FOXBOROUGH — His hair combed back, his shirt sleeves rolled up, Robert Kraft looks like he’s ready to enjoy his Labor Day Weekend. Maybe a jaunt to Nantucket or another weekend getaway with Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez.
But the Patriots owner is plenty busy here in his office at Gillette Stadium. He’s putting the finishing touches on the franchise’s fifth banner ceremony, to be held at Thursday night’s season opener against the Chiefs. He’s fielding calls from NBC executives to discuss the logistics of the broadcast. He has a constant stream of guests and employees coming in and out of his office.
I was one of those guests last Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the Patriots kicked off their preseason finale against the Giants. Kraft accepted my request to talk about the upcoming season and some of the big issues facing the Patriots and the NFL, with one condition: football talk only. No politics, no Donald Trump.
But plenty is weighing on Kraft’s mind, from the Patriots’ chase for a sixth ring to Julian Edelman’s injury to Malcolm Butler’s future to Roger Goodell’s impending contract extension.
We sat down with Kraft for about 25 minutes, joined by Patriots communications director Stacey James. The conversation was edited for brevity.
“Fire away,” Kraft said.
Q: Are you ready for next Thursday night? I’ve got high expectations for the pregame ceremony.
A: “Yeah, we think we have a fun ceremony and something our fans will like. It should be very special. I was telling Stacey, think of me being a fan sitting in the stands. We had one playoff game in those 35 years, which we lost to Houston in ’78. And now we’ve owned the team 23 years and we’ve had 23 home playoff games, and we’ve won 20. So I sit back and I sort of pinch myself. We’re kicking off the season and we’re unfurling our fifth banner in 15 years, and how lucky we are.”
Q: How many times have you watched the last Super Bowl?
A: “Probably 15. Sometimes if I feel I’ve been a bad boy and I’ve got to do longer on the elliptical, if I have that [game], especially the second half, I can do it. I don’t like the first half at all.”
Q: Sounds like you’re not on the TB12 diet.
A: “No, no. Just the avocado ice cream.”
Q: So is this the most excited you’ve been for a season in a while?
A: “Yeah, I’m very excited, and I like this team a lot. This is a great blow with Julian. I hope someone will emerge, I hope our good pal Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] can stay on the field the whole time.”
Q: You guys made some out-of-character moves this offseason, with Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks. You almost never give big money to free agents. Are the Patriots going all-in this year?
A: “The Gilmore thing, I think part of that was we knew we had to fill that position. We tried with Malcolm, and I still hope we get Malcolm done, because I love Malcolm. But we need cooperation from the agent and the player both. I hope that still works out.”
“Look, I think Bill [Belichick’s] and Nick [Caserio’s] judgment by and large have been really solid in that area. [Gilmore’s] a guy they had a chance to watch twice a year. He’s a tall, rangy guy. It’s a hard position to fill. I think they felt with our system that he was good.”
“The Cooks thing, man, he’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. And genuine. He reminds us — just a more medium-sized Randy Moss, is how I look at it.”
Q: You write the checks, though. Were you surprised when they said they wanted to sign Gilmore (for five years and $65 million)?
A: “No, I mean, look — I’m a fan. I like to be a student of the game, but in any of our businesses I try to figure out what I don’t know, and then get people who do know. And I think I have confidence in Bill and our personnel people and Nick. They’ll make some errors, but by and large they know what they’re doing.”
Q: So, safe to say your philosophy is, “In Bill We Trust?”
A: “Well, yeah — with checks and balances. But our mutual objective is to put our franchise in the best position to win football games.”
Q: How are you handling the Edelman news?
A: “Yeah, that’s been one of the toughest things. It’s unbelievable the similarities between him and Tommy [Brady]. They were both quarterbacks in college, both drafted late, they both train together, they’re both at the top of their position. Julian had a knee injury in his ninth year, which is the same as Tommy, so we hope that’s a sign that he has at least nine more years to play.
“Our heart and soul goes out to him. Just say maybe we’ll search very hard to find a way that our fans can recognize him.”
Q: Are you disappointed you didn’t get nominated for the Hall of Fame? (Bobby Beathard received this year’s “contributor” nomination.)
A: “You know, whatever it is, it is. What we’re doing now is more meaningful to me, to be honest. And if we can continue to win and have something special, that to me is more rewarding than anything else.”
Q: Your quarterback wants to play another 5-6 years. Are you worried he could do a surprise retirement one day? You think he’d keep you in the loop?
A: “Yeah, I think he will. I remember coach [Bill] Parcells telling me, ‘These guys are going to play until they go feet first into the casket.’ That’s how they all think, and I think maybe there’s some truth to that. I think in Tommy’s case, he has such high standards for himself and the team, that if he feels he can’t perform at the highest level . . . because he’s not doing it for the money. He’s really doing it for the love of the game, and to win championships.”
Q: The longer he plays, the trickier it gets at that position. Curious how you feel about Jimmy Garoppolo, and how much have you thought about what you guys are going to do with him next offseason?
A: “I think Jimmy is great, and we’re lucky to have him here. But I also get people in the process who understand better than I [do]. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to weigh in and give them my thoughts. But I think we have a pretty good record in the personnel area. We’ll wait and see what happens at the end of the year. A lot of things happen that no one can plan.”
Q: Sounds like you’re willing to trust whatever the football department tells you.
Q: Roger Goodell’s contract is about to be extended through 2024. You were part of the six-person committee that decided. What went into that decision?
A: “The whole labor area is important and very fluid, and the whole area of media, which is our main source of revenue. But that’s a league-wide decision, there’s a full committee that decides that.”
Q: It’s probably important for the league to have continuity going into labor negotiations in 2021?
Q: Are you worried about the relationship between Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith? It’s been pretty toxic in the media.
A: “I’ve learned that I don’t believe everything I read in the newspapers, with all due respect.”
Q: We all know what you guys went through with the league, but are you generally happy with the job Roger is doing?
A: “Look, I think everyone knows we were treated unfairly, and there were bad judgments made and the whole thing was ridiculous. The good news is we won the Super Bowl, so I think in a way it helped strengthen our team and our organization. And in life, the people who succeed are the people who deal with adversity, even when things aren’t fair, and you come together, you bond together.”