PHOENIX — Patriots coach Bill Belichick has 329 career wins, 18 from tying Don Shula’s record of 347, which includes postseason games. In the Patriots’ glory years, Belichick would have that record wrapped up in 1½ years, or maybe even in just one dominant, championship-caliber season.
But these are no longer the glory years, and team owner Robert Kraft said Monday at the NFL owners meetings that the Patriots’ priority is not getting Belichick the record.
“Look, 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, “We’re about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is.”
Kraft’s proclamation, and others made during a 16-minute media session, invoke a very real possibility that would have seemed like a farce only a few years ago: Belichick is probably coaching for his job in 2023.
Belichick may have won 292 games and six Super Bowls in Foxborough, but Kraft made it clear that Belichick does not have a lifetime appointment.
“In the end, this is a business,” Kraft said. “You either execute and win, or you don’t. That’s where we’re at.”
It’s not just those of us on the outside who believe Belichick is on the hot seat. Within the last month, two confidants of Belichick independently expressed concern Kraft could fire Belichick after the 2023 season. These are former Patriots who worked for the team within the last five years, and still speak with the coach often. They are worried their mentor might not get to go out on his own terms.
Realistically, it appears Belichick will get two years to get the 19 wins to surpass Shula. But only if 2023 goes well — at least nine wins. A playoff appearance may be necessary, too.
If the Patriots go 6-11, Kraft’s choice will be obvious — it’s time to move on. It gets a little trickier with each additional win. A 7-10 season may not be enough to buy Belichick one more year. An 8-9 season will give Kraft a lot to think about.
This is the Patriots, after all. “Stats are for losers,” Belichick told us back in 2009. Kraft is used to winning — a lot. Four years without a playoff win does not sit well.
You could see the agony on Kraft’s face when a reporter asked him about the Patriots missing the playoffs in two of the last three years.
“Two out of the last three seasons,” Kraft repeated, trailing off.
Kraft gave Belichick a long leash in the last three, post-Tom Brady seasons. He let him put Matt Patricia, a career defensive coach, and Joe Judge, a career special teams coach, in charge of the offense and Mac Jones’s development in 2022, even though it looked odd to many on the outside.
“I’m in no position to know whether, going in, that’s the right thing,” Kraft admitted.
But it was a total failure — the offense was dysfunctional, and Jones regressed and took out his frustrations on coaches. Patricia won’t be back coaching the offense in 2023, but Kraft blames Belichick.
“I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn’t work when it came to [coaching Jones], in my opinion,” Kraft said. “I think [Patricia] got put in a difficult position. I think it was sort of an experiment. I think he worked very hard at it. In retrospect, I don’t think it was the right thing. And I feel bad for him because he’s such a hard worker.”
Kraft also made a few other things clear on Monday:
1. He’s the boss and he gets what he wants.
“I thought changes had to be made,” Kraft said, and so changes were made. Bill O’Brien was hired as offensive coordinator, and Adrian Klemm as offensive line coach.
O’Brien just so happened to be Kraft’s preferred choice.
“Bill was at the top of my list, so I was really happy,” he said.
2. Jerod Mayo is lurking.
Mayo was set to interview for other head coaching positions this offseason, until Kraft stepped in to keep him a Patriot. Kraft wants him in Foxborough a long time.
“I’ll do everything I can to make that happen,” Kraft said.
Belichick surely isn’t thinking about his successor. Kraft surely is.
“There’s no ceiling on his ability to be a head coach,” Kraft said of Mayo. “And he’ll be a head coach. I’m sure of that. I hope he’s with us. So we’ll see what happens.”
3. Belichick better have a good draft in 2023.
Their picks have been better the last couple of years after a half-decade of abysmal drafts. Belichick needs to find a few immediate contributors this year.
“To be good in this league, you’ve got to draft well,” Kraft said.
4. Belichick probably needs to make the playoffs.
Kraft inched right up to the line of giving Belichick an ultimatum for 2023.
“My objective for our team is that we make the playoffs, because once you make the playoffs, anything can happen,” Kraft said. “It’s very important to me that we make the playoffs. That’s what I hope happens next year.”
5. No excuses.
The Patriots may be 27th in cash spending so far for 2023, but Kraft made it clear he’s not putting any restraints on Belichick.
“He has never come to me and not gotten everything he wanted from cash spending. We have never set limits,” Kraft said. “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.”
Kraft made sure to voice support for Belichick throughout his media availability. He said he’s confident in the upgrades the Patriots have made this year, particularly with the coaching staff.
“I think we’ve made some moves this year that personally I’m comfortable with,” Kraft said. “And I still believe in Bill.”
Still. For now. But warning shots have been sent. Another disappointing season won’t suffice.
Belichick’s seat is officially hot for 2023.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.