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Kelley: Mudslinging After Breaking Up Benefits Nobody

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick meets with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, left, before an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

This past week the New England Patriots ended their 24-year relationship with Bill Belichick. The winningest head coach of the NFL’s Super Bowl Era had brought the franchise nine AFC Championships and six Super Bowl titles. Team owner Robert Kraft reiterated words like amicable, mutual, and ‘parting ways’ when describing the breakup in their joint press conference. Not having this being reported as a mere firing seemed extremely important.

Belichick proclaimed, “I’ll always be a Patriot.” His was gracious in his praise of Kraft and the organization. He stated his appreciation of them giving him an opportunity 24 years ago, and great support throughout his tenure. Kraft returned the gratitude, and cited Belichick as “the greatest coach of all-time.”

It is rare for any relationship to end on such cordial terms. In this instance however, both sides appeared to be getting what they wanted. Bill Belichick will likely get paid his full salary for 2024, while being able to join a new franchise without compensation. Robert Kraft was able to move on from Belichick without looking like a villain in doing so. It was a nice way for such a successful run to end. Unfortunately, it didn’t last for long.

Robert Kraft Press Conference

Just hours after the joint Kraft-Belichick press conference, Robert Kraft held a press conference of his own. Kraft answered questions from the media, something not done at the earlier session. Among the topics covered was the decision not to allow Belichick to remain as head coach while diminishing some of his power within the organization.

“When you have someone like Bill (Belichick), who’s had control over every decision, every coach we hire, the organization reports to him on the draft, and how much money we spend. Every decision has been his, and we’ve always supported him,” Kraft explained.

But Kraft also talked of a need for “checks and balances” within the organization, and not letting one person be able to make so many decisions without such checks and balances in place. In other words, he discussed the need to move away from the structure of the franchise under Bill Belichick. The amicable and mutual parting of the ways was suddenly looking a bit less amicable or mutual.

Robert Kraft also answered a question by stating, “you know Bill as well as I do” to the gathered media. That does not sound like a relationship Kraft compared to a marriage multiple times during his comments.

Blaming Bill Belichick for Everything

Whether it was the intended message of the New England Patriots, the moves in the aftermath of the Bill Belichick departure spoke volumes. The Patriots named Jerod Mayo as head coach, replacing Belichick from his own staff without conducting any outside interviews. Mayo’s hiring was not a big surprise, as he was considered the heir apparent for the job since staying in New England after the 2022 season. But Mayo only replaced one of Belichick’s roles. The front office controlled by Bill Belichick for decades would also need a new leader.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported this weekend that the New England Patriots are in no hurry to hire a GM and may wait until after the draft to do so. Further reports surfaced that the Patriots might not hire a general manager at all, instead giving added responsibilities to current front office members Matt Groh and Eliot Wolf (both listed among my eight candidates to replace Belichick in the front office). But once again, what sticks out here is that Kraft felt comfortable replacing Belichick from within, without even interviewing outside candidates.

Based on both the head coach hiring and lack of movement in a front office search, the message from Robert Kraft is clear: Things will improve in New England simply by Bill Belichick’s removal. It is a bold strategy, but is it a wise one?

ESPN Article

Seth Wickersham and friends at ESPN are not newcomers to writing salacious articles about the New England Patriots. The departure of Bill Belichick from New England provided them with their latest opportunity. There were many accusations labeled at both sides in the article, none of which do anybody any good.

Bill Belichick reportedly wanted to trade Tom Brady in the early 2010’s and wanted to trade Mac Jones last season. The move to trade Jones was overruled by Robert Kraft, who insisted on bringing in a new offensive coordinator (Bill O’Brien) to replace Matt Patricia instead, in the hopes it would get Mac Jones back on track. It did not. Belichick is also rumored in the piece to have thought the Krafts meddled too much in football decisions and had a strained relationship with team president Jonathan Kraft (who was noticeably absent from the press conferences, and not mentioned by Belichick).

An anonymous assistant coach stated the Krafts “should be ashamed of themselves” for how Belichick was treated at the end.

The Athletic Article

Jeff Howe of The Athletic reported Sunday that there was a lot of tension in New England Patriots decision making. Scouts had felt ignored, thinking Bill Belichick was free to overrule all of their suggestions. For his part, Belichick allowed the consensus to rule in the 2021 NFL Draft. This led to the drafting of Mac Jones in the first round, while Belichick would have preferred waiting to take Stanford QB Davis Mills further down the road. As a result, Belichick was coaching a franchise quarterback he apparently did not believe in.

For the record, Davis Mills has not turned out to be an incredible NFL quarterback either. His record as a starting QB in the NFL is 5-19-1. The Texans used the second overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to select his replacement, C.J. Stroud. But to the bigger point, contrary to what Robert Kraft said about Belichick having absolute power over decision-making, this report strongly suggests that was not the case.

My Two Cents

Long before I covered the New England Patriots, I was a Boston sports fan. For four decades I followed the happenings of the Boston sports scene, religiously reading sports pages. Not once in that time has badmouthing and finger pointing after somebody left the building benefited anybody involved.

To be clear, this “parting of the ways” was Bill Belichick being fired. Amicable and mutual are certainly up for debate. Both parties have large egos, which is understandable and okay. Both want to save face in the eyes of the public. Thus far, it has been a failure.

More than anything, Robert Kraft wants to separate himself from Tom Brady exiting New England. More than five seasons without a playoff win, or a 4-13 record in 2023, Kraft wishes he could turn back time to ensure Brady never joined the Buccaneers and won his seventh Super Bowl away from Foxboro. If that meant firing Belichick following a 2018 Super Bowl title, he’d go back and do it. For whatever meddling the Krafts are accused of, they apparently failed to meddle in the decision that haunts them most.

As for Bill Belichick, he always ran the Patriots with an eye toward keeping them competitive long-term. Even when that meant saying goodbye to players he greatly valued, including Tom Brady, he was willing to do so. The result was the most successful run in NFL history, one which will not be equaled in my lifetime.

The New England Patriots and their fans should be incredibly grateful for the Bill Belichick Era in New England. The franchise is lucky to have had him. Likewise, Patriots fans are fortunate Robert Kraft has presided over the organization as Chairman and CEO for the past 30 years. This other stuff doesn’t really matter now and serves nobody any benefit to harp on it.

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