Robert Kraft was not a happy man in 2020.
The Patriots owner said Wednesday that watching his team go 7-9 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 was “horrible” and that he expects a quick bounce back.
“After my family, the Patriots are the most important thing in my life,” Kraft said in a conference call after the NFL owners wrapped up their virtual league meetings. “The bottom line here is winning. That’s what this business is. When we don’t, it’s not a good feeling … The bottom line is we want to win, and when we don’t, we’re not happy.”
Kraft said his expectations are always high — the Patriots have been to nine Super Bowls and won six since he bought the club ― and that makes losing hurt even more.
“We expect to be a contender every year — that’s my objective,” he said. “Last year was very disappointing. I really do believe Cam [Newton] getting COVID-19 and what it did to the team — it changed a lot when we were in a good place. Now, we’ll have a chance to see.”
The Patriots were 2-1 — with their loss coming on the final play in Seattle — when Newton tested positive two days before a game in Kansas City. Newton returned and the club won just five games the rest of the way as he struggled to be consistent.
Kraft was complimentary of Newton and Jarrett Stidham, who, barring another move, would compete again for the starter’s job.
“Look, Cam’s a terrific guy. I really enjoyed getting to know him last year. I’ll tell you this: Players on the team, in the locker room, really love the guy. So, in the end, I trust Coach [Bill] Belichick’s ability to build a team and put the right players in the best position to succeed. Over the last couple of decades, he’s done OK. When I’m privileged to have good managers … we give those people autonomy and we let them do their thing.”
Kraft said he was “a big fan” of Stidham and has been impressed by the workouts Stidham has organized in California that several teammates — including Newton — have attended.
“Look, the quarterback is the most important position on the team. We know that. He touches the ball over 70 times per [game], so one way or another, we have to get that position solidified.”
In response to the disappointing season, the Patriots committed $175 million in guaranteed money in free agency. The club addressed needs in all three phases of the game, investing big money at linebacker with Matthew Judon ($32 million guaranteed), tight end with Jonnu Smith ($31 million) and Hunter Henry ($25 million), and at receiver with Nelson Agholor ($15 million).
Though acknowledging it was uncharacteristic for the franchise to spend so much on free agency, Kraft noted there were several factors in the decision, including coming off a tough season, tough drafting, plenty of cap space, and not a lot of competition for the players.
“I think this is a unique time … We’ve never been in a position where we have spent the kind of money in free agency that we did this year,” he said. “I think if ever there was a year to do it, this would be the year. Because we moved quickly, and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three. And I think our personnel department did an outstanding job in setting the priorities and moving quickly.”
As for the draft, Kraft said, “I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job in the last few years. I hope and really believe I’ve seen a different approach this year … In the end, it all comes out with what happens on the field.”
Kraft, who said he’s “pretty happy with his working relationship” with Belichick, believes the draft and not free agency has been one of the keys to the franchise’s consistent success over the last two decades.
“If you want to have a good, consistent winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent, whether it’s Willie McGinest or Tom Brady, you get them at a price where you can build the team and be competitive.
“Once they get to their [second] contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them. Really, the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good.’'
Looking ahead, Kraft said he hopes “herd immunity” will lead to full stadiums in the fall after the pandemic kept most stadiums empty last season. He noted it’s been a year since the team sent its plane to China to transport 1.2 million PPE masks for health-care workers and that Wednesday vaccine No. 300,000 was administered at Gillette Stadium.