By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Patriots fans are skeptical of ESPN’s reporting regarding the Patriots. That is not without reason.
There was, of course, the false report from Chris Mortensen that launched “DeflateGate” from an interesting story into a national crisis. There was also the 2015 story from Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr., which cited 90 anonymous sources who heard whispers and shared suspicions about the Patriots’ cheating. Add in the repeated instances of ESPN sharing false information about a taped walkthrough and the late-night barely-seen apology that followed it, and there’s some general distrust between New England football fans and The Worldwide Leader.
So when Wickersham was set to publish a long exposé about “the beginning of the end” with Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the writer was aware that Patriots fans would provide some pushback.
“Well, I stand by my reporting, and it’s OK. That’s what makes it part of the fun,” Wickersham told Toucher & Rich on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Friday, the morning his story published. “My brother-in-law’s dad has been a Patriots fan since the ’60s, was a season-ticket holder then, used to go out drinking with the players after the game, and he gets in my face during Thanksgiving. So I’m totally used to it. I can just say that I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’re always cautious with what we print. I think that’s the main thing is we want to verify things as much as possible and not just throw things out there. This was another example of that.”
Patriots fans might disagree with the “fun” aspect, but the story has nevertheless already garnered quite a bit of attention around the football world.
One person who seems to disagree with Wickersham’s effort to “verify things as much as possible and not just throw things out there” was Don Yee, who is the agent for both Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo.
“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.”
In the Toucher & Rich interview, Wickersham appeared to refute one of the juicier tidbits from his own reporting. In his story, Wickersham wrote that a long meeting between Belichick and Kraft “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.”
The message there is that Kraft put his foot down and told Belichick what to do. In the interview Friday, Wickersham made it seem more like trading Garoppolo simply became the Patriots’ only option, based on circumstance.
“Bill came out of that meeting I think feeling backed into a corner that he was going to have to trade Garoppolo,” Wickersham told Toucher & Rich. “And I don’t think that, like, you know … it was a long meeting and these guys have been around each other for a long time. I don’t think that Kraft ordered him to do something. I think that the combination of everything — Garoppolo rejecting all of these offers that definitely were made to him, and people not knowing if Jimmy was going to be there, the way that Tom was playing, the loyalty to Tom, I think that Kraft made a decision, a football decision, for the first time in a long time saying that Jimmy Garoppolo was not going to be in our long-term plans. And from then on it was Bill’s job to find a trade. And I think that’s how things happened.”
That is, of course, a much more comprehensive way to explain the Garoppolo situation than saying there was a “mandate” and Belichick was “furious and demoralized.”
To be clear, there is absolutely something going on at 1 Patriot Place that is outside of the norm that’s been established over the past 18 years. Trading Garoppolo in the middle of the season after trading Jacoby Brissett before the season was a case of poor asset management not often displayed by Belichick. And certainly, Brady’s increased attention to his TB12 business — which included the launching of a $200/year iPhone app the day after the Patriots lost to the Dolphins on Monday Night Football — has been obvious. So, too, has the team’s skepticism about Alex Guerrero.
There’s certainly something happening, and Wickersham’s report should in no way be dismissed out of hand. It was merely an attempt to try to dig deep on the root causes of these uncharacteristic instances of slight disorder, and it provided several relevant facts and reports along the way. And because nothing generates mayhem from the masses quite like a story about the Patriots, Wickersham did his job in filling in the gaps with some undeniably juicy gossip from people who, by Wickersham’s own admission, “know nothing of his plans.”
But to the majority of a national audience, it’s all “part of the fun.” Again, Patriots fans probably disagree.