The Media Column: Author Mark Leibovich says Kraft wants more respect, Belichick 'rankles' players and predicts Brady won't end career with Patriots

Alex Reimer
September 07, 2018 - 10:23 am

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

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One of the central themes of Mark Leibovich’s 350-page foray into the decadent world of professional football, “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” is that oftentimes it takes an outsider to unmask the absurdity of a cultural institution that generates $14 billion annually in revenue. The first scene of the book takes us inside the NFL owners’ meetings in 2016, where elderly billionaires are wandering around the lobby of the Boca Raton Resort and Club kvetching about how the annual meetings aren’t being held at the slightly more opulent Breakers Resort in West Palm Beach. 

“There is the Breakers and then there’s everything else,” an unnamed owner says. (Leibovich says the self-proclaimed mogul didn’t want to reveal his name, because he feared being viewed as out of touch.)

While “Big Game” is light on newsy bombshells, it features extensive and humorous portraits of the NFL’s biggest titans, including Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones and the Patriots’ Holy Trinity of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for New York Times Magazine, started the project in 2014 in conjunction with a magazine profile he was writing about Brady. Originally, the book was going to focus solely on Brady and the Patriots, but Leibovich wound up chronicling the entire league through perhaps its most pivotal moment in history. 

The book is heavy on recap, as Leibovich relitigates the Ray Rice scandal, Deflategate, Donald Trump’s campaign love affair with the Pats and the league’s concussion crisis. Some of the most shocking anecdotes –– Tom Brady Sr. predicting it will end poorly for his son in New England, Trump claiming Belichick “hugged” and “kissed” him on the Patriots’ sidelines –– have already been published in previous pieces. But there’s more than enough amusing new tidbits, such as Jones drunkenly reminiscing about masturbating into shoes during his younger days, to make the book worthwhile for those who have read every big NFL story over the last four years. 

Around these parts, of course, most of the interest has centered around the Patriots’ Palace Intrigue. Leibovich, who embeds himself with subjects and picks out their eccentricities, spends lots of time analyzing Kraft’s apparent insecurities, Belichick’s dour demeanor and what in the world is going on with Brady. Perhaps the biggest Patriots’ revelation comes towards the end of the story, when Brady tells Leibovich this past April the Pats can do “whatever they want” with him. Leibovich goes on to cite "sources close to Brady" who say the quarterback probably wouldn’t have minded if the Patriots “released him into the wilderness of free agency” over the offseason. 

In an effort to extract more Patriots dirt, I had a lengthy conversation with Leibovich this week about his experiences hanging around Foxborough and Brady’s various posh properties. Some answers have been edited for brevity:

Alex Reimer: How much time did you spend with Kraft?

Mark Leibovich: We had three meetings –– something like that. He was generous with his time. One of the takeaways from the book is that I wasn’t very nice to him. But I like a guy like him. I’m grateful to him as a fan, because as someone who grew up around there, I never had to experience losing a team to another city. That’s good. 

He’s easy to talk to. He’s a politician, but not a very good politician. He’s a lot more transparent than you would think. 

AR: Really? Because his reputation is that he’s the ultimate deal-broker, he ended the lockout. But he’s not as slick?

ML: Maybe he gets more credit than he deserves. But here’s the bottom line: he’s the chairman of very powerful committees. Start with the broadcast committee, that’s over 60 percent of the revenue. That’s huge. I don’t know if he’s the one who saved the collective bargaining negotiations a few years ago, but he certainly was in the middle of it. Look, he hired Belichick. That’s obviously huge. But the other thing is, he’s kept this thing together. To be together for 18 years is an incredible feat. I don’t know what went into it. I don’t know if Brady is the perfect guy to plug into the “Patriot Way” –– I don’t know who gets the most credit. But he has kept it together. And he’s got to get a lot of credit for that. He certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame. He’s got five rings, built a great stadium, probably one of the one, two or three most influential owners. His committee work represents that. The credit he gets is definitely legit. I just think his act can get a little thin after a while.

AR: Have you heard any feedback from the Patriots?

ML: I heard from (Patriots PR head) Stacey (James). I don’t think he read it. I think he was anticipating being unhappy, because he heard a few things. But I haven’t heard anything.

AR: But I don’t think your portrayal of Kraft was that bad. I mean, you mention his shirt is a little too unbuttoned, younger girlfriend, stuff like that. But I don’t think he comes across that poorly. I didn’t get that vibe.

ML: Here’s the thing: I think Robert, more than most, is pretty thin-skinned. (Dan) Shaughnessy calls him "Needy Bob Kraft." I think that’s basically accurate. It’s not easy for him, in that obviously you have a coach who doesn’t give a f—-, OK? Belichick is probably a net-minus when it comes to marketing, public relations, press relations. Brady is pretty private, and he’s not the most colorful guy off the field. So ultimately, a lot of that falls on Robert, and he’s probably not that well-suited to it. 

But how old is he? Seventy-seven, something like that? He’s in a late stage of his life, he lost his wife. It’s kind of a weird package to look at. I think he does sort of see himself –– I don’t know. I think he expects a certain level of respect that might not come his way.

AR: From whom?

ML: Maybe just people around the league or New England. The fact that he’s won so much and just feels the need to remind everyone he’s won so much, and the people who don’t like the Patriots are just overcome with jealousy, I think it’s a bad look after a while. I don’t think he fully appreciates that he can come off a lot more arrogant and entitled. I just don’t think he works as a public figure to the degree he thinks he might. 

AR: You mention in the book Kraft wants more credit than he gets. What made you feel that way? Did people say that, or did you just feel it from being with him?

ML: I certainly got that (vibe). When you talk about the Patriots’ dynasty, you think about Brady and Belichick. … I think he kind of wishes it was more of a holy trilogy than a coach-player duo. I think he’s conscious of not being the third leg in the stool. But I think he deserves all of the credit in the world being at the top of that organizational chart. But yeah, I think it means the most to him to get the credit. 

Having said all that, everyone of those three is more conscious of their image and legacy than we appreciate. Between Belichick opening up to NFL Films to show everyone how smart he is –– that rankles people around the team more than he might know. Brady has been pretty proactive in this "Tom vs. Time" thing, his Jim Gray interviews, social media stuff. A lot of it is handpicked. He’s a control freak, like all of them are. "I can’t control the media, but I might as well try." I think that’s all an effort for them to take some control of their brand, and they’ve been pretty effective in that sense. But I think maybe Robert has the hardest time with it, maybe because he tries so hard.

AR: So you said the Belichick and NFL Films stuff “rankles” people. What do you mean by that?

ML: It does. A lot of players over the years see these NFL Films things and they’re sort of treated like plug-in robots in Bill’s genius factory. Belichick does seem to do the bare minimum as far as media relations goes. But he has his people at NFL Films, he has a longstanding relationship with the Sabols. He makes himself available –– you have these pretty fascinating documentaries as a football fan. But he’s always the star, the coaches are always the stars. I do think that’s something a lot of people inside the team have rolled their eyes at over the years. I will say that.

AR: Players told you this?

ML: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s a big groundswell. I wouldn’t say they care that much. But I’ve heard things.

AR: Is Brady one of them?

ML: Good try.

AR: Belichick didn’t talk with you for the book, obviously. How many attempts did you make to talk to him?

ML: I didn’t try very hard. I think I made one or two attempts. I just didn’t think I was going to get there, and even if I did, I figured I wasn’t going to be the guy he bared his soul to. The book just became more Goodell, Brady and owner-driven, just because that’s where the access was.

AR: But doesn’t part of you like Belichick’s “f— you” attitude? I thought you would like it more than it comes across in the book. 

ML: I like it in the abstract. One thing that didn’t get the pick up I thought it would is, there’s a scene after the Seattle Super Bowl where the league guy who was assigned to him said, "You have to pose for this picture, it’s a league thing." And he said, “F— the league.” I guess I do appreciate that. But I’m a consumer. I have to watch these press conferences, and I don’t like watching them. It’s not a nice way to deal with human beings, whether it’s the media who work their ass off to cover you, or the fans who pay a lot of money. I just think the whole gruff Bill act is really unpleasant. And I say that as someone who’s been around the league a little bit, and sees Mike Tomlin or Sean McVay or Doug Pederson or any number of coaches. They don’t insult your intelligence. Yes, everyone has their moments, there’s a level of secrecy you have to honor. But it just doesn’t seem that hard. But Belichick probably knows it’s part of his schtick, so maybe there’s part of him that thinks he’s being "on brand." It’s sort of a cartoon, so that’s kind of cute. But as a consumer, I hate watching it.

AR: In the most recent “Tom vs. Time,” what were thoughts on Brady saying he hasn’t enjoyed football that much over the last couple of years? He’s been to two Super Bowls, completed the greatest comeback ever, won the NFL MVP at 40. I took that as him saying he’s sick of Belichick, the rift with Guerrero. How did you read that?

ML: I read it exactly that way. I think part of it is just maybe his mother’s health, obviously Deflategate wasn’t a lot of fun. But I’ve said this recently: it’s not like the clues aren’t hiding in plain sight. His unhappiness is not a big mystery here. He’s earned the right to have fun playing football, and I don’t think that’s really in the cards for him in Foxboro. He can say he doesn’t want to play anywhere else, it’s a great place to win, and that’s probably true. But I take it all pretty much at face value.

AR: You started speaking with Brady in 2014. Did you sense any changes in him? I notice that early on, you’re at his house, he’s dropping the f-bomb in front of you. Then at the end, three-four years later, he’s sending you audio files. 

ML: No question. After the (New York Times Magazine) story ran, he was pretty lawyered up with the Deflategate stuff. The year after that, he just wasn’t in a very good place. I was writing a magazine story for the first part of it, and I wasn’t for the rest. So if there was any obligation at all, it was sort of dissipated. 

But I thought the audio file thing was interesting. It shows how control freakish he is. But I also have never done an interview like that. I sent questions, he kind of riffed on them by audio tape, but it wasn’t a phone call, so I couldn’t ask follow ups. But I think he was very conscious in controlling what his message was over the spring of 2018. He did not mind at all having people wondering what his next move was. He made it very clear on his audio file that (his words) were not to go anywhere –– Twitter, the New York Times –– until the book came out. It’s not like he told me all that much. The quote everyone is fixated on is, "They can do whatever they want," which was a little ominous, but sort of throwaway, too, and stating the obvious. 

AR: How much do you think Deflategate and Trump changed Brady’s attitude towards the media?

ML: I do think the “I don’t give a f—“ thing is genuine. I think he’s in a place with the team, coach, maybe the owner and maybe Boston in general –– I wouldn’t say he’s done with it, because he’s contractually obligated, and it’s the football team he plays for, and he loves football. But I do think he’s fully, fully aware of the environment he’s working in. At a certain point, he wondered, and this offseason is a perfect example of that, that maybe a different approach to this is something that might work for me. And I’ll say this about Tom, and it’s an under appreciated part of him: how he adapts. He’s always adapting. I wouldn’t say he’s changed his life a lot, but he’s certainly changed his lifestyle. He’s so different now than he was five years ago, or 10 years ago. I think he’s probably, like a lot of people who get older, quite a bit more cynical about the people works for, the people he has to serve, and what’s important in life.

AR: What’s your take on the (Alex) Guerrero thing? What are your impressions on how he mixes into all of this?

ML: It doesn’t fit seamlessly into the traditional NFL structure. That’s for sure. But look, the only way this story moves forward, if you ask me, is not people fixating over whether he’s on the plane or sidelines. Either we’re going to find out what they’ve been up to the whole time, or –– it doesn’t really become a story anymore until someone runs afoul of the rules. I haven’t really seen anything in the last year that’s moved the story forward. What really did move the story forward was that Boston Magazine piece that informed people about Guerrero’s past. But now, it’s an internal thing. If people can find out intangible stuff, great. But otherwise, I haven’t learned a lot.

AR: Where do you think the Patriots go this year? Do you think we’re in a stalemate?

ML: I don’t think it’s a stalemate, because they all want to win football games. It all starts again this weekend. I haven't seen any drama that would indicate that anybody will want to fail or lose. So that’s the bottom line. They’ve proven they’re committed to winning and are stuck together, so you might as well try to win, right?

AR: Brady says he wants to play until he’s 45. Do you think he finishes his career with the Patriots?

ML: I’m going to say “no.” My prediction is no. That’s based on nothing but my instincts, but no. I think he’s going to play in another uniform. 

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We now know Adam Schefter’s Patriots’ sources –– or at least we can guess: Leibovich dedicates significant space to poking fun at the NFL Insiders who hold ubiquitous presences on TV’s across the country. Schefter is the star of this group, and is portrayed as a neurotic news trafficker who holds court in the lobby of the NFL owners’ meetings with one cell phone perpetually plugged into his ear and another in his hand. Though Schefter covers the NFL, he only attends the Super Bowl and never ventures into locker rooms anymore. That means his league sources spend their time in executive suits or wearing headsets on the sidelines. Or, when it comes to the Patriots, sporting disheveled hooded sweatshirts.

Early in the book, Leibovich says he sees Schefter hugging –– that’s right, hugging –– Belichick on the field prior to Super Bowl LI. Later, Leibovich writes about Schefter huddling with Belichick’s mysterious consigliere, Berj Najarian, at the owners’ meetings in Boca. 

These tidbits add important context to Schefter’s most curious Patriots reports over the last year. Prior to the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, Schefter repeatedly insisted New England wouldn’t trade the prized backup for multiple first-round picks. Of course, the Pats wound up dealing Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-rounder. It’s rare for Schefter to be that off the mark.

In April, Schefter also published a strange story about how “people inside” the Patriots’ organization weren’t 100 percent certain about whether Brady would return for the 2018 season. 

Given what we know about Belichick’s love for Garoppolo, and apparent rift with Brady, it’s not that difficult to ascertain who was likely feeding Schefter those nuggets. 

NFL kickoff ratings down again, but don’t read much into it: The Falcons and Eagles started the 2018 NFL season Thursday with a relative ratings dud. The opener, which was delayed more than 30 minutes due to rain, posted a 13.4 overnight rating. Last year, Patriots-Chiefs drew a 14.6. 

For the third straight year, look for talk about the NFL’s declining viewership to dominate the airwaves again. But remember, compared to everything else, the NFL still rules. According to NBC, Falcons-Eagles attracted the highest ratings number for any sporting event since the 2018 Winter Olympics. Last year, NFL games accounted for 77 of the 100 top-rated shows on TV.

Yes, NFL ratings are down, but numbers for TV are down in general. Let’s wait before sounding the alarm. 

NBC’s “Green Zone” is graphics overkill: Twenty years ago, ESPN came up with the iconic yellow line that shows viewers the location of the first-down marker. It’s one of the greatest innovations in sports television history.

NBC has taken that one unnecessary step further this season, adding the “Green Zone” to its telecast. It was on full display during Falcons-Eagles, showing up on third downs to let us know how much field stood between the line of scrimmage and computer-generated first-down line.

This doesn’t work for two reasons: we can all see how much distance teams must travel to get a first down without the aid of a green graphic, and most importantly, the field is already green. Here’s hoping NBC punts on this monstrosity before “Sunday Night Football." 

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