Amid all the talk of Bill Belichick being on the hot seat, the NFL Network surprisingly reported on Oct. 22 that Belichick had “quietly signed a lucrative, multiyear contract extension” before the season.
Taken at its face, the report indicated that Belichick will be back with the Patriots next year. But two people close to the team believe the report was really Belichick sending a message to Robert and Jonathan Kraft:
Don’t forget that I signed a multiyear contract. If you fire me, I have a big, fat buyout coming, and I intend to collect every penny.
It’s hard not to blame Belichick if he’s a little paranoid. With the Patriots 2-6 entering Sunday’s game against the Commanders, the vultures are circling.
The Patriots have morphed into a veritable game of thrones, with several people battling for control of the organization and Belichick trying to hold on as long as he can. The game got more interesting on Tuesday when Josh McDaniels became available after being fired by the Raiders.
Let’s take a look at the competing personalities and where things might be heading for the 2024 Patriots.
Barring a miracle turnaround, it seems increasingly likely that this season is Belichick’s last in Foxborough. One source close to Belichick believes the “multiyear” extension he signed before this season just runs through 2024.
Based on my conversations, I don’t think it’s 100 percent that Belichick finishes out this season. These next two games before the bye are huge, particularly the Germany game, which is practically the team’s Super Bowl for the Krafts. If Belichick loses at home to the Commanders and then to the Colts, and comes home from Germany with a 2-8 record, I think there’s a chance the Krafts could make the move in the bye week and install Jerod Mayo as the interim coach for the final seven games.
I’m skeptical of the recent chatter that the Commanders would want to trade for Belichick, but the NFL is so crazy that you have to consider everything. The Patriots would probably pop champagne to get a draft pick and not have to pay Belichick’s buyout. In Washington, Belichick could get the band back together — Matt Patricia, McDaniels, and Joe Judge — and coach a few years until he breaks Don Shula’s record.
But much of it doesn’t add up. Belichick is the highest-paid coach in the game, and the Commanders’ ownership group doesn’t have a lot of cash to spend (new majority owner Josh Harris had to take on several partners to afford the team, and the NFL had to change its rules to approve the amount of debt Harris took on). Nor is hiring a soon-to-be 72-year-old Belichick a move that creates a lot of excitement about the future of the team. The Commanders seem much likelier to hire a young (i.e. cheap) offensive coach such as Eric Bieniemy or Ben Johnson than to invest in Belichick.
My gut feeling is that with Belichick, at his age, it’s the Patriots or nothing.
Two sources close to the Patriots have independently said the same thing: They believe Vrabel, currently the Titans’ coach, is the Krafts’ “home run” choice to succeed Belichick.
Vrabel was the 2021 NFL Coach of the Year, went to the playoffs in three of his first five seasons in Tennessee, and took the Titans to the 2020 AFC Championship game, which included a playoff win in Foxborough against Tom Brady. Vrabel has the cachet of being a former player, and has proven he can win big games. The report of Belichick’s contract conveniently came out the same day the Krafts feted Vrabel at Gillette Stadium, inviting the Titans coach to sit with them in the owners’ box for the Patriots-Bills game.
Vrabel got a new contract with the Titans in February 2022, but the Patriots perhaps have an opportunity to pry him loose and bring him “home” to Foxborough.
The Titans are 3-5 and their roster has fallen on hard times the last two years, mostly outside of Vrabel’s control (general manager Jon Robinson got fired). Will Levis might be the answer at quarterback, but it is way too early to tell. And there is chatter that Vrabel doesn’t always see eye to eye with new GM Ran Carthon, who was a surprise outside hire.
Just because Vrabel is the home run choice doesn’t mean it will happen. Vrabel is under contract with the Titans, and the Patriots would have to trade for him, likely at least one first-round pick. The Patriots are a team that needs to use its first-rounder next year, especially if they are in range for a top quarterback.
Then again, there is some symbolism for the Krafts, who also paid a first-round pick for Belichick in 2000.
Both sources also said the same thing: The Krafts’ home run hires for 2024 would include not only Vrabel, but bringing Nick Caserio back to run the front office.
It looked possible before this season that Caserio might be fired by Houston after two bad seasons. But the Texans are 3-4 and finally going in a positive direction under new coach DeMeco Ryans and rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, so it seems much less likely that Caserio would be let go. A trade for Caserio can’t be ruled out, but I doubt the Patriots would want to give up draft picks, especially if they are also doing so for Vrabel.
However, Ryans has the juice inside the building in Houston. If for some reason he decides that he wants his own hand-picked GM, Caserio could shake free for the Patriots.
He’s highly thought of by the Krafts, who gave Mayo a big raise last year to keep him off the head coaching market. Though his title is still linebackers coach, Mayo, 37, walks around Gillette Stadium with a noticeable confidence. He likely would be the interim coach if it ever came to that, and is a top candidate to replace Belichick next year.
Still, I don’t consider him a lock. Mayo choosing to sign a new contract with the Patriots may have been as much about not wanting to move his family. There are also questions about what type of staff Mayo would put together considering he has only coached for five years, and only in New England. McDaniels becoming available does help solve that issue, though.
I see a scenario where Vrabel or someone more established is named head coach, and Mayo is promoted to defensive coordinator with a raise and official title while he continues to learn.
It seems highly unlikely that McDaniels would return to Foxborough this season as a consultant, as he did in 2011. That arrangement would be too awkward for Bill O’Brien and the offensive coaches, and McDaniels probably wants to take a breather after being fired by the Raiders.
He’s still getting paid for four more years, so McDaniels doesn’t have to be in a hurry. Nevada also doesn’t have state income taxes, so whatever job McDaniels takes next, not only is he essentially coaching for free, he may be paying to coach in the form of higher taxes.
That said, once you’re out of the NFL, it’s really hard to get back in. And if the Patriots do offer to bring McDaniels back as offensive coordinator, I think he would jump at the opportunity, if for no other reason than to move his family back to Massachusetts.
Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski said this past week they see McDaniels returning to the Patriots at some point. McDaniels would be an ideal offensive coordinator — he’s qualified and accomplished, yet isn’t a threat to leave for another head coaching job. McDaniels did well with Mac Jones in 2021, and could be a stable offensive coach for whomever is the Patriots’ quarterback.
He’s still employed as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, but Gronkowski had an interesting take Wednesday on FanDuel’s “Up and Adams” show:
“I feel like Billy O’Brien may be out of [New England] after this year, so if that’s the case, I think Josh McDaniels comes back as offensive coordinator in New England.”
No one I’ve spoken to believes that O’Brien came to New England with long-term plans of being the offensive coordinator, because he wants to use the job as a springboard to a head coaching opportunity.
He could have been a candidate to succeed Belichick, but Jones’s struggles and the Patriots’ 31st-ranked scoring offense probably have squashed that. Now there are rumors that O’Brien, a former Penn State coach, could be headed back to college, with Michigan State looking for a new coach (and maybe Michigan, too).
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.