Robert Kraft hoped things would end differently.
He’d spent the final years of a dying dynasty patching together a fraying relationship between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but in early 2020, it was all over. Separate conversations with his head coach and quarterback had kept the pair together long enough to win a sixth Super Bowl, a record-setting run. But both sides wanted a fresh start, so Kraft reluctantly watched Brady flee New England and win a Super Bowl in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Kraft had landed Belichick in 2000 following a one-day stint with the New York Jets. He was impressed by Belichick’s football prowess in 1996, when Belichick was an assistant under Bill Parcells with the Patriots. Kraft knew Belichick wasn’t as jovial or charismatic as his former boss, but the owner loved Belichick’s passion for the game and knowledge of it.
Their time together delivered unparalleled success. That’s why Kraft was content to stick with Belichick in 2020 as Brady went to the Bucs.
He knew the team was going to reset with Cam Newton at quarterback. He was excited the following year when Belichick drafted Mac Jones with the No. 15 pick, then watched as Jones’ rookie season ended with 10 wins and a playoff berth.
He thought the franchise was on an upward trajectory, a quick turnaround after watching the greatest quarterback leave. He thought Belichick had figured things out post-Brady and would remain the team’s coach until he chose to retire. Maybe it would come after Belichick broke Don Shula’s all-time wins record, or maybe it would come several years later. It seemed Belichick would have the Patriots job for as long as he wanted.
But since then, the Patriots have fallen apart.
That’s why on Thursday, Kraft made arguably the biggest decision in his 30 years of owning the team, deciding to split with Belichick after a 4-13 season. Since Brady left, the Patriots are 29-38, a spiraling team that’s been without direction in recent years.
Belichick out as Pats coach after 24 years, 6 Super Bowls
Kraft and Belichick met in recent days to discuss how they wanted to proceed. They had cordial and professional conversations, but they left the two men under the same impression. Change was needed. Belichick, 71, gets to reset and find a new landing spot to chase Shula’s record, needing 15 more wins to surpass him. Kraft, 82, now seeks a new coach to usher the Patriots into a new era with eyes on modernizing the franchise and welcoming more collaboration.
Even if it ended amid a downturn, Belichick exits as the most successful head coach in NFL history, a winner of six Super Bowls and owner of a 333-178 record (including the playoffs) over 24 seasons with the Patriots, a run of dominance that may never be matched. One day, there will probably be a statue of the coach outside Gillette Stadium and a shrine to him inside it.
But for now, the Patriots are left to grapple with the reality of today, that they’ve just parted with the best coach of all time. The Athletic spoke with multiple team and league sources to piece together how it got to the point where Kraft and the Patriots felt their best course of action was to end one of the most successful coaching tenures in pro sports history.
Kraft and Belichick never had a rosy relationship, but they complemented each other well. Kraft is an extrovert, a people pleaser who enjoys chatting with everyone in the room. Belichick is the opposite. Kraft often balanced out Belichick, someone who could provide a pick-me-up to players and staff during the toughest days working for Belichick. That included the greatest quarterback of all time.
During his final years in New England, Brady was sick of being antagonized by his head coach. Belichick was quick to critique Brady, often doing so in front of the entire team. That’s part of how he got so much success out of Brady, who was at his best when he played with a chip on his shoulder. That relationship yielded three MVP awards and nine Super Bowl appearances.
But day after day, month after month, year after year, that lack of recognition wore on Brady, who vented to Kraft. At one point in his final season with the Patriots, Brady bemoaned that he was, “the most miserable 8-0 quarterback in league history.”
But the relationship between Kraft and Belichick wasn’t always positive either. Like he did with many people, according to a team source, Belichick would walk past Kraft in the halls of Gillette Stadium without saying a word. They only chatted when necessary for work reasons. Belichick seemed to go out of his way to needle his boss.
In March, Kraft unveiled a $25 million campaign to fight antisemitism called “Stand Up To Jewish Hate.” He did so while at the league meetings in Arizona. He passed out little blue square lapels to raise awareness. Several prominent people within the NFL wore them. Before a 30-minute sitdown with reporters, Belichick was handed one of the squares. He placed it at the bottom of his button-down shirt where it couldn’t be seen by cameras.
During the interview, Belichick was lobbed a softball question about the pin he was wearing. “It’s Mr. Kraft’s initiative,” he said, a four-word response to a question that could’ve easily led to a compliment about what his boss was doing away from football. When asked a follow-up question, Belichick only said, “I support it.”
According to several team and league sources, Belichick felt Kraft didn’t show him enough gratitude and offered veiled shots about the team’s dated facility, while seldom mentioning Patriots ownership by name. Kraft, meanwhile, felt he had given Belichick everything he had asked for, including full control over the roster, unlimited spending power and the most lucrative coaching contract in NFL history — but Belichick offered no public appreciation in return.
Kraft expected the Pats to be competitive after two seasons of lower expectations post-Brady. But 2022 was a mess. Belichick trusted his offense with a former defensive coordinator (Matt Patricia) and former special teams coordinator (Joe Judge). The result was predictable. Jones and the Patriots offense regressed across the board, the biggest culprit for their 8-9 record, which saw them miss the playoffs.
After the season, Kraft made his frustration known. He stressed publicly that he wanted the Patriots to be back in the playoffs and back to competing for division and conference titles.
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Belichick got the message. He hired a new and legitimate offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien and molded the defense as he saw fit, using his top three draft picks on that side of the ball. He figured he’d zig while the rest of the league zagged, choosing to focus on stopping the run and special teams in a league that emphasized the passing game.
That’s why Belichick allocated so few resources to the offense while dedicating seven full-time players to special teams. The first offensive player he drafted last spring was a guard with the 107th pick who played 13 offensive snaps this season. The only meaningful free-agent signing on that side of the ball was wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a veteran slot receiver who came with injury concerns. Smith-Schuster struggled from the very start of training camp. After posting only 260 receiving yards in 11 games in the first year of a contract that saw him earn $16 million guaranteed, he’ll go down as one of Belichick’s biggest whiffs.
Perhaps most maddening was that Belichick had several chances to improve the offense. The Patriots hosted free-agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a visit in June. But Belichick didn’t offer Hopkins the $13 million per season the Titans did, so Hopkins went to Tennessee and posted another 1,000-yard season. Meanwhile, no Patriots receiver has reached 1,000 yards since Julian Edelman in 2019.
Belichick didn’t think Hopkins was worth the money. He knew the Patriots’ offensive roster wasn’t as good as some others around the league, but he thought his team could avoid mistakes, play a fundamentally sound game and win on the margins. Perhaps all of that would be enough to compete for a division title. Instead, Belichick failed in both his roster construction and in his assessment of whether his coaching could make up for the team’s deficiencies.
The way the New England defense played down the stretch of a lost season showed Belichick can still coach. He has an unrivaled knowledge of the game, and his defensive game plans, even in a horrible 2023 season, continue to thwart opposing offenses.
But Belichick long thought he could win with simply average quarterback play, even after working with Brady for so long. If the QB avoided major mistakes, Belichick figured the team would be good enough on defense and special teams to contend. But Belichick’s most costly blunder came at the game’s most important position.
After an impressive rookie campaign from Jones that saw him earn a Pro Bowl nod, Belichick had to make some changes following offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ departure to Las Vegas. Belichick made Judge the quarterbacks coach but used Patrcia as the primary offensive play caller.
Under their tutelage, Jones fell apart. His confidence took a hit as his numbers dipped, dropping from 7.3 yards per attempt and 22 touchdowns in 2021 to 6.8 yards per attempt and just 14 touchdowns in 2022. He was frustrated with the coaching he was getting and sought outside opinions, something that angered Belichick.
In the offseason, Belichick wasn’t willing to bury the hatchet. Instead of building up his young quarterback for a bounceback, the coach went out of his way to avoid any positive remarks about Jones. Belichick was upset that, in his eyes, Jones had disrespected his coaching that year by seeking opinions from outside the building and complaining openly on the field.
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So Belichick didn’t commit to him publicly. He let Jones’ top wide receiver, Jakobi Meyers, leave in free agency so he could sign Smith-Schuster. When asked specifically in March if Jones was the starting quarterback, Belichick only said, “Everybody will get a chance to play.”
The move confused many within the building. They’d used a first-round pick on Jones. Then, just two years later, Belichick couldn’t be bothered to confirm Jones was the quarterback?
Instead of motivating Jones, the move knocked the confidence of an already-shaken quarterback. Coupled with a shaky offensive line and wide receivers who struggled to create separation, Jones was a mess. His mechanics fell apart. He didn’t trust his reads and he panicked under pressure. He finished 2023 with 6.1 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and now seems likely to head elsewhere this offseason, a remarkable downfall from the promise of his rookie season.
The walls leading into the football department at Gillette Stadium are adorned with photos of the major moments from the franchise’s 64-year existence. There’s John Hannah and Steve Grogan from the early days, Andre Tippett from the 1980s and all the major figures from this century: Tom Brady, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Vince Wilfork, Mike Vrabel, Julian Edelman and on and on.
But one notable player is missing: Wes Welker.
With the Patriots, Welker became one of the best receivers in the NFL, leading the league in receptions three times. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and ranks third in receiving yards.
But Welker left the Patriots amid a contract dispute in 2013 to go to the AFC-rival Denver Broncos. He didn’t feel appreciated by Belichick. The coach, in turn, felt Welker should’ve shown more deference to the organization that turned him into a star and accepted the lower contract offers the Patriots made.
The two have yet to mend fences. Welker is now the wide receivers coach for the division-rival Miami Dolphins. When the Patriots needed an offensive coordinator last year, Welker wasn’t considered. Welker was back in Foxboro in September for a Week 2 game against the Patriots. During warmups, Welker and Belichick were on the field at the same time. They avoided eye contact.
The way Belichick has visibly scrubbed Welker from Patriots history helps explain why there is fear within the organization of crossing the head coach. Belichick is slow to trust and holds grudges. It’s part of why many believe Belichick will seek another coaching job: so he can chase Don Shula’s all-time coaching wins record after Shula said the Patriots’ 2007 Spygate controversy “diminished” what they accomplished.
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Under Belichick, very few in the organization had the sway to make even small suggestions to the head coach. Scouts spent years getting to know prospects but were quickly overruled by Belichick once he began his draft prep.
It’s also part of why Belichick kept his coaching staff so small. He employed only eight assistant coaches on offense this season, the fewest in the league. That was especially problematic this season when two coaches left midseason — offensive line coach Adrian Klemm due to a health matter and wide receivers coach Ross Douglas for the same job at Syracuse.
Many of Belichick’s most trusted advisors also left or retired in recent years. McDaniels, Brian Flores, Dante Scarnecchia, Ivan Fears, Ernie Adams, Nick Caserio, Dave Ziegler and Monti Ossenfort took with them 132 years of collective experience with Belichick.
Between that and the organizational structure — with Belichick in charge of all football matters — there were very few in the building capable of pushing back on him. An already reclusive coach became even more siloed. For so long, Belichick didn’t need much pushback. He was almost always right, and when he wasn’t, Brady covered up the warts. But without Brady, Belichick’s missteps were amplified.
He also struggled to relate to the young players joining the team. Belichick is notoriously faint with praise. He grew up in a military environment and gives orders, not explanations. Recognition comes via a paycheck, not a shout-out or a pat on the back. It also didn’t help that with each passing year, there were fewer connections in the locker room to the Super Bowl-winning teams, which meant fewer players to vouch for the fact that all the tough moments with Belichick would be worth it.
That leadership style has flown in the face of what NFL owners have sought in recent years. The 49ers, Chiefs, Bengals and Rams, for example, have all promoted collaboration, with players often working with coaches rather than for them.
Most inside the Patriots organization believe the game has not passed Belichick by. He still knows how to coach, still loves to teach and still knows how to build a game plan as well as anyone. It’s that the organizational structure, his roster construction and his leadership methods are outdated and have allowed the rest of the league to overtake the Patriots. Belichick was always willing to change on the football field, trying different schemes and styles. But he hasn’t changed who he is or how he functions.
Belichick first arrived in New England 25 years ago, fresh off a resignation from the Jets he scrawled on a napkin. It’ll go down as the best decision Kraft ever made.
If all goes as Kraft hopes, Belichick will return in the coming years for celebrations of the greatness over which he presided. But Kraft couldn’t avoid the downward spiral the Patriots have been on since getting blown out 47-14 in the wild-card round of the 2021 playoffs. They’re 12-22 since then. They finished the 2023 season ranked tied for last in points scored.
Kraft once hoped Belichick would find enough success in the post-Brady years that he’d stick with the Patriots until he wanted to hang up the whistle, content then to retire to his compound on Nantucket.
But the Patriots have collapsed into one of the worst teams in the NFL. Kraft decided he could no longer wait around and let Belichick keep his job as a lifetime achievement award.
The Patriots, Kraft decided, are so badly in need of a fresh start and a new voice that it’s worth saying goodbye to the most productive coach in league history.
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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Winslow Townson, Maddie Meyer and Elsa / Getty Images)
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