O’Sullivan: Troublesome smoke signals from Foxborough

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field before an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2016, file photo, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talk before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass. McDaniels has backed out of a deal to become the Indianapolis' Colts new coach, a decision that shocked the franchise hours after it announced his hiring. The Colts confirmed McDaniels' decision in a statement Tuesday night after reports emerged that the Patriots' offensive coordinator had opted to stay in New England with coach Bill Belichick. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File) Elise Amendola

  • New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski walks off the field after the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Eagles won 41-33. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks off the field after the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Eagles won 41-33. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey

  • New England’s Tom Brady sits on the bench after losing a fumble in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 52 against Philadelphia in February. AP

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, celebrates his touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Maybe Seth Wickersham was right.

When Wickersham wrote a story in January titled, “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?” it felt like ESPN taking another shot at the Patriots while also using them for click bait. It felt like Wickersham’s theory that New England’s football powerhouse was unraveling beneath personal tension between the quarterback, coach and owner was both forced and flawed.

But since the story was published, bits of evidence to support Wickersham’s premise have been dropping on New England like stones falling from a crumbling castle. There was Malcolm Butler’s odd benching at the Super Bowl, Josh McDaniels’s odd spurning of the Colts to return to the Patriots, the odd change of tone in Tom Brady’s Tom vs. Time Facebook Watch series, Danny Amendola’s comments about Bill Belichick and the Bulter benching and, most recently and perhaps most troubling, the absence of both Brady and Rob Gronkowski from the team’s OTAs this past week.

All of those factors, along with Wednesday’s tweet from ESPN’s Adam Schefter that read, “Patriots’ QB Tom Brady still has not committed to playing in 2018, even though people who know him believe he will back coming season, league sources told ESPN” have stirred the New England fanbase into a turmoil of worry.

The level of panic is too much. It seems likely that Brady will come back next year – he’s reportedly planning a passing camp at his home in Montana in July with Patriots receivers. But it also seems likely Brady is upset, probably with Belichick for exiling Brady’s trainer and TB12 partner, the infamous Alex Guerrero.

Maybe someone in Brady’s camp told Schefter the quarterback “has not committed to playing in 2018” in order to tweak Belichick, rile up Brady’s rabid fans in support and create some more leverage for Brady as he, reportedly, looks for a new a contract from the Patriots. Maybe Brady was doing the same when he asked, “What are we doing this for?” in the final episode of Tom vs. Time, a significant change from the “I’m giving up my life” for football comment he made in the first episode.

Even if it seems like Brady will be the New England quarterback next season, it also seems foolish to ignore all the smoke rising from Foxborough and declare there is no fire.

Belichick is a tremendous coach, no one argues that, but he’s also a tremendous grump, and no one really argues that, either. It would make sense that Belichick’s gruff and ego-driven personality is the flaw that brings down the Patriots.

Since no football-related reason for Butler’s benching has been given, it seems like it was something personal between Butler and Belichick. Butler went public with his displeasure over his contract situation and Belichick didn’t like it and didn’t forget it. Something else probably happened with Butler around the Super Bowl (maybe he was late, maybe he missed too much practice with illness, maybe he was still chirping about his money) and that was it for hard-line Belichick – he was going to prove a point even if it could cost his team the game.

Assuming Butler would have won New England the Super Bowl still feels like a big leap in logic, but it’s clear the benching had a negative impact on the team. Amendola, after signing with the Dolphins, made it clear in an interview with ESPN’s Mike Reiss.

“Nobody really got an explanation for it. He’s a brother of ours. (Butler) was a brother of ours that year. And I hate to see a guy who worked so hard throughout the season not get a chance to play in the biggest game of the year and really get no explanation for it,” Amendola told Reiss. “With that said, I don’t know how the business aspect went into that decision. I don’t know how the personal aspect went into that decision between him and Bill.”

Belichick has earned enough leeway to be forgiven for a mistake, even one as big as the Butler benching. But what if Belichick was already losing Brady and Gronkowski, who is on board the TB12 train, for banishing Guerrero? What if there was also a rift along the Jimmy Garoppolo fault line, because Brady didn’t like watching the coach groom his replacement?

Maybe Belichick’s years of cutthroat roster moves and cantankerous comments have finally worn thin, and the Butler benching and Guerrero banishing were the final straws that broke the locker room. The cliche says every coach as a shelf-life with a team. Maybe Belichick has finally reached his with the Patriots.

And maybe it’s not the star who will leave the coach. Maybe it’s the coach who will leave.

Think about it. It didn’t seem like Belichick wanted to trade Garoppolo, and getting just one second-round pick back in return for the young quarterback could have been Belichick’s way of expressing his displeasure. Maybe the coach feels like he’s lost more control with the Guerrero situation. Maybe he’s tired of Brady and Gronkowski casting larger-than-life shadows over his team.

Maybe Belichick is the one who won’t be back for 2018, which is why McDaniels jilted the Colts and came back to New England.

Maybe Wikersham was more right than we thought, and the end is closer than we want to believe.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)