Over the years at Super Bowls and other NFL events, Robert Kraft has been asked by reporters about his relationship with Bill Belichick and how he came to hire him in 2000.
Kraft’s responses have always gone down the same path: He was struck by Belichick’s football brilliance, attention to detail, and background in economics.
“To be good in the business of football today — and good to me is not being good one year, but try to sustain it year in and year out — you have to understand economics and you have to understand value,” Kraft said near the end of his team’s almost-magical 2007 season. “I think every discussion I had with Bill, he understood value.”
The concept of value helped the Patriots win six championships and dominate the NFL for 20 years. On the field and on the salary-cap ledger, the Patriots were better than any team at working the margins, identifying undervalued assets, and exploiting loopholes.
It worked brilliantly when Tom Brady was leading the franchise to unprecedented heights. But “value” has since become a negative in Foxborough.
The Patriots’ obsession with finding value — constantly looking for ways to spend 50 cents on the dollar — is why they are 2-8 and at their lowest point since Kraft bought the franchise 30 seasons ago.
That obsession has seeped into every crevice of Gillette Stadium, weakening the core of a once-dominant franchise.
It started, of course, with the Patriots not properly valuing Brady. The Patriots are just 27-33 and 0-1 in the playoffs since Brady left for Tampa Bay in 2020, and it’s not because Belichick or Kraft fundamentally changed his ways.
Brady, we have discovered, was the reason the Patriots were always well-disciplined and executed under pressure. He was the reason free agents came to New England, why players took less money, accepted a lesser role, or put the team ahead of themselves. Brady was the reason the Patriots weren’t just good year after year, they were great.
But since at least 2018, Belichick didn’t value Brady’s role not only as quarterback but as field general, locker room leader, and pied piper. A quote from an unnamed Patriots coach in Ian O’Connor’s book “Belichick” said it all:
“If you gave us any of the top 15 [quarterbacks], we could do it. I don’t think the coaches view Tom as special as everyone else in football does.”
Kraft ultimately didn’t value Brady, either, once he turned 43. All Brady wanted was two years and $50 million guaranteed, a bargain for an elite quarterback. Kraft could have interceded and kept Brady in New England for his career, but wouldn’t do it.
The Buccaneers took him, and Brady promptly won a Super Bowl, plus two division titles. The Patriots have been largely irrelevant with Cam Newton and Mac Jones.
Quarterbacks and other players
Disrespecting Brady was only the beginning. The Patriots haven’t valued the quarterback position and afforded it the respect it deserves.
They invested four years into developing Jimmy Garoppolo, then traded him in 2017 for relatively little. They didn’t attempt another succession plan, letting Brady leave with no one remotely ready to take over. In 2020, their strategy was, “Sign the last guy available for cheap” (Newton), and in 2021 it was “Draft the guy who falls to us at No. 15″ (Jones). In both cases, the Patriots got exactly what they paid for.
Kraft and Belichick also stopped valuing players. The bedrock of their two Super Bowl dynasties was drafting, developing, and retaining their own — guys such as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, and Julian Edelman. But lately the Patriots are all too happy to let quality players leave.
They wouldn’t re-sign good players who wanted fair-market contracts such as Joe Thuney, Jakobi Meyers, and J.C. Jackson. They drove off veterans such as Brady, Gronkowski, Stephon Gilmore, and Malcolm Butler with tight-fisted negotiations.
Other than one spend-happy offseason in 2021 — which Kraft has derided as being not worth it — the Patriots have been one of the lowest-spending teams on cash salaries in recent years (32nd in 2020, 27th in 2022, 31st in 2023). The result has been a roster lacking high-end talent, and a locker room short on leadership and institutional knowledge.
With coaches, the Patriots have been looking for value instead of the best people for the job. According to multiple sources, former Patriots coaches often saw their paychecks double when they joined other teams.
The Patriots’ plans to replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator have been disasters. Last year they hired Matt Patricia, a career defensive coach, and Joe Judge, a special teams coach, because they were Belichick’s trusted friends and were still being paid by the Lions and Giants. This year, they hired Bill O’Brien because he was a Patriot 10 years ago and Kraft trusted him.
The Patriots didn’t value their position coaches, either. A big part of their success from 2011-19 was continuity — the same coordinators and position coaches building a culture that won three Super Bowls in five years.
But the Patriots treated their assistants as replaceable cogs, declining to give them title promotions or competitive pay. The result has left the Patriots with a mishmash staff where the priorities appear to be nepotism and value, not the best men for the job.
They let talented coaches such as Brian Daboll and Ray Ventrone build their careers elsewhere. They let their assistant coaches go into the 2018 season with expiring contracts, and let the staff disband even after winning a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski and defensive line coach Brendan Daly left for lateral jobs in 2019. The Patriots put up little resistance when Brian Flores took receivers coach Chad O’Shea and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer to Miami, or when Jack Easterby took a player development role with the Texans.
In 2021, the Patriots parted ways with offensive line coach Cole Popovich instead of finding a solution to keep him after he refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Popovich was long developed as Dante Scarnecchia’s protégé, and the Patriots’ offensive line has struggled the last two years with Patricia and Adrian Klemm taking over.
In 2022, the Patriots again put up no fight when McDaniels brought offensive coaches Mick Lombardi and Bo Hardegree to Las Vegas. In 2023, they let tight ends coach Nick Caley leave for the same job with the Rams.
The message to the Patriots’ coaches has been clear: To get a promotion or competitive paycheck, it has to be elsewhere.
Finally, the Patriots also stopped valuing their own facilities — at least when it comes to football. Kraft put $250 million last year into renovating the fan side of Gillette Stadium, but the football facilities apparently are lacking.
An anonymous player survey last year from the NFL Players Association ranked the Patriots 24th out of 32 teams, describing the practice facilities as “old, dated, and in need of renovation.” The weight room got a D and ranked 31st. Most alarmingly, “only 64 percent of players believe club owner Robert Kraft is willing to spend the money necessary for upgrades, ranking him 26th in this category.”
Having outdated facilities isn’t why the Patriots are 2-8 this year. But they are a reflection of the organization’s priorities, and could hurt them in attracting the best candidates to be their next head coach and general manager.
Kraft this past March acknowledged that the Patriots are in a “transition phase” as the Brady era grows increasingly distant. But he didn’t expect the Patriots to hit rock-bottom.
Kraft can point to poor quarterback play, bad drafting, and unfortunate injuries, but to get back to their winning ways, the Patriots need to change their definition of the word “value.” They need to stop valuing the bottom line and start valuing people again.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.