A new report by ESPN is detailing an alleged power struggle within the New England Patriots that could lead to the end of the team's dynasty.
In the article, reporter Seth Wickersham alleges there's a rift between star quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft.
Wickersham, who cites "interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team's inner workings," says the trio has had a series of major disagreements in recent months.
"Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group," Wickersham writes.
Much of the tension between Brady and Belichick stems from Brady's relationship with his trainer, body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero.
The Boston Globe reported Dec. 19 that special privileges the Patriots had granted to Guerrero, were revoked three weeks earlier. Before Belichick's decision, Guerrero had been allowed to fly to road games on the team's charter jet, and he had sideline access at games.
"Belichick felt the need to permanently clarify Guerrero's role, drawing sharp boundaries. After the brief discussion with Brady, Belichick emailed Guerrero to let him know that while he was welcome to work with any players who sought out TB12, he was no longer permitted access to the sideline or all of the team headquarters because he wasn't an employee of the Patriots (a point that Belichick would resoundingly make clear when reporters asked about Guerrero)," wrote Wickersham.
"An email designed to solve problems only created more of them. Guerrero texted some of the Patriots players who were clients and specified, he says now, "that I would need to treat them at the TB12 Sports Therapy Center." But several players told staffers and coaches that Guerrero gave them the impression that Belichick would no longer allow them to work with him. In the view of many Patriots, it was an example of Guerrero trying to split the organization by turning players against Belichick. All of this happened as Brady, serving as TB12's test case, continued to reiterate publicly and privately his goal of playing into his mid-40s."
Troy Brown, who played with the Patriots 1993-2007 and is an NBC10Boston.com analyst, said Guerrero's presence undermined the team trainer and strength coach.
"Behind those walls you're one team and when that starts to crumble, then you've got a real problem on your hands and I'm sure that's something they didn't expect to have behind the walls," Brown said. "Bill took care of that when it started to happen."
Guerrero issued a statement on tb12sports.com in which he defends his training methods and says the pictures many have painted of him are not complete. He highlights his strong relationship with Brady, other athletes and the Patriots organization, but he does not mention Belichick by name.
"Thank you to everyone who has supported me in my career, and to the professional organizations that have allowed me to treat their players — including the New England Patriots," Guerrero wrote. "I am grateful to Robert Kraft and his coaches and staff."
Another source of friction according to the ESPN report was Kraft demanding that Belichick trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who Belichick was grooming to take the 40-year-old Brady's job when the time was right.
"Two weeks before the Nov. 1 trading deadline, Belichick met with Kraft to discuss the quarterback situation. According to staffers, the meeting ran long, lasting half the day and pushing back Belichick's other meetings. The office was buzzing. The meeting ended with a clear mandate to Belichick: trade Garoppolo because he would not be in the team's long-term plans, and then, once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him. Belichick was furious and demoralized, according to friends. But in the end, he did what he asks of his players and coaches: He did his job."
Subsequently, Garopollo was traded to the 49ers for a second round draft choice.
Wickersham writes that Brady seemed liberated after Garoppolo was traded.
"A few days later during practice, some players and staffers noticed that Brady seemed especially excited, hollering and cajoling. Brady was once again the team's present and future. His new backup, Brian Hoyer, was a longtime friend and not a threat. The owner was in Brady's corner. "He won," a Patriots staffer says."
The Patriots issued a joint statement from Kraft, Belichick, and Brady in response to the ESPN article.
"For the past 18 years, the three of us have enjoyed a very good and productive working relationship. In recent days, there have been multiple media reports that have speculated theories and are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate. The three of us have a common goal. We look forward to the enormous challenge of competing in the postseason and the opportunity to work together in the future, just as we have for the past 18 years. It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united."
Wickersham paints a different picture.
"Nobody is budging now. Kraft, Brady and Belichick were supposed to meet in late December to clear the air, but that never happened. It probably won't until after the season. Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near. Both McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are expected to become head coaches; other assistant coaches might leave to join their staffs or for college jobs, or even retire. The imminent exodus raises the question going forward: Is it possible that Belichick would rather walk away than try to rebuild the staff with a 41-year-old Brady and another year of Guerrero drama -- all while trying to develop a new quarterback?"
The Patriots went 13-3 this season and will face the winner from this weekend's AFC wildcard playoff game during the divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 13.