At some point this weekend, I expect the Patriots—either owner Robert Kraft or coach Bill Belichick, or both—could come out swinging against Seth Wickersham’s ESPN story detailing multi-headed struggles atop the best current franchise in American professional sports. I expect there to be mass speculation that this is Belichick’s last season coaching the Patriots. But let me raise this one question as we ponder the possible end of a great generation of football: Isn’t it amazing that Kraft and Belichick, along with quarterback Tom Brady, have lasted 18 years together?
Think of it: Belichick got divorced from the late Browns owner, Art Modell, after five oft-contentious years as Cleveland coach. Belichick lasted one day as the HC of the NYJ, resigning his Jets coaching job in early 2000 because he didn’t respect the team president and didn’t know who the owner of the team would be. Kraft, who bought the Patriots in 1994, had Bill Parcells as coach for three years, and Parcells forced his way out after complaining that Kraft wouldn’t let him pick the players. Then Kraft had Pete “Feelin’ Groovy” Carroll as coach for three years but felt like the franchise was treading water.
Remember the beginning of the Kraft-Belichick marriage? There is no way, no how, that any thinking person would have expected their relationship to last 18 years. Three, maybe. Four, tops. In January 2000, after firing Carroll, Kraft had his eyes on a defensive assistant from the Parcells staff—Belichick—and no one could dissuade him. At the time Kraft was fairly tight with Modell, then the owner of the Baltimore Ravens. There were others around the league who told Kraft to be wary of the uber-private Belichick, and how hard Belichick was to work with.
Kraft remembers the exact words of Modell’s don’t-hire-Belichick warning in 2000. “He said if I did it, I’d be making the biggest mistake of my life,” Kraft told me last January, on the verge of winning his fifth Super Bowl with Belichick as coach.
So if this great era of the Patriots is over—and I don’t assume it is, at all—just realize how excellent it’s been: five Super Bowl wins (and favored to make it six in the next month), seven conference championships, 15 division titles, 12 or more wins in each of the past seven seasons. With the same quarterback. It’s better than Green Bay with Lombardi, Pittsburgh with Noll, San Francisco with Walsh.
The Wickersham story, and the Patriots’ group denial, is still fresh, and I hope to have more of substance on it in my Monday Morning Quarterback column. But Albert Breer made a good point earlier today at The MMQB. Kraft is 76, but he’s not going anywhere. Brady is 40, and he’s not retiring. Of the three men, Belichick, 65, might have the lightest tether to Foxboro a month from now.
If Belichick decided at the end of this season that he’s had enough of New England, what might he do? The Giants have tremendous admiration for Belichick, who spent 12 of his 43 NFL coaching seasons as a Giants’ assistant. Could New York engage Kraft in trade discussions for Belichick? Would Bostonian GM Dave Gettleman of the Giants use the second pick in the 2018 draft to entice Kraft, and would Belichick like to spend, say, five twilight head-coaching seasons trying to win one more ring in a place he loved? Or would the Giants take one of Belichick’s young lieutenants, coordinator Matt Patricia or Josh McDaniels (the two are interviewing for the vacant New York coaching gig today), and try to recreate the Belichick greatness in East Rutherford?
The Giants aren’t the only team that might be jonesing for Belichick. What about former New England personnel men Bob Quinn (GM in Detroit) and Jon Robinson (GM in Tennessee)? Quinn has a head-coaching opening, and Robinson might. Both are indebted to Belichick, have quarterbacks 30-or-younger who could be big winners, and might be enticing for Belichick. He was born in Nashville. His first full-time position-coaching job in the NFL was in Detroit.
It’s fun to play those what-if games. Let’s play out two other scenarios:
• Belichick could just be ready to retire. Not that he’s shown signs of that—he certainly does not appear to be burned out. But imagine being 65, having done the same thing for 43 years in a row, and having climbed to the peak of the business, and to be a no-doubter for the Mount Rushmore of coaches in the 98-year history of the game you’ve made your life’s work. This is a guy who has Sun Tzu on his home bookshelf. At some point, can’t you imagine Belichick saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to see what Australia’s like in December?”
• Belichick could be energized by one more shot of a remade coaching staff with two or three years more of Brady—or even one more of Brady and then a couple with, say, Lamar Jackson as his passer-in-waiting. I say Jackson, but who knows which rookie quarterback the Patriots will like. Belichick’s the kind of guy who is into finding solutions to problems. Say McDaniels leaves, and Belichick makes receivers coach Chad O’Shea his offensive coordinator, and gives him an offseason project of getting a first- or second-round quarterback ready to play on opening day 2019? This is all just spit-balling. But Belichick does love inventing new stuff out of whole cloth.
So we’re left to make best guesses about the future of the Patriots. I do think the next month could provide quite a bit of clarity. I could argue that a Kansas City-Pittsburgh-Minnesota road to a sixth Super Bowl could be one of the Patriots’ toughest to a crown, and who knows how success or failure in the next month will influence Belichick.
Football’s a tough business. What the Patriots have done in 18 years likely will never be done again by an NFL team. You might focus on storm clouds over Foxboro right now, and rightfully so; I’ll focus on them too. But I’ll be amazed the thing’s lasted this long.
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