FOXBORO, Mass. — Sitting in the top of Tom Brady’s locker, next to his jar of healthy coconut oil, is an industrial hard hat. It’s the perfect emblem for the New England Patriots, who are so impervious to flying objects and junk thrown at them at this time of year. Ask a question of players around here and it appears to bounce right off their heads. They look at you like they never felt a thing.

That was the expression on Stephon Gilmore’s face when asked about ESPN’s report that Brady, Coach Bill Belichick and the owner, Robert Kraft, no longer get along, and the franchise is coming apart from the force of their egos. Gilmore paused in his gray sweats in the center of a swarm of reporters and actually said, “What report?”

The one that says something has turned sour inside the franchise that is going for its sixth Super Bowl title in 18 years. The one that started a storm by suggesting there are imperceptible but widening cracks on the team despite a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC.

That one. What about it?

“I’m all-in on Tennessee,” Belichick said Tuesday in that bottom-of-a-drain voice of his, where expressions go to die.

As a crew worked to remove the snow built up from last week’s blizzard, the Patriots worked inside at the same dull, digging pace, shoveling out platitudes and refusing to admit any chink in this impenetrable fortress of a franchise, which so many teams would love to believe is finally permeable and might even collapse.


“Can’t anybody help us but us,” Malcolm Butler said. “We’re all we’ve got. That’s how you have to look at it.

“You just don’t pay attention to it. It’s hard sometimes when people are just talking, but when it comes down to it, it’s keeping your head down and keep pushing, and not worrying about people that aren’t in our locker room and going through things we’re going through. And keep it real tight.”

Privately, people on the inside acknowledge tensions are inevitable between competitive people who spent 18 years together under a variety of pressures.

Brady is a quirky obsessive and the driven Belichick knows only one tone: demanding. But they also adamantly insist the situation isn’t as dire as portrayed. Someday the Patriots’ run will end because Brady is, after all, 40 years old, says a person close to him. “But not for this reason.”

To believe the Patriots are fracturing and this is their last big run, you have to believe the three principal characters have begun to behave in profoundly uncharacteristic ways.

You have to throw away almost everything you have seen of Brady, Belichick and Kraft for two decades. You have to believe that Brady, for the first time, has become a pouty diva who demands status and privileges. You have to believe he’s so insecure that he pressed for his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, to be traded, and rejoiced when Garoppolo was dealt.


“In 18 years I have never celebrated when a player was traded or cut,” Brady said, refuting the notion on his weekly appearance on WEEI radio Tuesday morning. “It’s such a poor characterization.”

You’d have to believe that Kraft abandoned his longtime policy of being resolutely hands-off about football matters. You have to believe that one of the most restrained and organizationally conscious owners in the league suddenly called Belichick to the owner’s suite and big-footed him, instructed Belichick to trade Garoppolo to appease Brady. Kraft insists the meeting and the mandate absolutely didn’t happen.

And you’d have to believe that the famously dispassionate Belichick became suddenly more emotionally attached to Garoppolo, who had won just two games for the Patriots, than to an MVP who has won five Super Bowls, including two of the last three, including the greatest comeback in history. And that Belichick, for the first time in a highly calculating career, made a terrible deal and maybe even intentionally kneecapped the organization he painstakingly hand-built. As opposed to doing the careful math on the Patriots’ salary cap and the money they would have to offer Garoppolo to keep playing behind Brady, and the leverage they were likely to lose if he didn’t move on a deal for Garoppolo in what he saw as “the last window” to get some value for him.

You’d have to believe he wanted Garoppolo to embarrass the Patriots – as opposed to hoping by sending him to a struggling team across the country, and in an opposite division and conference in the NFC West, under a first-year head coach, he likely wouldn’t come back to beat them on the field any time soon.

Everyone complains about their bosses. Everyone gets testy with their longtime mates. It doesn’t always mean you want to divorce, or quit, or tear down all you’ve built.

Brady’s unexpected good health and MVP level of play at age 40 undeniably has put the Patriots in a unique kind of limbo, and no doubt it comes with tension. Especially given his reliance on the highly unconventional health guru, Alex Guerrero, whose special access undoubtedly angered the conventional medical and training staffs – who have reason to be territorial and defensive given Brady’s very public rejection of their pill-needle-and-knife care.


But the real indication the mortar is dissolving in this building won’t come from media reports. It will come from a subtle change in the on-field habits that have been the Patriots’ signatures for 18 years, the lockstep precision and attention to detail, and their remarkably disciplined focus, the ability to shut out all else and to “control the day,” as special teams captain Matthew Slater put it.

You’ll know it if they become a bit slipshod. “That single fundamental you’ve been talking about since (camp)? That can be pivotal,” Slater said.

You’ll know when you see a faint decline in their will, to put up with the pressures and the noise and the inevitable nor’easters, weather-born and media-brought, that come with success.

Maybe the Patriots are done. Maybe Brady really is slipping and feeling threatened, and Belichick is disenchanted, and maybe it’s time for a new organization, led by younger men.

Or just maybe they aren’t done yet. Maybe they remain the most inflexible, uncompromising, exacting, self-willed and victory-ravenous team you’ve ever seen.

“Fate whispers to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm,’ ” Brady posted on Instagram late Monday. “The warrior whispers back, ‘I am the storm.’ “

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: