head coach of the Patriots. Given the continuity that the Kraft family has heralded as key to the team’s success, it makes sense that McDaniels would feel confident in a position with the Patriots being long term. He is not Belichick, but he has been around the organization long enough to understand what it takes to win in the NFL. Even if the Patriots culture is changing, the future beyond Brady, Belichick, and Bob Kraft seems secure. Can we expect the same levels of success that was enjoyed in New England during the Brady and Belichick era? I think that would be unreasonable, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the Patriots will continue to compete. One new challenge that McDaniels will face is the fact that many players take a discount for the opportunity to play with Brady and under Belichick, once they are gone much of that leverage goes with them, but rings do talk, and once McDaniels is the Head Coach, the first couple years will be critically important to establish himself and maintain the organization’s prestige.