John Tomase

Listen closely, and Belichick is playing a dangerous game with Kraft

Did the Patriots head coach cross a line with his boss Sunday?

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Like Brian Windhorst requesting silence with two raised fingers and spouting a bunch of rhetorical gibberish, being a Patriots fan lends itself to a certain level of conspiracy theorizing, and here's mine: Bill Belichick subtly crossed a line that owner Robert Kraft won't like on Sunday.

It came in the first quarter, after rookie kicker Chad Ryland missed for the fourth time in eight tries during Sunday's embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Saints. Shortly after Ryland's 48-yarder hooked wide left, CBS sideline reporter Melanie Collins shared a little nugget from the coach.

As the cameras captured the giant new video board caressing the north end zone, Collins relayed that the screen had changed the wind patterns in the stadium. "Coach Belichick acknowledged it would be kind of an adjustment period" figuring out the new conditions, she reported, "especially with a rookie kicker for the Patriots."

Sounds harmless on its face. Erecting the equivalent of a five-story wall at one end of the stadium probably should change air circulation, and perhaps even affect field goals. The Red Sox made a similar discovery when they built the 600 Club behind home plate 30 years ago and discovered the wind didn't blow out to left field with the same force.

Except, the video board isn't just some cosmetic addition. The Krafts pitched it as a triumph worthy of breathless coverage, extolling its specs in fetishistic detail -- 22,000 square feet, curved radius, 20 million pixels, half an acre long, five times bigger than its predecessor. Every story made sure to mention it's the biggest outdoor stadium video board in the country, and it was unveiled by a bunch of people wearing hardhats as the centerpiece of a $250 million renovation.

It is, in other words, very important to the family that owns the team. Casting aspersions on it even obliquely -- "it would be kind of an adjustment period" -- is a dangerous game, especially in defense of a rookie kicker who is struggling, while the guy he replaced, the perfectly reliable Nick Folk, hasn't missed in 13 tries with the Titans.

Robert Kraft has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the team's recent drafts -- "I don't feel like we've done the greatest job the last few years," he said in 2021 -- and it would be reasonable for him to question why, in a league dominated by high-octane offenses, the Patriots spent mid-round picks on both Ryland and punter Bryce Baringer.

Watching both struggle and then using the man-made wind shifts as an excuse (an aside: why would a new configuration bother a rookie who had never kicked here before?) is sure to fill the owner's heart with joy.

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Sound like a stretch? We read between the lines because we have to. Belichick's boorishness is nothing new, nor is his disdain for perfectly reasonable questions, like when ESPN's Mike Reiss and our own Phil Perry asked why he punted on fourth-and-3 down 24 points. "I did what I felt was best at the time," Belichick spat, and that was pretty much that.

Giving us nothing is one thing. Singling out a project that's a point of pride for his boss is something else entirely, and it's not first time the conspiracy-minded could hear Belichick crossing that line.

Last January, for instance, Belichick noted that the Patriots ranked 27th in real cash spending from 2020-22, which sounded like a shot at Kraft. After all, salary caps can be manipulated, but actual money comes out of the owner's pocket. Kraft retorted that Belichick "has never come to me and not gotten everything he wanted from a cash-spending perspective," prompting the coach to meekly walk it back.

That came a few months after Belichick had praised the Raiders' new practice facility in Las Vegas as the "Taj Mahal" of its kind. Those of us looking for meaning in such proclamations wondered if his incessant gushing served as a quiet criticism of his own outdated facilities, which ranked among the league's worst in a 2023 NFLPA poll.

Those are the kinds of sentiments that hit the owner where it hurts. So forgive me for reading into a sideline report about a scoreboard. With the season in danger of being reduced to a single storyline of Kraft vs. Belichick, we will don our Q Shaman furs and parse even the most innocent words for meaning.

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