In the last week-plus, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has allowed coach Bill Belichick to sign 11 new starters and 20 total free agents, dishing out more than $160 million in fully guaranteed money.
Kraft told NBC’s Peter King that the Patriots’ big spending was the plan all along.
“It’s like investing in the stock market,” Kraft told King. “You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market where you can, and that’s what we did here.”
That’s not really what the Patriots did last week. They went on a bender and bought a new team.
They paid market rate for a top pass rusher ($32 million to Matt Judon for the next two years), gave record guarantees to tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry (more than $56 million combined), and were the top bidder for receiver Nelson Agholor and several Day 1 free agents.
More than about getting value, the Patriots’ spending appeared to be a direct response to two people outside of the Patriots’ organization.
The first one is obvious — Tom Brady. The combination of events in 2020 — Brady winning the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay while the Patriots flopped at 7-9 — was undoubtedly embarrassing for the Patriots.
Belichick and Kraft could not be oblivious to the bombardment of criticism they received throughout December and the playoffs, locally and nationally. Neither wants to be remembered as the owner and coach who flopped once Brady left town, and both badly want to get back on top of the NFL hierarchy. Brady raised the stakes, and now Belichick and Kraft are calling the raise.
But Brady likely isn’t the only impetus for the Patriots’ splurge. The late Don Shula, the Hall of Fame former coach of the Dolphins and Baltimore Colts, has to be at the forefront of Belichick’s mind.
Shula, who died last May at 90, holds the NFL’s wins record for head coaches with 347, including postseason. Belichick, entering his 27th year as a head coach, is close enough to the record now that it would be ludicrous not to chase it.
George Halas is second with 324 total wins, and Belichick is third with 311 – just 36 behind Shula. That’s three good seasons for Belichick, maybe four.
If Belichick wants to squash any doubt, he’ll go after Shula’s regular-season wins record, too. Shula has 328, Halas has 318, and Belichick has 280. Belichick could probably reach it in five seasons. Adding a 17th game to the schedule starting this year will give Belichick an extra opportunity.
Belichick is an alpha competitor like everyone else in the NFL. You don’t get this close to Shula’s record and not go for it, especially when Shula called you out as “Beli-cheat” just a few years ago.
Belichick also is close to surpassing coaching legends Paul Brown, Curly Lambeau, and Halas in another category: Most championships. Belichick has the most Super Bowl titles as head coach with six, but in the NFL’s Record and Fact Book, Brown sits atop the category with seven championships won in the pre-Super Bowl days. Belichick is tied with Halas and Lambeau.
Belichick, who appreciates the history of the NFL perhaps more than anyone on the planet, surpassed Vince Lombardi (five championships) with his last Super Bowl win. You can bet Belichick would enjoy seeing his name above Brown, Lambeau, and Halas, as well.
Belichick turns 69 in April. Kraft turns 80 in June. This year’s spending spree makes the goal seem pretty clear — win as many games as soon as possible.
In a year in which the rest of the NFL is shedding cap space and signing players at discounted rates, the Patriots are spending as if the pandemic never happened.
Belichick bought 11 new starters for 2021, eight of whom have never played for the Patriots. That’s Judon, Smith, Henry, Agholor, receiver Kendrick Bourne, defensive back Jalen Mills, and defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson. Belichick also re-acquired three former Patriots: linebacker Kyle Van Noy, offensive tackle Trent Brown and center Ted Karras.
This year looked like a good opportunity for the Patriots to start rebuilding through the draft and find the next wave of stars. But Belichick and Kraft don’t seem to have any interest in a slow rebuild — which is probably for the best, since the Patriots have not drafted well over the last half decade, particularly at the top.
Free agency often ends up being fool’s gold, and the teams that spend the most in March rarely do well in January and February.
“I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason,” Kraft told King in a moment of self-awareness. “So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”
The Patriots do look much improved, at least on paper. The offensive weapons are upgraded, the offensive line is deep and talented, and the defense should get its edge back with the additions of Van Noy, Judon, and Dont’a Hightower.
“I actually think the Patriots are signing good players at what was fair market value,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner wrote for The 33rd Team. “But for some reason they’re not taking advantage of the unique one-year market conditions, and they’re treating it as if it’s business as usual. There’s also the idea that, ‘If we have to overpay, we’re going to overpay, as long as we get these guys.’ That isn’t a terrible strategy.”
Belichick and Kraft aren’t treating this offseason as business as usual because it isn’t. They can’t let Brady embarrass them again next fall, and Shula’s record is squarely in Belichick’s sights.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.