The two pillars of the Patriots’ remarkable, unkillable dynasty, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, share a common competitive drive and co-authorship of six Super Bowl titles. Closer to the end of their brilliant careers than the beginning, they’re also sharing a similar approach. Neither man is budging an inch to clear the way for an eventual successor. Their enviable longevity atop the NFL includes sinking succession plans and outlasting would-be replacements.
Belichick The GM is Jimmy Garoppolo-ing director of player personnel Nick Caserio, who earlier this month was blocked by the Patriots from interviewing for the Houston Texans’ vacant general manager’s job. After the Patriots threatened tampering charges and the teams couldn’t agree on compensation, the Texans abandoned their pursuit of Caserio, citing a clause in his contract that prevents him from taking another job.
Just as Brady rendered the succession plan at quarterback — and Jimmy G’s Patriots career — obsolete with his staying power and desire to keep doing his job, Belichick is doing the same to Caserio, whose contract expires after the 2020 NFL Draft. As long as Belichick is in place at Patriot Place, there’s a gridiron glass ceiling for anyone else in the organization who aspires to be a full-fledged NFL general manager. They have to leave the New England nest as long as Belichick rules the roost.
Continuity in key roles (coach/GM, quarterback, offensive coordinator) constitutes one of the Patriots’ chief competitive advantages, but it comes with a downside. It’s a roadblock to career advancement and talent retention. The only way to move up the ladder is to move on from Fort Foxborough.
Promotions and advancements are bottlenecked. Upward mobility is paused. Talented people such as Caserio, director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort, and Jon Hamm doppelganger/director of pro scouting Dave Ziegler are marooned on the same rung of the advancement ladder. It’s a high-class problem, one created by the Patriots’ culture of excellence.
In a wave of coaching and football ops departures, there have been some talented folks leaving the team this offseason, some frustrated by their lack of opportunity for a promotion or increased responsibility. Caserio’s situation is more nuanced.
The Houston job, which he was also blocked from interviewing for in 2018, is unique because of the presence of former Patriots offensive coordinator and current Texans coach Bill O’Brien. Caserio and O’Brien are close friends, a friendship that extends well beyond football.
“It was a chance to work with his buddy, and finally have a chance to run the building,” said a source with knowledge of Caserio’s situation. “He told Belichick he’s super grateful for every opportunity he’s been given. But it would be absurd to request that [Houston-type] opportunity there, and he never would.
“Based on age, at some point, he’ll be given the opportunity. I think he would love that. I think he knows to not desire it or request it in New England because of the gentleman he reports to. If Coach wants to make it 10 more years, maybe he will.
“I think the appeal for Nick was the opportunity to work with someone who he is extremely close with. I don’t think the same would have been true in other places.”
The 43-year-old Caserio believed under NFL policy he should’ve been able to interview for the job. The source said that Caserio, Belichick, owner Robert Kraft, and team president Jonathan Kraft cleared the air on their disagreement, and it was back to business as usual, with all parties focused on the upcoming season.
“It was a tough week and a half, but I’m certain it’s behind all parties, or at least it seems to be,” said the source.
The 2019 season will be Caserio’s 19th with the team, 17th in player personnel. He is a valued part of the organization, a jack of all trades who can evaluate players and be a trusted eye in the sky in the coaches’ booth on game day. Belichick’s football ops aide-de-camp, he enjoys more authority and responsibility than most.
Caserio genuinely enjoys learning from Belichick. Still, it’s not easy for anyone under Belichick’s employ. It’s demanding and grinding. Even if you’re given more opportunity and autonomy behind the scenes, he’s going to get all the credit. The shadow he casts is long and inescapable when you’re part of his football fiefdom.
Colleague Ben Volin connected the dots in common sense fashion. Caserio is open to advancement. That can’t happen in Foxborough with Belichick entrenched. Therefore, he’s open to leaving the Patriots for the right job. The key phrase being “the right job.” Caserio won’t leave for just any job.
“If the idea is that he wants to go somewhere else or is anxious to go somewhere, I don’t think that’s fair,” said the source with knowledge of Caserio’s situation. “I think it was strictly an opportunity to work with a friend and to have more authority, which isn’t desired in New England but is desired if he goes elsewhere.”
The source confirmed that Caserio’s contract runs through next year’s draft and indicated it wouldn’t be shocking if Caserio re-upped with the Patriots, but sans any prohibitive clause that prevents him from pursuing other jobs.
Of course, he also could leave for Houston since the Texans haven’t filled their GM job and plan to do it by committee this year.
The Patriots are walking a fine line between guarding their own institutional secrets/protecting an organizational asset and blocking career advancement. The latter is a bad look, especially with 67-year-old Belichick entering his 20th season as coach and not looking like he plans on abdicating his throne any time soon.
Caserio has been director of player personnel since 2008. The team hasn’t even graced him with the title that Scott Pioli had in his final years, vice president of player personnel. Titles aren’t everything. But if Caserio is so valuable, why doesn’t he have the VP title? He should’ve received it yesterday.
“Respect people, pay them, give them the title,” said a former member of the organization. “There’s nobody better than the Patriots. But it’s always . . . You got to treat people right.”
Or let them leave for more responsibility in lieu of that. Instead, it’s the Patriots needing to have it their way, which is the real Patriot Way, a one-way street.
There’s a sense that some folks who were part of the offseason exodus felt stunted or underappreciated, and some who remain may share those sentiments.
“There are people that have put in major work, and you don’t take care of them. To me it’s not Robert Kraft, it’s the head coach,” said the former member of the organization. “You win championships, you don’t have to pay attention to that. You’re on top, why would you care? They lost a lot of good people.”
Belichick isn’t going anywhere. The Michelangelo of football management deserves to go out on his own terms. But that doesn’t mean that in-house heirs apparent are obligated to obediently wait around like pets.
No one wants to think about life after Brady and Belichick, but one day it will be here. The question is, who will be here to aid that transition?
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.