FOXBOROUGH, 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 habitually and constitutionally impervious to flying objects and junk that gets 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 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 17 seasons. The one that started a storm in the week before their divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, by suggesting there are imperceptible but widening cracks on their team despite a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC. That one. What about it?
"I'm all-in on Tennessee," said Belichick, in that bottom-of-a-drain voice of his, where expression goes to die.
Outside, a crew worked to remove the snow built up from last week's blizzard from Gillette Stadium. Shovel by shovel, they methodically cleared the aisles and each step of the stadium stairs, even as an aluminum sky overhead threatened to bring another nor'easter. Inside, the Patriots worked 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 from within.
"Can't anybody help us but us," cornerback Malcolm Butler said. "We're all we got. That's how you have to look at it.
"You just don't pay attention to it," he added. "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 that tensions are inevitable between competitive people who have spent years together under a variety of high pressures. Brady is a quirky obsessive, and the driven Belichick knows only one tone: demanding. But they also adamantly insist that the situation is not 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 that the three principal characters have begun to behave in profoundly uncharacteristic ways. You have to throw away almost everything you know and have seen of Brady, Belichick and Kraft for two decades. You have to believe that Brady, for the first time in his career, has become a pouty diva who demands special status and privileges and have to ignore the many times he has restructured his contract to make it more team-friendly in the interest of winning. You have to believe that he is so insecure that he pressed for his backup Jimmy Garoppolo to be traded, and rejoiced when Garoppolo was dealt to the 49ers.
"In 18 years I have never celebrated when a player was traded or cut," Brady said, refuting the notion on his weekly radio show Tuesday morning. "It is 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. And that Belichick therefore, for the first time in his highly calculating career, made a terrible deal and maybe even intentionally kneecapped the organization he has so 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 that 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 that the mortar is dissolving in this building will not come from media reports. It will come from a subtle change in the on-field habits that have been the Patriots' signatures for years, the lockstep precision and attention to detail and their remarkably disciplined focus, the ability to shut out everything else and to "control the day," as special teams captain Matthew Slater put it.
You'll know it if they become a telltale bit slipshod. "That single fundamental you've been talking about since OTAs? That can be pivotal on Saturday," 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, both weather-born and media-brought, that come with their success. "Saturday night. Foxborough, Gillette. Fans loud. Cold," Slater says.
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.' "
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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