- The Patriots owner knows he won’t have his legendary quarterback/coach duo forever. That’s why, at the end of a relatively trying season, he’s enjoying this Super Bowl run just a little more. Plus, news and notes for Super Bowl Sunday.
ATLANTA — I don’t know how much longer Tom Brady is going to play, or Bill Belichick is going to coach. I didn’t expect Patriots owner Robert Kraft to spill details on that when we spoke late Friday afternoon. But I figured I’d ask if he has answers to those two questions.
“Do you know how long you’ll have good health?” Kraft shot back. “It could change tomorrow, God forbid. You have to have a positive outlook. And look, if we’d done things in a traditional manner, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We run all our businesses the same way. Our principal business, we’re in over 100 countries around the world. We’ve had the same key relationships for 30 or 40 years. Culture and relationships are very important to me.”
Here’s how I’d translate that: Kraft wasn’t going to delve into what Belichick and Brady have confided in him. But he wanted to project confidence that his team is going to be creative with whatever lies ahead, in an effort to maintain what’s been established in sleepy Foxboro, Mass. over the last two decades.
And that’s even with the acknowledgment that what’s happening now is something that lacks any precedent and is unlikely to ever happen again.
The numbers, as you know, are absurd. This is New England’s ninth Super Bowl in 18 years. Only six teams (Ravens, Packers, Colts, Eagles, Steelers, Seahawks) have even made the playoffs that many times since 2001. Since Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriots have qualified for 40% of Super Bowls. The Patriots failed to win 40% of their games in each of the five seasons prior to the purchase.
“I don’t think we’ll ever replicate this. I don’t think it’ll be replicated anywhere,” he said. “And I’m proud and happy that our family has been able to nurture it and be at the helm here. But I’m gonna enjoy it. I’m gonna enjoy every moment of it. And we’ll try to keep it going as long as we can. But we do have to be thinking about plans, which you think about anyhow, because this is a game where, in one play, things can change.”
Much has changed around Kraft, Brady and Belichick over the last two decades, but they haven’t gone anywhere—over the last 18 seasons, the Patriots have loomed as, at worst, a threat to get to this stage annually, usually more than just that. But for a while, this season seemed different. Brady is 41. Belichick is 66. Big decisions on the roster are ahead. The core is aging. The team struggled into December.
Maybe that’s why there is what feels like a great appreciation for being here again from the team that always seems to be here, from the owner on down.
We’re here with the final Sunday Rundown of the 2018 season. And as we always do, we’re going to get to some insider-y stuff to get you ready for what’s coming in Super Bowl LIII.
But we’re starting with Kraft, and the Patriots, and my sense that the tougher journey this year has made it all the more satisfying for the guys in charge. That leads you right to what other teams can learn from New England because, as Kraft will remind you, it wasn’t always this way.
“The NFL is a business like no other business,” Kraft said. “You can think of owners who’ve come in, who have built fortunes and done great things, and still don’t get sustained success. It really takes 2-3 years of a learning curve. I lucked out, because I had Bill Parcells. And I had some rough years, and it was good for me to be exposed to him. And the business itself, the league, it’s unforgiving in so many ways.
“There’s no other business that’s so public, where everybody weighs in. So it’s creating a culture of getting everyone on the same page, which is very hard to do.”
That largely is what has gotten the Patriots here in February 2019. Last year, at this juncture, the noise around the team was deafening—that there were fissures in what had for so long been unbreakable, that there was a final roundup feel to the 2017 season. Some of that spilled into this year, with Brady and Rob Gronkowski staying away for almost all of the team’s offseason program.
By the time the games rolled around, much had passed and problems shifted. Gronkowski looked old. Edelman took a while to get going coming off his PED suspension. The front seven got run over a bunch. Josh Gordon was brought in as a band-aid, developed into a viable weapon, then fell prey to his demons once again.
The Patriots had struggled early in recent Super Bowl seasons. In 2014 and ’17, they stumbled to 2-2 starts before running off long winning streaks. In ’16, Brady was suspended for the season’s first four games.
By Halloween, though, the team would be rolling, and in November and December a pretty clear identity would be there. This year, it took longer.
“Think about us in the month of December, when we lost those two games, to the Steelers and Miami,” Kraft said. “We lose on that play in Miami and to the Steelers, things are fragile, and I think ownership’s position, and the key people in the organization is to represent something people have confidence in, that you’re going to do the right thing and not just be peripatetic, making the snap decisions.”
Then, Kraft conceded the obvious edge he and his organization have had, “In that sense, you think about it, please God, Tom and Bill will be here next year for their 20th years. I think someone said in the period Belichick has been with us now, there have been 186 coaches. It’s unbelievable.”
And he knows, probably better than most, how most teams lived, because he lived that first as a fan, then as the owner of the parking lot, then as the owner of old Foxboro Stadium.
That’s why, when we talked, he was quick to bring up that the amount of people that showed up to last Sunday’s sendoff rally (about 35,000) at Gillette Stadium outnumbered some of the crowds he was a part of back in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. It’s hard not to take that kind of thing for granted after the last 18 years. But Kraft is trying.
He knows that has to extend to planning for what’s coming post-Brady/Belichick. But it also has led him to appreciate what he’s got now, like so many people in the organization have seemed to over the last few weeks.
“I get letters on how people’s family lives have come closer together because everyone connects around our games. How people with illnesses, we’ve done a lot to improve their psyche and their lifestyle,” Kraft says. “It’s just a great thrill to do this. … Football is the ultimate true team sport that impacts the community in so many ways, and knowing that our players are connected to so many situations where people are in need, and feel connected to us, it gives me psychic income that I can’t get anywhere else.”
A quarter century under his belt as owner, and 19 seasons (almost) down since Belichick arrived, the guy knows what he has. “I guess as I sit here today, 25 years later, I’m proud we’ve helped put something in place that I think will almost be impossible for anyone to replicate.”
Now, for the Super Bowl Sunday Rundown…
1. The Patriots have gotten creative this week in their approach to prep for Aaron Donald. They took practice-squad edge rusher Trent Harris, all 255 pounds of him, and moved him inside, then lined him up offsides to simulate how quickly Donald can get on top of an offensive lineman. “A little undersized, he’s an edge guy, and we put him inside and said ‘line up here and do this,’” Patriots line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. “And be a little closer. Be offsides. We let him try to emulate the things that, as much as anyone can, that Aaron Donald brings to the table.”
2. Here’s what I’d expect Sean McVay’s staff to base their early adjustments on: how the Patriots match up their back seven to the Rams’ skill players in the passing game. Among the staff I talked to, it was the biggest lingering question. So watch where Stephon Gilmore and Patrick Chung go early in the game. And know that L.A. will be willing to lean a little on its second wave of skill players (like Josh Reynolds, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett), as the Eagles did early on last year.
3. The Rams are planning to explore an extension with quarterback Jared Goff this offseason. There’s no big hurry to do it, but L.A. might be the most aggressive team in the league when it comes to taking care of their draft picks when they become eligible for second deals (after Year 3). It happened last year with Todd Gurley, in fact. And there’s real benefit to the Rams in doing it early, in savings (the top of the quarterback market went up from around $25 million per to $32.5 million per over the last two years), and opportunity to spread out the salary cap damage.
4. As for McVay, I certainly don’t think the Rams would be opposed to taking care of him contractually this offseason. But there haven’t been any talks on a new deal yet, and he has three years left on the one he signed in January 2017. Maybe something happens, it’s just not on the front-burner now.
5. And while we’re on contracts, it’s worth noting that Patriots president Jonathan Kraft addressed Brady’s on NBC Sports Boston this week. When my buddy Tom E. Curran pressed Kraft on it, raising the fact that Brady has never stepped on a game field in a contract year, Kraft pointed out there’s long way to go (seven months or so) before the Patriots and their quarterback are at that point. “Let’s see what happens when training camp starts,” Kraft said. Here’s something worth nothing—Brady’s last two contracts, done in 2013 and ’16, were completed right around the time of the scouting combine, giving the team some certainty as it entered those offseasons. I’m told there haven’t been any contract talks yet, but there’s certainly an understanding between the sides and it’s hard to envision this one being too difficult to get done, and maybe it again gets done in February.
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