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christopher l. gasper

If frugality led to the Patriots’ downfall, blame Bill Belichick, not Robert Kraft

Bill Belichick (left) and Robert Kraft went their separate ways as of Jan. 11.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Bill Belichick still has a hold on the heartstrings of many Patriots observers, understandably given the unprecedented success he played a part in bringing to Fort Foxborough. Perhaps that’s why some refuse to take owner Robert Kraft at his word that Belichick controlled the player purse strings for the Patriots.

Kraft met with reporters in Las Vegas ahead of the Super Bowl and took the time to stomp out one simmering narrative/Belichick defense strategy following the legendary coach’s departure after 24 seasons — that he lacked the financial resources from ownership to execute his post-Tom Brady rebuild.

“I know there’s a perception that we have held back on spending,” Kraft said last Thursday. “Let me just say, for our fans, that’s just not true.”

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The buck stopped with Belichick, literally, when it came to player spending. His competitiveness on the field as a coach often translated to contract negotiations with players. In fact, Patriots players like Vince Wilfork and Brady knew that when you reached a payment impasse with the cost-conscious Belichick, you went to ownership to get the offer to go up. Purported ownership parsimony is not why the Patriots management method imploded post-Brady, culminating in a 4-13 disaster in 2023.

The canonized coach is an X’s-and-O’s mastermind, but he has also proven masterful at ducking and dodging direct responsibility for the Patriots’ downturn, at least publicly.

After being removed from his throne and surprisingly not getting another NFL coaching crown, how convenient is it to hint that ownership is to blame for a philosophy and a policy that stopped getting results? The Krafts let Belichick run football operations unfettered until he ran the team into the ground.

For years, Belichick fawners have stated that the Krafts shouldn’t meddle in football matters. Leave Belichick alone to make all the decisions. That’s what they did, with scant exceptions. But now the Krafts should’ve meddled and made Bargain Bill spend more money because it’s their team?

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Please.

Yes, the Patriots ranked 31st in cash spending in 2023. But that’s not anything new. They enjoyed great success there when they had the built-in advantage of Brady.

Admittedly, no owner is going to object to an executive who runs his department more efficiently financially.

Kraft told reporters: “Look, we were blessed to have a coach in our system who was a great coach and also understood value. He ran a tight ship. They say we’ve been low spenders in the last 10 years, and that might be true. But we had a pretty good record. … Our coaches have always had the ability to spend at whatever level they wanted.”

The approach worked for all credit-craving parties until it didn’t. Belichick, who majored in economics at Wesleyan, didn’t adjust his system as needed.

There were times when people in the organization would’ve preferred the coach spend more freely. But Belichick felt it wasn’t the right move. Perhaps he was concerned it would disrupt the delicate hierarchy of the locker room or he didn’t want to tie up salary-cap space or he wanted to cement his authority over his players.

All that was his prerogative as football operations potentate.

One of those cases may have happened last offseason with free agent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who visited Foxborough in June. Hopkins ended up signing a two-year, $26 million deal with the Titans that included $10.98 million guaranteed in 2023, plus $900,000 in per-game roster bonuses and $3 million in performance incentives.

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It’s a deal the Patriots could’ve done to bolster a flimsy receiving corps and aid quarterback Mac Jones.

Instead, New England deemed the price tag on Hopkins too high, and handed DeVante Parker a two-year contract extension that included $9.1 million in guarantees.

Hopkins had 75 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. Parker finished with 33 catches for 394 yards and zero touchdowns.

The allusions to the Hoodie being handcuffed by finances — both salary cap and cash spending — never arose until the team’s performance started to decline following an incredible 19 consecutive winning seasons from 2001 to 2019.

Then the Wall Street-level balance sheet creative storytelling by Belichick began.

It was during a 7-9 season with Cam Newton that Belichick first broached reputed financial restraints. He told old friend and former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis in a radio interview that the team lacked the requisite roster depth because it was a reset year for the club’s cap spending.

He expounded upon that on WEEI, saying the team had “sold out” to win three Super Bowls.

Following the 2020 season, the team splurged in free agency, doling out approximately $175 million in guarantees, a then-NFL record. However, the season ended with four losses in the final five games, including a 47-17 playoff evisceration by the Bills.

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It was after that promising season went poof that Belichick uncharacteristically revealed that the team ranked 27th out of 32 teams in cash spending between 2020-22.

“Couple years we’re low. One year was high, but over a three-year period, we are one of the lowest-spending teams in the league,” Belichick said in a stunning and cunning disclosure.

He later clarified those comments with the Globe and cited ownership’s commitment to spending to the cap, sounding like a detainee forced to renounce his country.

But the damage was done and the seed planted. Fast-forward to this season and the Belichick-generated spending issue remains a talking point relative to the team’s fall from gridiron grace.

Of course, one of the reasons the Patriots’ cash spending is low is tied to Belichick’s personnel decisions. The team missed on early-round draft picks who would’ve garnered lucrative contract extensions if they had panned out, guys like Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, and N’Keal Harry.

And Belichick failed to reach contact extensions with safety Kyle Dugger, pass rusher Josh Uche, and right tackle Michael Onwenu, all productive picks from the Class of 2020 in the final year of their rookie deals last season.

Plus, Belichick remained resistant to the escalating quarterback cost. He didn’t want to pay Brady or any QB market value. Quarterbacks drive cash spending in the NFL.

But the whispers, allusions, insinuations, and thinly veiled accusations that the Krafts didn’t spend enough on the roster represent an attempt to shift blame for a bill that finally came due for Belichick.

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Take Kraft at his word. He’s on the money here.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.