Have the New England Patriots come full circle under Robert Kraft?
The Patriots were far from a dynasty when Kraft first purchased the team in 1994, going 59-53 in his first seven seasons that included back-to-back last-place finishes in the AFC East before Tom Brady took over as the starter in 2001.
Since Brady's departure in 2020, they've regressed back to relative mediocrity and are projected by many to finish in the AFC East basement yet again. While Kraft has set a high bar for head coach Bill Belichick in recent years, he seems to be embracing the team's underdog status entering 2023.
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"I sort of like that most people are picking us to come in fourth in the division," Kraft told reporters Thursday night during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Gillette Stadium's new renovations. "I think there's a great chemistry. It's a young team, too. This might be one of our youngest teams."
Kraft also gave Belichick a vote of confidence while highlighting the addition of offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien this offseason.
"I think Coach (Belichick) has done a good job overall," Kraft said. "I think having Bill O'Brien come here and work with Mac (Jones), they seem to have great chemistry. I'm actually excited about the team."
Kraft hasn't been afraid to put his head coach on the spot in years past. When asked prior to the 2022 season when he expected the Patriots might return to Super Bowl contention, he replied, "I expect it to happen as soon as this year." After New England stumbled to an 8-9 record, he promised "critical" offseason evaluations that resulted in a formal OC search and the eventual hire of O'Brien.
Over the past few months, however, Kraft has somewhat leveled expectations. In June, he called the AFC East "the most difficult division in the NFL" and noted the Patriots will "have (their) challenges" to contend in 2023. Now, he's further acknowledging that New England isn't exactly viewed as a Super Bowl threat this season.
Kraft obviously expects his team to win games, and if the Patriots miss the playoffs for the third time in four years since Brady's departure, it's very possible there will be consequences next offseason. But rather than deliver a "win or else" ultimatum, Kraft appears to be resetting expectations and hoping for a pleasant surprise.