The Patriots talked a big game at the NFL owners meetings this week with quasi-critical comments from owner Robert Kraft and defiant ones from coach Bill Belichick. Unfortunately, the Patriots don’t feel that much closer to playing in big games again.
The whole mien after going 25-26 post-Tom Brady the last three seasons, including the playoffs, feels like it’s kiss our six Super Bowl rings. This was encapsulated by Belichick’s response about why fans should be optimistic regarding next season. “The last 25 years,” he retorted.
In all the bluster, few noticed that Kraft actually lowered the expectations bar following a second losing season in three years. At last year’s owners meetings, he was adamant about the team winning a playoff game for the first time since Super Bowl LIII. This time he said, “My objective for our team is we make the playoffs.”
Kraft has mastered the art of performative outrage over his team’s underperformance. While his disappointment is genuine, there have been no real repercussions. Even after last year’s Matt Patricia-as-offensive-play-caller, dumpster-fire decision, Belichick is still granted a wide berth to run the organization in the same manner he has since 2000. There’s scant evidence that Kraft has placed any guardrails to prevent Belichick from going off-track with another hare-brained decision.
That’s a problem. Kraft doesn’t just write the checks. He’s the only check on Belichick. He’s essentially punting on that role to the detriment of his franchise.
While many focused on the ostensibly critical comments Kraft made about his coach, he still basically echoed Belichick’s “last 25 years” rejoinder.
“I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn’t work … in my opinion,” said Kraft. “I think we made changes that put [ Mac Jones] in a good position to excel. In the end, Bill is in charge of my football team and makes the decisions of who should start and who should play and has done a pretty darn good job of it for the last 24 years.”
Perhaps Kraft should hold Belichick to the same standard the coach has espoused for players for years: Everyone must reestablish their level of performance each season. No one coasts on their reputation or résumé.
The contradiction between that ethos and Belichick’s comment even caught the ear of Patriots loyalists like Tedy Bruschi. The lionized linebacker branded it off-message.
As was Belichick substituting “competitive” — a buzzword he repeated multiple times at the Arizona Biltmore during his hostile-witness media session — for winning.
The Patriots have become like a pair of Skechers for Belichick — it’s all about his comfort. He surrounds himself with the coaches, players, and personnel evaluators he wants, regardless of their qualifications or capability. The latest example is offensive underminer Joe Judge, a failure in every coaching role besides special teams, staying on the staff as the purported assistant head coach. Titles matter if you’re a ward of the coach.
Instead of making his coach’s feet comfortable at all costs, Kraft should be holding those Nikes to the fire.
But he doesn’t look inclined to do so. Don’t let his comments and rhetorical barbs fool you. Kraft has always enjoyed a little public tweaking of Belichick, especially on failed free-agent spending. But that’s a long way from canning his canonized coach after another subpar season.
Kraft, who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, cares very much about his image and his legacy. At this stage, he doesn’t want to go down as the owner who effectively chose Belichick over Brady, then fired Belichick four seasons later. It’s not a great look being responsible for the messy exits of the greatest quarterback and coach of all-time.
So, he’ll huff and puff about not caring about Belichick chasing down Don Shula’s wins record of 347 (Belichick needs 19 more to break it) but he’s not blowing the Hoodie’s house down.
That’s why suddenly Kraft branded the team as being in a “transition phase” while saying Belichick is “exceptional at what he does” and stating, “I still believe in Bill.”
There were some words in there about it being a bottom-line business and “either you … win or you don’t” for effect, but the gist was pro-Belichick.
Even if Kraft wanted to move on, it would be wise to first implement real restraints and a real review of Belichick’s plenipotentiary power. It’s time for less ego, less free reign (intentional word choice), and more oversight.
The System hasn’t worked to remotely the same level sans Brady. That’s fact. In five seasons with other signal-callers as the starter (2000, 2008, 2020-22), , Belichick has zero playoff wins and one playoff appearance, in which Buffalo blew the Patriots’ doors off, 47-17.
The pickups of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki on team-friendly contracts are good moves, but they don’t move the needle enough to close the gap in the loaded AFC.
The Patriots look like an organization set on auto-pilot. They’re not deviating from their course.
For example, Kraft erroneously stated that the team hadn’t finished with a losing record in a long time before last year’s 8-9 mark. He protested when a question was later asked about two losing seasons in three years before being reminded about 7-9 in 2020.
Why did this happen? It’s not forgetfulness. The organization wrote off 2020 to COVID. By the way, Brady won a seventh Super Bowl that season.
That’s the issue. Accountability is lacking. Only Kraft can bring it. But he doesn’t seem to have the appetite for it in any form other than fan-pandering PR.
Kraft is sensitive to being perceived as a meddling owner. He remembers being mocked for being at a predraft workout with a stopwatch timing Tebucky Jones 25 years ago. He knows he erred in pushing out another decorated Bill (Parcells) as his coach.
Understandable. But the time to just nod your head and genuflect to Belichick has passed.
Where’s the owner who said during the owners meetings 14 years ago in Southern California there’s a difference between owning and renting?
It’s time to enact some substantive change in how business is conducted in Fort Foxborough, not perfunctory change like merely hiring a qualified offensive coordinator.
If Kraft wants his team’s results to change, then he must make real changes.
He can’t just talk a good game if the Patriots are going to play them.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.