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Bob Hohler

Trouble at the top: Patriots leaders under scrutiny

Will alleged bitter felelings separate Bill Belichick and Tom Brady?
Will alleged bitter felelings separate Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? (file/Jim Davis/Globe staff)

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It’s the stuff of Shakespearean intrigue: three powerful historical figures immersed in the greatest leadership crisis of their reigning dynasty.

Is it Foxborough fact or fiction? Are the Patriot greats — Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Robert Kraft — riven by a struggle for supremacy that threatens the franchise’s peerless dominance in the 21st century?

Have competing allegiances — Belichick’s with Jimmy Garoppolo, his exiled quarterback of the future, and Brady’s with Alex Guerrero, his fitness guru of dubious repute — hastened their perceived undoing?

Has success bred debilitating hubris?

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For weeks, the Patriot leaders deflected reports of rising tensions among them, stories that explored Belichick’s possibly seething over Kraft compelling him to trade Garoppolo against his wishes and Brady bitterly reacting to Belichick stripping Guerrero of the special access he had enjoyed thanks to the star quarterback’s extraordinary influence at Patriot Place.

Now, with the Patriots entering a critical phase in pursuit of their sixth Super Bowl title, the three leaders have closed ranks together, at least publicly, after an ESPN report Friday presented sweeping allegations of potentially ruinous fissures among them.

“We stand united,’’ Belichick, Brady, and Kraft concluded in a prepared statement.

While they did not identify any specific flaws in the reporting by ESPN or other outlets that have covered the developing story, including the Globe, the Patriot leaders said, “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 that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated, or flat out inaccurate.

“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, 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.”

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Brady’s agent, Don Yee, issued a statement casting doubts on the latest report.

“I don’t really know what to say — it’s tough to have a response since it didn’t appear to me to have one on-the-record quote,’’ Yee said. “All I can suggest is don’t believe everything you read.”

Yee also is Garoppolo’s agent.

New type of distraction

The stakes are enormous for Belichick, Brady, and Kraft’s multibillion-dollar franchise, each considered the best of their time, if not all time. At worst, the three could be approaching their last hurrah.

The ESPN report, based on interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players, and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings, found “a palpable sense in [Gillette Stadium] that this might be the last year together for this group.’’

Their relationships are purportedly so badly fractured that Belichick was “furious and demoralized’’ by Kraft’s directive that he trade Garoppolo and Brady has tired of Belichick’s “negativity and cynicism,’’ according to ESPN.

The Patriot greats are no strangers to major distractions. They have withstood national embarrassments, such as a 2007 videotaping infraction, for which the NFL fined Belichick $500,000, the Patriots $250,000, and docked the team a first-round draft pick, and the 2015 allegations regarding deflated footballs, which cost Brady a four-game suspension, the team a $1 million fine and the loss of two draft picks, in the first and fourth rounds.

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But never have the distractions involved perceived divisions among the three pillars of the organization. The plot turns largely on drama related to Garoppolo, New England’s second-draft choice in 2014 who was viewed by many as Brady’s successor, and Guerrero, Brady’s close friend and business partner whose checkered past includes a trail of former associates who wished they had never crossed paths with him.

Belichick, recognizing the 40-year-old Brady’s inevitable decline, had spent more than three years developing Garoppolo before the team this season was faced with a looming financial dilemma of whether to pay Garoppolo as much as $25 million next season to prevent him from entering free agency while paying Brady a similar amount — an untenable prospect.

Brady’s sustained excellence, which he attributes in great measure to Guerrero, complicated matters. While Belichick has never shied from trading a star near the peak of his value before it declines — which a source said he was considering doing this year with Brady — he was blocked by Kraft, according to ESPN.

Belichick and Kraft met two weeks before the Nov. 1 trading deadline to address the quarterback situation, and ESPN reported that the lengthy session 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.’’

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Not only was Belichick “furious and demoralized’’ by Kraft, the magazine reported, citing the coach’s friends, his subsequent meeting with Brady before the trade deadline about the quarterback’s future ended in a “little blowup.”

Belichick purportedly responded by effectively gifting Garoppolo to a coach he favored, Kyle Shanhan of the San Francisco 49ers. Rather than shop Garoppolo around the league to secure the highest return, ESPN indicated, Belichick traded him to the 49ers for a second-round pick, which was widely seen as below Garoppolo’s value.

Garoppolo went on to lead a 49ers team that was 1-10 when he took over as the starting quarterback to victories in their last five games of the season.

For his part, Brady seemed “liberated’’ by Garoppolo’s departure and was seen that week hugging Kraft in front of his teammates, according to ESPN.

“He won,’’ a Patriots staffer told the magazine.

Controversial trainer

Brady lost, however, when Belichick cracked down on Guerrero. Since 2013, Guerrero, Brady’s partner in his TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place, had treated an increasing number of the quarterback’s teammates in an exclusive office near the locker room at Gillette Stadium.

By this season, thanks to Brady’s encouragement, most players on the Patriots roster were being treated by Guerrero and his staff rather than by the team’s highly regarded training team. But clashes over treatment plans and outcomes increased, causing friction among the staffs and confusion among players, some of whom said Guerrero’s methods felt “like a cult,’’ ESPN quoted a Patriots employee as saying.

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Brady has become especially close to Guerrero, the godfather of his son Ben. They collaborated on Brady’s best-selling book, “The TB12 Method,’’ his sold-out, $200 “TB12 Nutrition Manual,’’ his line of TB12 snacks, protein, and “performance meals,’’ his TB12 workout gear and apparel, and the bustling TB12 sports center, where there is a waiting list for new clients seeking appointments, according to the company’s website.

The quarterback has stood by Guerrero despite his past, which includes spinning a web of alleged lies in business enterprises that have posed potential health dangers, drawn sanctions from federal regulators, and spurred lawsuits from numerous associates and investors across the country.

Brady’s growing bond with Guerrero “worried people close to the QB, many of whom were suspicious of Guerrero,’’ ESPN reported.

“Tom changed,” a friend of Brady’s told the magazine. “That’s where a lot of these problems started.”

As the Globe reported in December, Belichick abruptly rescinded most of Guerrero’s special privileges, including traveling on the team’s jet and standing on the sidelines during games. He also was prohibited from treating any player at Gillette Stadium other than Brady.

The problem was aggravated, according to ESPN, by Brady’s increased stature within the organization. The report said new players often address Brady as “sir,’’ and at least one said he felt pressured to receive treatment from Guerrero.

Belichick told Brady in September that many younger players felt pressured to train at TB12 rather than with the team, but Brady denied knowing anything about it, ESPN reported.

Brady’s pride purportedly also has became a factor in his feelings toward Belichick. Even though he has been named the AFC’s offensive player of the week three times this season, he has not received “Patriot of the Week’’ honors from Belichick, which ESPN reported Brady has mentioned several times to team staff members.

Indeed, Brady’s view of Belichick’s harsh coaching style has diminished since a scolding he received after a subpar performance in a Patriots victory over the Houston Texans in last year’s playoffs, the magazine reported.

“Belichick lit into him in front of the entire team in a way nobody had ever seen, ripping Brady for carelessness with the ball,’’ the article said.

“This will get us beat,” Belichick told the team after replaying a Brady interception, ESPN reported. “We were lucky to get away with a win.”

Guerrero, who has not responded for several years to interview requests from the Globe, posted a lengthy statement on the TB12 website. He did not address Belichick restricting his access to the team or specific complaints from Patriots staffers or players.

Guerrero said he understands that his beliefs are not mainstream and accepts that others disagree with his methods.

“I have always tried to be respectful of the staff each player answers to, and I have never tried to create divisiveness or conflict,’’ Guerrero said. ``My ultimate goal has always been to do my very best to help the player get back on the field and help their team.’’

The NFL responds

The NFL issued a statement describing one element of the ESPN story as inaccurate. The article stated that Belichick and league commissioner Roger Goodell have become good friends, an assertion that would surprise many Patriots fans, considering the disciplinary measures Goodell has imposed on the coach, Brady, and the team.

“The two men had a long and private meeting during the off week after the regular season, when the commissioner visited Foxborough,’’ the story said.

NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart’s statement read, “I’m not disputing the underlying message there that there’s a good positive relationship there” between Belichick and Goodell.

But Lockhart said the meeting “happened last year, not within the past week.”

The Patriots, with the relationship of their three leaders under unprecedented scrutiny, enter the playoffs with a 13-3 record and need three more wins to extend their golden era of Super Bowl titles. They return to action Jan. 13 in Foxborough.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.