Tom E. Curran

Transition of Power: Inside the end of the Belichick Era

By Tom E. Curran

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

In a perfect world, it would have ended in January of 2025 or later. Ideally, when Bill Belichick decided to end it.

The final scene should have featured Belichick being carried off the field, owning the record for career coaching wins, not a dry eye in the house, including his.

Instead, it ends with angst. With the Patriots broken down on the side of the road, hood popped, steam pouring from the engine and Belichick thumbing for a ride.

You can’t count on perfect. But nobody counted on this.

The Patriots plummeting to the NFL’s cellar, their roster in disrepair, Belichick out of answers and headed out of town. Three years of saber-rattling from owner Robert Kraft culminated in the team parting ways with Belichick on Thursday.

Based on expectations publicly set by Kraft and his unmasked disappointment at the team’s direction before this season, what option did he have?

We always thought there was a hard floor for Belichick’s Patriots. He set the bar so high. The Patriots’ best was untouchable. Their average was elite. And their really bad — like 2022 — was league average. They’d never be awful. Not on Bill’s watch. But they were.

The first 10 games of 2023 — a 2-8 start with blowout embarrassments against the Cowboys and Saints — sealed Belichick’s fate. After losing those two games by a combined 72-3, Belichick said the Patriots would “start over.” They then lost to the Las Vegas Raiders, 21-17.

A dizzying, 29-25 win over the Bills felt like a breath of fresh air for Belichick, Mac Jones and the fans. It was a last gasp.

The Bills win was chased by the sixth loss in seven meetings with Miami and a nut-crushing home loss to the Commanders. The capper was a humiliating, 10-6 loss to the Colts in Germany. The image of owner Robert Kraft in a puffy, black jacket hanging his head dejectedly as Jones was picked off near the end zone in the waning minutes said everything.

Anyone but a legend would have been fired during the bye week. Belichick was not, but conversations with team sources after the Patriots returned from Europe made it clear a decision was made to part ways with Belichick at the end of the season.  

Coming off their bye, the Patriots lost to the lowly Giants quarterbacked by rookie Tommy DeVito. Mac Jones, the 2021 runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year, was benched. Then they got shut out by the Chargers, 6-0, to fall to 2-10.

Over the last month, when the team pulled out primetime road wins over Denver and Pittsburgh, there was a notion Belichick might survive. But the decision was made weeks before and a late-season flurry of competence wasn’t enough to change ownership’s minds.

With a top-five pick, a boatload of cap space and the second reboot since Tom Brady left in early 2020, this offseason will dictate how the rest of the decade goes.

Keeping that in mind, ownership had to weigh the following. Belichick’s draft record has been spotty since 2013. His return on a record-setting free agent splurge in ’21 was meager. Jones’ decline from promising Brady replacement to literally unusable is, in the eyes of ownership, tied directly to Belichick’s coaching staff decisions after Josh McDaniels left. And the inability to find, sign and/or develop offensive talent has made the offense unwatchable.

Handing Belichick the keys to a rebuild would have been a dice roll. But stripping the legend of personnel duties and telling him to stay in his coaching lane was also a non-starter.

Even if ownership changed course, the question would now be: To what end? Belichick would be a lame-duck head coach with an expiring contract, diminished in power and still more than a season away from setting the wins record.

Ultimately, the Krafts did what Belichick never shied from. They did what they thought was best for the football team.

They ripped the Band-Aid off, knowing how painful it will be. Even if it’s ahead of their timeline. Even if there’s real trepidation about post-Belichick life. It was time.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A matter of trust

Debate over “What to do about Bill …” has been vocal and passionate on both sides for the past month.

Compare it to siblings fighting over the family home when the old man’s gone.

One sibling can’t bear the thought. Even if it's busted and a renovation won’t get it back where to what it was, it’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It was the envy of everyone. Best house ever and nobody ever had one like it. Can’t imagine quitting on it. Not with all it’s meant to everyone. Selling? Heartless. Short-sighted. Worst of all, disloyal.

The other sibling appreciates the sentimentality but is more practical. The last reno didn’t work. The one they’re staring at is even more perilous. And expensive. And fraught. Nobody can take away the memories. And – holy hell – if the old man was anything, it was practical and sensible. It won’t be like it was. Ever again. Grow up.

Nothing that’s happened in the first weeks of January 2024 diminishes what the Patriots accomplished from 2000 to 2018: six Lombardis, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC Championship game appearances. Having it end like this fuels conversation about who gets what share of credit for the greatest 20-year run in the history of American professional sports. And that won’t die.

But the simple math was that Robert Kraft begot Bill. Bill begot Tom Brady. And Tom Brady got the team to Olympus over and over again because the other two set him up to do so.

The three of them were simpatico underdogs. Kraft’s purchase of the franchise in 1993 was shrug-worthy at the time. His hiring of Belichick in 2000 was panned as a misstep. And nobody envisioned Brady as a starting NFL quarterback, never mind the greatest to ever play the position.

A bedrock principle in each man’s success was willingness to be unconventional. To navigate paths that appeared impassable.

Over a quarter-century, Belichick made so many “He did WHAT???!!!” decisions so boldly and so unapologetically that “In Bill We Trust” was more than a four-word catchphrase. It was an operating philosophy.

Gutting the roster of deadwood veterans on arrival. Picking Brady over the highest-paid player in football, Drew Bledsoe. Trading Bledsoe in the division. Releasing Lawyer Milloy. Moving on from Adam Vinatieri. Signing Corey Dillon and acquiring Randy Moss. All the trades of seemingly indispensable players like Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and Jamie Collins. Wide receivers playing corner. Defensive ends catching touchdowns.

There were so many instances of Belichick being proven right after hearing howls of derision that Robert and Jonathan Kraft couldn’t do anything but let Bill cook.

He earned ownership’s trust so completely that, privately and publicly, both men have stated Belichick “earned the right” to manage the team as he saw fit.

In early 2022, when Josh McDaniels was heading to Las Vegas to interview for a Raiders job he would ultimately take, they didn’t press Belichick for an endgame to his coaching career, believing that – when the time was looming – he’d let them know. They didn’t fear Belichick’s flight as they did that of Bill Parcells. Belichick would have a plan. The team wouldn’t bottom out.

“In Bill We Trust” extended all the way up.

Belichick managed the Patriots to an unprecedented, unthinkable level of success and was the best football investment Robert Kraft ever made.

Even if he looked like an unmade bed. Even if, at the podium, he was alternately dismissive, charismatic, condescending, funny and brilliant. Belichick gave zero Fs about so many things society at large cared deeply about that his iconoclastic nature led to him becoming more than a football coach. He became a cultural icon.

In a way, he became too big to fail.

A transcendent dude

In 2011, after the Patriots beat the Denver Broncos in a playoff game, the gifted writer Charlie Pierce wrote a column titled, “Learning to Love the Antichrist.”

In it, Pierce described Belichick as the last real “anarchist” in the NFL.

"This has been the great conundrum of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick — a kind of blessedly refreshing football anarchy explained by its practitioners in stale terms that run the gamut from prosaic to sullen and back again," Pierce wrote. "To concentrate on the latter is to miss the sheer artistry of the former. Bill Belichick, the last NFL anarchist, the Lord of Misrule … “

Mind you, that was 2011. The Patriots would play in five more Super Bowls, winning three, after Pierce wrote that. Defining Belichick, appreciating him as a totem who transcended football and was relevant as a role model beyond locker rooms and in boardrooms and philosophically spawned books and appreciations.

There’s a litany of examples from the past quarter-century demonstrating Belichick’s charisma and communication skills that could have shattered the myth of him being a grunting, shrugging misanthrope.

A few? His 2002 New York Times op-ed, his appearance on ABC before Super Bowl XL, his long and eloquent press conference after the painful arrest of Aaron Hernandez, the Mona Lisa Vito press conference, in-depth occasions with NFL Films for A Football Life and the NFL’s Top 100 countdown -- for which Belichick won an Emmy -- right up through his appearance on ESPN’s College Game Day in December before the Army-Navy game at Gillette.

But Belichick himself embraced his brand as gruff and monosyllabic. Deploying withering stares and sarcastic answers freely over the past six seasons, the “I don’t have to answer to you …” subtext was apparent. And celebrated too.

Belichick’s success and his way of doing business inspired such loyalty that – even as the Patriots spiraled – a huge swath of fans cries out whenever he’s grilled and criticized.

Long after Belichick stops coaching, his brand will live on in memes on memes on memes. Is he the most famous coach in pro sports history? Is he the most decorated? Is he both?

You can easily make that argument. Belichick himself wouldn’t. But he’s shown in the past few years he’s very, very aware of what he’s given his bosses and this fanbase. Belichick is big on loyalty. You do him a solid, he’ll do you a solid.

Cross him and you may be out for good. Which makes one wonder how he truly feels about an ignominious end in Foxboro. Does he get it? Or is it a betrayal?

On loyalty and legacy

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump read from Belichick at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire.

"Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully – beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to make America great again. Best wishes for great results tomorrow." - Bill

Trump later said that when he asked Belichick if he could read it publicly, Belichick actually rewrote the letter to make it more enthusiastic.

Asked why he sent the letter, Belichick explained that he and Trump have a friendship that “goes back many years.” Belichick added that he’s not a political person.

The letter rankled some of Belichick’s players. Not because he was friends with Trump. But because he’d asked players to refrain from political comments

But for Belichick, the idea of loyalty and support trumped the possibility of backlash.

Which brings us back to Belichick, football and whether he feels somewhat betrayed. By ownership. By fans. By the media. By anyone who questions him.

When the Patriots' 2019 season ended with a playoff loss to the Titans, Belichick was asked after the game if he had a message to fans who’d stuck with the team through “thick and thin.” 

“I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here, personally. Maybe you feel differently. I haven’t heard a lot of fans say that,” was part of his answer.

Fair. Quite fair. But it was an indication that Belichick was girding for the ebbs and flows of life in the NFL and that after two decades of flow, an ebb might come.

About 10 months later, Belichick talked about the 2020 season as a reset and “said the team "sold out"” to win Super Bowls in Brady’s final years.

Again, fair. But the subtext was “You people have a short memory? This is going to take time …”

When I asked Belichick in November 2020 about the team’s shabby draft record in previous seasons, Belichick answered, “Yeah. Well, Tom, I would say the most important thing to me is winning games. And, um, I'm not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years. I mean, I've seen a lot worse.”

That was the first instance in which Belichick said, basically, “Check the scoreboard …” That it was in response to a question about poor drafting indicated (to me at least) that the years of success should somehow mitigate current poor performance.

But the most obvious example of where Belichick’s head was at in terms of past results being a promise of future success was in an answer to ESPN’s Mike Reiss at the 2023 owner’s meetings. Asked why Patriots fans should be optimistic, Belichick answered, “The last 25 years.” 

It was an eye-opening response that Belichick later walked back a bit.

We’re not resting on our past laurels; that’s not the message to the team or the fans,” Belichick said to Jim McBride of The Boston Globe. “We have never operated that way and aren’t now.

Coincidentally, at the same meetings, Robert Kraft resisted saying that Belichick could coach in New England long enough to break Don Shula’s win record.

“Look, I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record, but I’m not looking for any our players to get great stats,” Kraft said.

“We’re about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. And that’s what our focus is now. And I -- it’s very important to me that we make the playoffs, and that’s what I hope happens next year.” 

Suffice to say, that has not happened. And it’s happened mainly because of the roster and coaching decisions Belichick made going back to 2019. Actually, the foundation was laid even before that.

Like the Colorado River creating the Grand Canyon, the Patriots’ plummet started with a trickle back when they won the Super Bowl in 2016.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

How it came undone

The 2017 season was when things turned. After dramatically beating the Falcons in Super Bowl LI and rallying from a 28-3 deficit, Tom Brady entered rare air.

No NFL quarterback had ever won five. Brady, who’d been through the wringer in Deflategate and saw his football mortality more clearly than ever, self-actualized.

He wanted a new contract and assurance he’d been in New England forevermore. He wanted to build his brand and he wasn’t asking permission anymore, not with Belichick seemingly bent on replacing Brady with Jimmy Garoppolo.

A pissing contest ensued that dragged on even after Halloween of 2017 when Garoppolo was shipped to San Francisco. The season ended with the Patriots giving up 41 in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles with starting corner Malcolm Butler inexplicably benched.

Belichick kept pushing Brady. No new contract in the 2018 offseason, just a package of incentives he had little chance of attaining.

The team tacked on a final Super Bowl that year, the key play being a tremendous catch by Rob Gronkowski, whom Belichick tried to trade to the Lions in the offseason. But they went 11-5 in the regular season with all five losses against non-playoff teams. There was slippage.

By the summer of 2019, it dawned on Brady that Belichick didn’t want to make a multi-year commitment or pay him close to market value. And Brady realized Kraft ceded the decision to Bill. When the team signed him to a one-year deal in August, Brady decided he was gone in 2020.

Belichick never truly believed Brady would leave. Even when the two men met just days before Brady’s contract expired, sources said Belichick said the Patriots couldn’t carry a salary cap hit of more than $22.5 million.

“He talked to (Brady) like he was still on the team, not like he was about to be a free agent,” the source told me.

When Brady left for Tampa Bay, it was telling that the contract he signed – two years, $50M, all guaranteed – was precisely what he’d been asking the Patriots for.

With Brady gone, the Patriots tried a reset season in the COVID-marred 2020 season. They were prepared to go into the season with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer at quarterback but, at the end of June, convinced Cam Newton to come aboard for a miniscule contract.

McDaniels fashioned an offense around Newton’s running ability that masked Newton’s throwing shortcomings and the team actually overachieved relative to its talent, going 7-9. All season, Belichick gushed about Newton as a leader and never wavered on him being the starter, even as Newton’s throwing woes became painful to watch.

The most painful thing for Robert Kraft, though, was seeing Brady play like a maestro in Tampa and win another Super Bowl. How, he wondered, could a player supposedly in decline go to a new team and in one year win a Super Bowl?

Going into the 2021 offseason, Belichick was loaded with ammunition to make the Patriots right. The team spent more than $172 million in guaranteed money in free agency – more than Kraft purchased the team for in 1993.

"It's like investing in the stock market," Kraft said at the time. "You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market when you can, and that's what we did here. We'll see. Nothing is guaranteed, and I'm very cognizant of that. But we're not in the business to be in business. We're in this business to win. …

"I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason,” Kraft also said. “So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I'm very cognizant of that."

The Patriots hit big on Matthew Judon. They did well with Hunter Henry. Kendrick Bourne, Davon Godchaux and Jalen Mills were mixed bags at best. Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor were major disappointments.
Soon after that splurge, Kraft publicly chastised Belichick for his drafting.

“If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft said in March of 2021. “You have to do it through the draft. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years and I really hope, and I believe, I’ve seen a different approach this year.”

In April, the Patriots drafted Jones with the 15th overall pick and added Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore in the second round.

Jones had a brilliant offseason and training camp and unseated the incumbent Newton by the end of August. Jones’ strengths – decisiveness, accuracy, pre-snap cognition and leadership – helped him have the best rookie season of the five first-round quarterbacks taken in 2021. And it wasn’t close.

The Patriots went 10-7 and swan-dived in December for the third straight year, capping the season getting blown out by Buffalo. The rebuild was on.

In March of 2022, Kraft again went public with his expectations for Belichick and his team.

“(Ahead of being the team’s owner) I’m a Patriot fan, big-time,” Kraft said at the NFL Owners Meetings. “More than anything, it bothers me that we haven’t been able to win a playoff game in the last three years.”

“I’m happy that I think we had a great draft last year,” Kraft added. “That made up for what happened the previous four years or so, and I look forward to hopefully having a great draft this year. That’s the only way you can build your team for the long term and consistently that you have a chance of winning is having a good draft.”

Kraft added he expected the Patriots to be contenders “as soon as this year.”

Didn’t happen. McDaniels was hired by the Raiders and took with him a handful of offensive coaches. That attrition coupled with other losses on the staff in past years (Dante Scarnecchia, Brian Flores) and in personnel (Nick Caserio and Monti Ossenfort) had the Patriots scrambling for offensive coaches.

Belichick acted unbothered. He would divvy up the offensive duties between Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, both of whom rejoined the Patriots after being fired by the Lions and Eagles respectively. Neither had experience coordinating offenses or calling plays at the NFL level.

The offense struggled throughout camp and the angst of the players was apparent.

Just before the season, Belichick spoke to The Boston Globe and said of Judge and Patricia: "I think they’re both good coaches. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility, like it always is. So if it doesn’t go well, blame me."

The Patriots started 3-3. Even though Jones was injured in the Week 3, rookie Bailey Zappe was excellent in relief in wins over the Browns and Lions where the Patriots defense dominated.

But a 33-14 demolition at the hands of the NFL’s worst team, the Chicago Bears, featured Jones getting pulled and Zappe laboring in relief. The Patriots rebounded and reeled off three more wins against the horrible Jets (twice) and Colts. But they won just two of their final seven games.

Jones’ frustration with the offensive coaching bubbled over publicly during games. Belichick’s frustration with Jones’ frustration was better disguised but probably deeper.

At year’s end, Belichick’s assessment of Jones was that, “Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league. We all have to work together to find the best way as a football team, obviously quarterback is a big position, to be more productive.”

Winds of change began blowing last January

Belichick said “blame me” if the coordinator situation didn’t work out and Kraft took him up on it. In a letter to season ticket holders after the season, Kraft wrote:

“We can assure you that no one in our organization is satisfied with the results from this past season. In the weeks ahead, we will be making critical evaluations of all elements of our football operation as we strive to improve and return to the playoffs next year.”

Days later, the team released a statement saying, “The New England Patriots and Head Coach Bill Belichick have begun contract extension discussions with Jerod Mayo that would keep him with the team long-term. In addition, the team will begin interviewing for offensive coordinator candidates beginning next week.”

Kraft again used the owners meetings in late March to give a state of the team address.

Asked about Jones, Kraft said, "I'm a big fan of Mac. I think that we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn't work when it came to him, in my opinion. I think we've made changes that put him in a good position to excel.

"He's in the stadium almost every day now in the offseason. I think bringing in Bill O'Brien will work towards his advantage. I'm very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year. I'm personally a big fan of Mac."

Speaking on Patricia’s tenure as offensive coordinator, Kraft said, "He's a very good guy, very smart, an engineer, works hard. And I think he got put in a difficult position, and I think it was sort of an experiment. And he worked very hard at it. And in retrospect, I don't think it was the right thing. And I feel bad for him, because he's such a hard worker. He got put in a difficult position."

He poked once more at the team’s free agent pickups and draft selections, saying, "We had a little period where we didn't draft as well a few years ago. We're able to get that changed and I think we're doing much better. Two or three years ago I think we spent more cash than any team … and it didn't get the value that we hoped it would."

Kraft also spoke of a post-Belichick succession plan, telling NFL Network, “(Jerod Mayo) is definitely a strong candidate to be the heir apparent, but we have some other good people in our system. So right now, we have a good head coach, and we're doing everything we can to support him, and make sure we do everything we can to win."

Most telling, though, were Kraft’s comments on Belichick.

"I think Bill is exceptional at what he does and I've given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done," said Kraft.

"His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled from what I've seen. Just when you talk to him, the small things analytically he looks at. But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win or you don't. That's where we're at. I think we're in a transition phase."

A transition phase that also included a not-so-subtle ultimatum presaging everything that’s happened since.

"I still believe in Bill," said Kraft. "I'd like him to break Don Shula's record, but I'm not looking for any of our players to get great stats. We're about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That's what our focus is now. It's very important to me that we make the playoffs. That's what I hope happens next year."

It didn’t happen. Not even close. The Patriots are among the worst teams in the NFL. They have a long road back to respectability, never mind the levels Belichick coached them to for most of his 24-year reign.

It is what it is. It was what it was.

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