Tom E. Curran

The time for Kraft to make a hard decision on Belichick starts now

The clock is officially ticking on Bill Belichick after a third straight loss.

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The Patriots are 1-5. With games against the Bills and Dolphins meaning 1-7 is very likely. They are circling the drain in what will be the first “lost season” of Bill Belichick’s head coaching career.

By “lost,” I mean hopeless before Thanksgiving. Playing out the string. Entering a period of uncertainty in which nobody knows whether they’ll be here next year.

The 2000 Patriots weren’t that way. Bill was new. They were building. Even the 1995 Browns started the season 3-1 and were 4-4 at midseason before the owner Art Modell announced the team was moving to Baltimore and the season got flushed.

This season’s different. The Patriots will likely have one win at the midpoint. They’ve become one of the worst teams in the league. It’s not injuries. It’s not the schedule. The nosedive began last year after Thanksgiving and is at 13 games and counting.

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They were 2-5 at the tail end of last year with wins over Arizona and Miami when both were using backup quarterbacks. They have a lone win over the Jets this season. That’s 3-10 if you’re scoring at home (and I hope you are).

They’re reeling before the anthem ends. Here’s the latest update on the game-opening deficits since their high-scoring, highly-entertaining loss to the Vikings on Turkey Day.  

  • at Raiders: 13-3 (halftime)
  • vs. Saints: 21-0 (halftime)
  • at Cowboys: 28-3 (halftime)
  • vs. Dolphins: 17-3 (halftime)
  • vs. Eagles: 16-0 (end of first quarter)
  • at Bills: 7-0 (after opening kickoff)
  • vs. Dolphins: 14-7 (early third quarter with Tua Tagovailoa out for Miami)
  • vs. Bengals: 22-0 (halftime)
  • at Raiders: 17-3 (halftime)
  • at Cardinals: 13-7 (second quarter, no Kyler Murray)
  • vs. Bills: 17-7 (halftime)

Their primary tools for hole-digging are penalties and turnovers. They do it to themselves. They did it again in Vegas on Sunday.

Despite Belichick’s “start over” edict after the Saints debacle, the defense was on the receiving end of a 16-play, 69-yard game-opening drive which ended with a field goal. It was actually the second field goal of the drive for the Raiders because on the first, Vegas was given new life on a Patriots “leverage” penalty. The offense took over, committed penalties on the first two snaps, dropped a screen pass and shanked a punt.

At least this week, the Patriots kept it close enough to find an interesting way to self-immolate at the end, like they did last year against the Raiders and Bengals and this year against the Eagles and Dolphins. Penalties, drops and game mismanagement were the culprits Sunday.

Dating back to Thanksgiving last year, the Patriots have consistently got off to slow starts, often falling behind by double digits. Bill Belichick addresses the slow starts after Week 6 loss to the Raiders.

Combine the on-field stuff, the steady drip of annual roster mismanagement, the misspent money and the unwatchable offense that gets trotted out each week, it’s more probable than not that the Bill Belichick Era is in its death throes.  

Especially with Robert Kraft’s softly-phrased “improve or else” edict from March still lingering.

You can’t take a flamethrower to literally $50 million over two years as Belichick did with Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor in 2021 and 2022. Not after refusing in 2020 to pay the greatest quarterback in NFL history the same amount over the same time period.   

You can’t make a cavalier coaching decision on who will run your offense as Belichick did in 2022 and ruin the development of a capable rookie quarterback on his rookie contract.

And if you want to debate “capable”, always remember and don’t ever forget what Belichick said about Mac Jones in late July, 2022:

"I think Mac has done a great job," Belichick said. "He's worked extremely hard. He's got a tremendous work ethic in all areas. I think there's a dramatic improvement. His physical work and conditioning, working on his mechanics, working on his footwork, working on his understanding of our offense, of opponents' defenses, the situations -- all those things.

"He's made tremendous strides," Belichick said of Jones. "He did a great job last year, but he's starting from a much, much higher point this year than where he started last year. So, his offseason work has been significant, and I think everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he was than he was a year ago."

You can’t be the worst team in the NFL when your owner is accustomed to having the best team in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the Senior Bowl is in four months. Free agency opens in about five months. The draft will be here in six months.

It’s time for Kraft to begin deciding whether Belichick will have the same role, a diminished role or no role when this season ends. And Belichick should start noodling whether he wants to keep on. A major checkpoint approacheth for this team.

In two weeks -- on Halloween -- the trade deadline will be here. Obviously, the Patriots aren’t going to be adding for the stretch run. But they do have myriad assets they could move in exchange for picks.

These are the players with expiring contracts whom other teams might covet: Hunter Henry, Trent Brown, Kyle Dugger, Kendrick Bourne, Josh Uche, Mike Onwenu, Mike Gesicki, Ezekiel Elliott and Anfernee Jennings.

Uche, Dugger and Onwenu are approaching their second contracts and figured to be semi-big ticket free agents (though all are going to see their market drop along with the team’s fortunes). All could give a boost to a playoff contender in need. If the Patriots aren’t going to sign them, should they move them and get something in return?

What about Mac Jones? As a third-year quarterback on his rookie deal, he’d be worth perhaps a third-rounder. Especially if another team believes Jones doesn’t actually stink and is a victim of circumstance.  

Will Belichick want to sell and add picks? Or would he want to wring as many wins as he can out of this season?

The bigger question is whether Kraft would overrule any sell-off or demand one. The Patriots currently have $95M in projected cap space for 2024. They are headed for a top-10 pick.

Does Kraft want Belichick to quarterback the rebuild? We’ll begin to get an answer to that question over the next two weeks.

This is what happens at 1-5 with 1-7 staring you in the kisser.

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