Tom E. Curran

Is Bill Belichick facing a ‘now or never' season with Patriots?

It's now fair to wonder how strong of a grip Bill Belichick has on his team.

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The Patriots open training camp in a month. It's one of the most pivotal seasons in the team’s 63-year history. How 2023 unfolds will determine not only the team's direction for the rest of the decade but also, quite likely, how the career of the greatest coach in NFL history ends.

Does the team perform well enough to ensure 71-year-old coach Bill Belichick concludes his coaching career on his own terms? That’s the decision 82-year-old owner Robert Kraft faces if profound improvement from a disastrous 2022 season doesn’t come this year.

In Kraft’s perfect world, Belichick would lead the Patriots back to prominence, break Don Shula’s record in 2024 and be carried off the field by Mac Jones and others at the end of that season. The decision to stay or go would be Bill’s to make.

But very little has gone perfectly for the Patriots in the past six years, save for a 40-day stretch beginning in late December 2018.

Kraft has been tapping his foot and pointing at his watch since March 2020, when Belichick assured him the team would be fine without Tom Brady. There have been couched ultimatums and subtle saber-rattling.

Yet for all the levers pulled, buttons pushed and cash spent by Belichick, two of the past three seasons were sub-.500. The other ended with a playoff appearance that resulted in a monumental ass-kicking. That 2021 playoff loss to the Bills shined a light on the talent gap between the Patriots and the NFL’s elite. A gap Brady used to mask.

Kraft hasn’t masked his dissatisfaction with the progress. He also wasn’t shy about blaming Jones' 2022 regression on Belichick’s offensive coaching staff decisions.

Jones went from a player Belichick showered with praise last July to one Belichick merely said "has the ability to play quarterback in this league" by January.

Did Belichick cool on Jones because of performance, perceived potential, insubordination or a combination of all three? Can Jones get back in Bill’s good graces as a player he believes in going forward?

Will Kraft -- after watching a parade of bad drafts, bad free agent buys, bad trades, bad signings and an unprecedented lack of on-field discipline -- still give Belichick the benefit of the doubt that nine Super Bowl appearances, six Super Bowl wins and exponential financial growth earned?

Or has Belichick frittered so much of it away that he’s down to a "now-or-never" season strapped to a quarterback he doesn’t seem to like that much?

With all that as a backdrop, the promising start to this offseason -- Bill O’Brien returning, Christian Gonzalez drafted -- has been torpedoed recently by Trent Brown’s pseudo-no-show at minicamp and Jack Jones’ arrest.

Patriots Talk: How should the Patriots proceed with Jack Jones? | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Each of those are, in their own ways, blatant challenges to Belichick’s authority. Same goes for Mac Jones’ on-field histrionics, Lawrence Guy’s holdout and even the candor of players like Jakobi Meyers, David Andrews and Kendrick Bourne.

The willingness to challenge or question Bill's authority and judgement is at an all-time high. And into this mix, the Patriots may inject wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins isn’t sinister, by any stretch. He just doesn’t like to practice.

Are the Patriots in a position to deliver practice ultimatums to a 30-plus-year-old wideout? Especially if he perceives the Patriots need him more than he needs them?

And if they don’t, how does it potentially fly if one of the highest-paid players on the team isn’t expected to be on the same program as guys making lots less who have been here for much longer?

How much will Bill bend for Hopkins? For Trent Brown? For Jack Jones? How much did he bend for Jakobi Meyers or Mac Jones?

For much of his Patriots career, Belichick’s recent coaching record made it easy to rule with an iron fist and have his team swallow the result. The Malcolm Butler benching that likely cost the team Super Bowl 52 dangles as proof. The team had won two of the previous three Super Bowls. They’d go on to win another in 2018. Bill (and Tom) delivered them.

Now, here are the current Patriots who have won playoff games in New England: David Andrews, Trent Brown. Joe Cardona. Matthew Slater. Lawrence Guy. Jonathan Jones. Deatrich Wise. James Ferentz. 

The vast majority of the team has never played for omnipotent Bill.

And in a month, he’ll open camp. How does he capture everyone’s full commitment if his starting left tackle is in no condition to begin the year? How does he instill discipline if one of his starting cornerbacks is on the field practicing while waiting to face a gun charge?

How much does he bend individual expectations without breaking the overall culture?

How does he gain loyalty after exiling Jakobi Meyers and cold-shouldering Mac Jones? How does he recoup confidence in his coaching decisions after 2022’s mismanagement?

It's the most tenuous time Belichick has faced since coming to New England. Three years ago, wondering how strong Bill Belichick’s grip was on his team’s loyalty and attention would have been heresy. Now, it’s reality.

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