PHOENIX — As Patriots coach Bill Belichick nears the all-time coaching wins record, owner Robert Kraft is still holding the franchise to a high standard.
“I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record, but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats,” Kraft said Monday afternoon from the NFL annual meetings. “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.”
Belichick has 329 career victories, which is 18 shy of matching Shula’s 347.
In the three years since Tom Brady’s departure, the Patriots have a 25-25 record. They have advanced to the playoffs only once during that span. Last year, the team finished with a losing record for just the third time since 2000.
At that pace, Belichick would need at least two, if not three, seasons to break Shula’s record. Will the substandard performance still be tolerated as Belichick pursues a historic milestone?
Kraft expressed faith in Belichick, his coach of more than two decades, to guide the team over the coming years, while stressing the importance of results.
“Look, 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,” Kraft said. “His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled from what I’ve seen. Just when you talk to him, the small things analytically that 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. I think we’ve made some moves this year that I personally am comfortable with and I still believe in Bill.”
The Patriots have already made several changes this offseason, starting with the hiring of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who previously worked for the club for five seasons. Kraft believes O’Brien should benefit third-year quarterback Mac Jones, who struggled last season under the tutelage of senior football advisor Matt Patricia and offensive assistant Joe Judge.
The organization has a critical decision to make with Jones after the upcoming season, when they can exercise the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. If they do not elect to do so, Jones will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2024 season.
Kraft, despite receiving a text message from rapper Meek Mill telling him that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is interested in coming to New England, endorsed Jones.
According to Kraft, Jones has reported to Gillette Stadium nearly every day of the offseason.
“I’m a big fan of Mac,” Kraft said. “He quarterbacked his rookie season and did a very fine job, I thought. We made the playoffs. I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn’t work when it came to him, in my opinion. I think we made changes that I think put him in a good position to excel.”
The Patriots also made a number of moves during free agency, adding wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, tight end Mike Gesicki, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, and running back James Robinson. But Kraft still pointed to the draft as the key element of successful roster-building.
New England owns the 14th overall pick this year, in addition to 10 other selections.
“In the end, to be good in this league, you have to draft well,” Kraft said. “Given the salary cap and the value of people you draft, as opposed to hiring them as free agents, that’s where your greatest return comes from.”
Kraft referenced the team’s massive spending spree in 2021 — when they handed out $163 million in guaranteed money, setting a record at the time — as a cautionary tale.
“Two, three years ago, we spent more cash than any team in the history of spending and it didn’t get the value that we hoped it would,” Kraft said. “I think having a solid draft is the foundation of building a team and sustaining it.”
But Kraft clarified that he is more than willing to spend should Belichick ask.
“Bill, in 24 years, has never come to me and not gotten everything he’s wanted,” he said. “If you’re going to sign a quarterback or do what we did three years ago where we spent No. 1, over $120 million, I don’t know that it was worth it. But I’m willing to do it if we’re going to win. Ownership has always made the cash available. Money spending will never be the issue. I promise you. Or I’ll sell the team.”
Personnel decisions remain in Belichick’s hands. Kraft made it clear that whom to sign, whom to start, whom to trade, whom to release — all ultimately fall to Belichick. He also made equally clear, however, that success as a result of those decisions must follow.
Kraft seems optimistic the winning will return as soon as next season. If not, perhaps even more changes will be in store.
“I think we’ve made some moves and changes that give me, personally, some hope for the upcoming season,” he said. “My objective for our team is that we make the playoffs because once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. If you don’t, your season ends in a way that doesn’t make me very happy.”