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By: Bernd Buchmasser
Could the Patriots’ long-time head coach be on his way out after a disappointing season?
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are in uncharted territory. Having lost eight of their first 10 games this year, they are currently one of the worst teams in football with little perspective for improvement after their upcoming bye week.
The offense has been bad. There are serious questions about the quarterback position. The injury bug bit hard on both sides of the ball. Things are bleak.
Are they so bleak, though, that Belichick’s future as head coach and de facto general manager is in danger? Based on some of the narratives on both a local and a national level, it sure seems that way: there already is talk about potential replacements, landing spots, and whatnot; type “Bill Belichick” into the search engine of your choice, and chances are it will make it look like his fate is already sealed.
[activates Boston accent] Howevah!
While there are a lot of rumors flying around, fact is that nobody knows what team owner Robert Kraft and his son/team president Jonathan Kraft will do once the 2023 season is in the books. Obviously, the final seven games of the year will play a role in that, as will Belichick’s contract situation — he did sign an extension in the offseason that reportedly runs through 2024. All of those factors make the situation a lot more nuanced than it is oftentimes presented to be.
So, is it a foregone conclusion that this is Belichick’s swan song and that he will leave the franchise this offseason? No, it is not.
Is it possible that it still happens nonetheless? Yes, it is.
But every piece of new information, every rumor, and all kinds of speculation regarding this topic needs to be scrutinized to a degree. Just like Belichick’s contract, after all, the discussions about the state of the team and its future — whether with or without the current head coach — are closely-guarded state secrets in New England.
With that in mind, here are one reporter’s thoughts on Belichick, the Patriots, and where things might be headed.
1. There is probably no other person in the league as closely connected to one single franchise as Bill Belichick. He has been with the Patriots since 2000, and over the last two-plus decades has been responsible for building, maintaining, and running the club’s entire football operations. His fingerprints are all over the club, and they will be even in case he is removed from the top come the offseason.
Would firing or trading Belichick therefore address some of the deeper-lying issues, especially when it comes to scouting? While he makes the final decision, and takes both praise and blame as a result, he relies on the information presented to him by other key members of the organization such as director of player personnel Matt Groh or college scouting director Camren Williams.
Would they go too, if Belichick does? And, if so, who would replace them? A new GM would likely bring his own people aboard, but as noted above, the Belichick DNA is deeply woven into the fabric of the entire Patriots football operations — replacing that part of it would be a massive undertaking, and possibly a year-long venture.
2. The scouting department is not the only area deeply impacted by Belichick; the coaching staff obviously is as well. Any new head coach would bring in his own personnel, which in turn might lead to the departure of one highly-regarded assistant in particular: Jerod Mayo, who is a possible frontrunner to replace Belichick if the team plans to pursue an in-house succession plan.
If they are not doing that, why would Mayo stick around? The same also is true for other coaches, most notably Steve and Brian Belichick who would likely be goners if their dad is.
Of course, part of that problem could be solved by Mayo simply replacing Belichick in 2024. It does seem possible, but the ramifications of such a move would still be massive. For one, Mayo might still lose the Belichick brothers; if their dad gets fired or traded, them staying put seems highly unlikely. Also, Mayo is a “Belichick guy” himself, and putting him at head coach would not be too big a departure from the established ways.
If the Krafts therefore want to eliminate the Belichick element within their franchise, it would take a massive top-to-bottom overhaul. That could happen, but it might take plenty of time to see results come to fruition under such circumstances.
3. Last offseason, Robert Kraft said that he would like Belichick “to break Don Shula’s record” for wins by a head coach, “but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats.” He also added that the Patriots are “about winning” and that that would be “what our focus is now.”
Those statements appear to have sent a clear message coming off an 8-9 season: win, or else. That said, words do not necessarily mean that subsequent actions will look accordingly even with the team at 2-8.
Kraft, after all, is cognizant of Belichick’s status as one of the NFL’s most accomplished coaches and a legend of his franchise. Parting ways with him under less-than-amicable circumstances is probably not something he is aiming for (and which might add some distracting storylines to Tom Brady’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony next summer — an event the Patriots would probably not want to hold without Belichick in attendance).
4. Several potential trade destination have been mentioned, including the Washington Commanders, Chicago Bears, or Los Angeles Chargers. The New York Giants would also make sense given Belichick’s history with the organization, but as of right now it looks like they are willing to stick with current head coach Brian Daboll.
One thing when it comes to Belichick also cannot be disregarded: he will turn 72 in April, and while he is still very much enjoying his job — “it beats working” — his age gives him power over a trade; he could threaten to simply retire if sent somewhere he doesn’t want to go (which would, again, run counter to the “amicable departure” theory mentioned above).
And there are reasons speaking against those speculated landing spots, mostly as far as ownership is concerned. Belichick, who has always been cautious when it comes to owners after his experience in Cleveland, would likely not be too pleased about getting sent to a team with a new owner (Commanders), a centenarian owner (Bears), or an owner who moved his team to another city just six years ago (Chargers).
5. There was optimism inside the building that the Patriots would compete for a playoff spot this year. Obviously, they are far from that. Where did that dissonance come from, though? A massive evaluation breakdown, or some key variables not going New England’s way?
If Kraft can therefore be convinced they are indeed closer than their record indicates — something the next few weeks might show — it might make sense not to shake up the entire organization; with the Patriots in line to select near the top of the draft and in possession of more than $70 million in cap space, they might be in a position to right the ship sooner rather than later. A complete organizational overhaul might change that outlook, though.
6. As noted above, Belichick is contractually tied to the Patriots through 2024. This would allow him to get traded, of course, but it also might allow the coach and the team’s ownership to reach a different solution: Belichick neither getting fired nor traded next offseason, but instead announcing that 2024 would be his final year as Patriots head coach before transitioning power to Jerod Mayo and, possibly, Matt Groh.
Going down that route would remove Belichick at least from coaching at the end of next season, when he is about to turn 73, but might be a more satisfying way to ring in the end of the Bill Belichick era.
Of course, that is just one reporter’s take on the situation and in no way reflective of what Robert and Jonathan Kraft might be thinking; as noted above, their plans for the franchise beyond 2023 are very much still in the dark at this point. But from this point of view, using a transition plan rather than more drastic options would make sense for all involved.
Time will tell whether the Krafts see it the same way.
Originally posted on Pats Pulpit