February 29, 2024

Confetti rained down round Invoice Belichick and Tom Brady as the 2 hugged close to midfield, Tremendous Bowl champs collectively for the sixth time. It was Feb. 3, 2019. Belichick patted Brady’s shoulder pads twice. Robert Kraft, the longtime proprietor of the Patriots, embraced the quarterback. He informed Brady he was one of the best ever.

All of them partied collectively that evening in Atlanta because the franchise celebrated an unmatched run of dominance. The Chainsmokers and Snoop Dogg carried out.

With the Patriots’ Tremendous Bowl LIII win over the Rams, Kraft, Belichick and Brady every cemented their standing as essentially the most profitable at their respective place in NFL historical past. No proprietor, no coach, no quarterback may match the stretch of profitable that the three architects of the Patriots dynasty had orchestrated.

However behind the scenes, the connection between Brady and Belichick was fraying. The issues that had made them such a great pairing for 20 years have been now pulling them aside.

Brady left New England after the 2019 season to signal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The next season, he led the Bucs to a Tremendous Bowl title, the seventh of his storied profession. During the last 4 years, the Patriots, in the meantime, tried Cam Newton, Mac Jones, then Bailey Zappe at quarterback as their offense slowly decayed into one of many league’s worst.

After arguably one of the best 20-year run in league historical past, the Patriots haven’t received a playoff sport since that Tremendous Bowl in Atlanta 5 years in the past. They’re 29-37 since Brady left and 4-12 this season, incomes their first last-place end within the AFC East since 2000, Belichick’s first yr on the job. Now, they’re only a week away from a possible main sea change. Rumors abound — as they’ve for a lot of the autumn — that Belichick and the Patriots could half methods on the finish of the season.

Solutions in regards to the franchise’s future are anticipated to return following a sit-down between Kraft and Belichick shortly after the Week 18 sport towards the New York Jets that issues solely in the way it will have an effect on New England’s 2024 draft place.

The Athletic spoke with a number of group and league sources aware of the pondering contained in the constructing to look at how essentially the most profitable relationships in NFL historical past soured, placing the Patriots in a downward spiral and on the doorstep of franchise-altering questions.


Patriots proprietor Robert Kraft, left, and coach Invoice Belichick earlier than the Patriots’ Dec. 17 sport towards the Chiefs. (Eric Canha / USA Immediately)


For thus lengthy, Belichick was the right coach for Brady. The three-time NFL coach of the yr took a shovel to the chip on Brady’s shoulder. The quarterback was at his finest when he believed he’d been slighted, when he may make an enemy out of the smallest knock on him. And Belichick picked at that wound. He identified Brady’s flaws in group conferences greater than another participant. For a very long time, Brady thrived on that.

And for thus lengthy, Brady was the right quarterback for Belichick. He believed in complementary soccer, keen to place his stats apart for the good thing about the group. He took discounted contracts to assist Belichick construct out the roster at different positions, and he didn’t complain if these extra assets weren’t used on the offense.

However by the top of 2019, celebrating one other Tremendous Bowl felt like a distant reminiscence. The connection between Brady and Belichick was fractured. After six Tremendous Bowls and three MVPs, Brady was 42 years outdated and didn’t need to be antagonized at work anymore. He wished the form of contract that meant he wouldn’t go wherever till he was 45, guaranteeing he retired as a Patriot. Belichick wouldn’t decide to that form of deal.

Brady complained to Kraft all through 2019. Belichick did the identical. That wasn’t essentially new. Kraft heard independently from the 2 sides for over a yr, usually aptly strolling the tightrope of letting both sides vent with out making rash selections, maintaining collectively essentially the most profitable relationship in NFL historical past even when it felt like they have been close to a boiling level. Many inside the group credit score Kraft for his work as a intermediary, maintaining Brady and Belichick collectively lengthy sufficient to win that sixth Tremendous Bowl.

Kraft’s ultimate ploy to maintain collectively one of the best coach-quarterback duo in league historical past was to make sure Brady would have the possibility to be a free agent on the finish of 2019. He hoped that will incentivize Belichick to make adjustments. Deal with Brady in another way. Make him a much bigger a part of the operation. Concentrate on the offense extra.

However Belichick refused to alter. He informed Kraft that Brady’s play was declining. As painful because it was to say goodbye to Brady, which he did throughout an in-person chat at Kraft’s residence, the proprietor understood why Brady wished to go away, and Kraft trusted his longtime coach that the separation would finally assist the Patriots.

Since Brady’s departure, although, Kraft has grown pissed off as his group, as soon as a mannequin of success, has cratered into one of many NFL’s worst.

Belichick, in the meantime, has expressed irritation that each one the success he’s helped present hasn’t garnered extra deference throughout this decline. When requested earlier than the 2023 season why followers ought to nonetheless be optimistic in regards to the Patriots, Belichick quipped, “I don’t know — the final 25 years?”

GO DEEPER

In uncommon stumble, Invoice Belichick offers air of insecurity by referring to the previous


Within the days earlier than this season started, Belichick, 71, spoke with a reverence for Brady that he hadn’t to that time. Brady was returning to Gillette Stadium for the primary time since his retirement for a ceremony that included a halftime speech.

Because the occasion neared, Belichick referred to as Brady one of the best offensive participant ever. He stated that one evening wasn’t practically sufficient to have a good time the previous quarterback. Requested for a favourite reminiscence, Belichick stated, “There are six of them that come to thoughts.”

For longtime members of the group, it was jarring to listen to Belichick discuss like that after years of arduous teaching and restricted reward for Brady. Some have been left to ponder troublesome questions: If Belichick had spoken like that within the ultimate years with Brady, would possibly the quarterback have stayed in New England? Would they’ve a seventh Tremendous Bowl ring collectively? An eighth?


Tom Brady and Belichick in 2019. (Adam Glanzman / Getty Photos)

However Belichick hasn’t modified. And he wasn’t going to for one participant, even Brady. He could have a dry humorousness away from the cameras, however for essentially the most half, what you see is what you get. His demeanor contained in the group’s headquarters isn’t that completely different from the gruff, stoic angle repeatedly on show at his information conferences.

Patriots Corridor of Famer Kevin Faulk as soon as stated he walked previous Belichick within the hallways for years, greeting him every single day with out a lot as a “Hi there” in return. Gamers seldom hear flattering remarks from their coach. “He positively serves numerous humble pie,” security Jabrill Peppers stated. “He don’t reward no person,” linebacker Mack Wilson agreed.

That may make it troublesome to narrate to younger gamers who be part of the Patriots, a special era that desires to grasp why the group is doing sure issues reasonably than simply being ordered round, one which likes to be complimented and acknowledged for its arduous work.

In some ways, the Patriots do issues in another way than the remainder of the league, largely due to how Belichick runs the present. They’ve been reluctant to embrace sports activities science and analytics. Belichick as soon as stated he makes use of analytics “lower than zero” to make in-game selections. The Patriots are considered one of solely 4 NFL groups that don’t make use of a multiperson analytics and analysis division. It’s honest to purpose they haven’t modernized the way in which most different groups have as a result of Belichick hasn’t seen the necessity to with the six Lombardi Trophies as proof for persevering with to do issues his method.

Whereas most different groups have seen their teaching staffs balloon with further assistants in recent times, Belichick has opted to maintain his inside circle tight. So the Patriots started this season with 18 assistant coaches, together with solely eight on offense. (The 49ers, by comparability, have 27 on workers, together with 14 on offense.) That was particularly troubling in 2023 when two offensive assistants left midseason. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm left the group in November for a “health-related” subject, Belichick stated, and broad receivers coach Ross Douglas left in early December to take the identical job with Syracuse.

Given the small dimension, Belichick calls for extra from his workers. The group went to Las Vegas final January to educate one of many groups on the Shrine Bowl, a pre-draft showcase sport for school prospects. Arthur Smith’s Atlanta Falcons workers was answerable for the opposite group. Smith labored his assistants arduous in the course of the day however allowed them time without work to have enjoyable and get to know one another at evening. Belichick took a special strategy. His workers spent 12 hours a day making ready for the sport. Then, as soon as that work was performed, they spent their nights finding out for the approaching NFL season — seven months away.

It additionally hasn’t helped that a few of Belichick’s high lieutenants have departed for different jobs, additional isolating an already reclusive coach. Josh McDaniels, who labored with Belichick for 18 years, left to change into the Raiders’ head coach. Brian Flores, who labored with Belichick for 11 years, left to take the pinnacle teaching job with the Dolphins. Dante Scarnecchia and Ivan Fears, the place coaches Belichick trusted most, retired after a mixed 40 years beneath Belichick. Proper-hand man Ernie Adams retired after 20 seasons with Belichick.

The identical occurred within the participant personnel division, which Belichick additionally leads. Nick Caserio turned the Texans’ normal supervisor after 20 years with Belichick. Dave Ziegler left to change into the Raiders’ normal supervisor after 9 years beneath Belichick. Monti Ossenfort left for the Texans after which obtained the Cardinals’ normal supervisor gig after working with Belichick for 14 years.

Belichick is sluggish to belief and values familiarity over the unknown. He doesn’t need to educate a complete new teaching workers the way to do its job. So he changed these assistants with acquainted faces, even when they lacked the right {qualifications}. That led to Matt Patricia, a defensive specialist, and Joe Choose, a former particular groups coordinator, collectively working the offense in 2022, a vital yr for second-year quarterback Mac Jones. (New England went 8-9 and Jones struggled mightily.)

With these departures, Belichick misplaced lots of his sounding boards. His decision-making turned much more siloed. In a league that more and more values collaboration and a confluence of concepts, the Patriots are an anomaly. Belichick decides every part. Scouts can spend years attending to know every part a few prospect, but when Belichick doesn’t agree with the evaluation, they’re usually overruled.

His draft lessons have lengthy struggled. Astoundingly, Belichick hasn’t re-signed a participant he drafted within the first three rounds since 2013 (Duron Harmon). In 2022, he selected a left guard within the first spherical who was seen by most consultants as a third-round decide at finest, then within the second spherical selected a large receiver (Tyquan Thornton) who can already be labeled a bust. His 2021 first-round decide (Jones) has been benched, and his first-round decide in 2019 (N’Keal Harry) was such a bust that he was off the group three years later.

That precipitated Kraft to up the stress on Belichick within the spring of 2021, bemoaning the outcomes of his current draft lessons and insisting on enchancment. “If you wish to have a great, constant, profitable soccer group, you possibly can’t do it in free company,” Kraft stated. “You must do it by means of the draft.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Robert Kraft ups stress on Patriots, says it’s ‘essential’ they return to playoffs

However Belichick, who got here up finding out defenses, has been unable to repair the group’s offense. The Patriots rank final in scoring this season.

As a substitute, Belichick has sought to win by zigging when everybody else zags. He deliberate to win this season with protection and particular groups, investing extra assets into particular groups than another coach within the league (the Patriots have seven gamers on their 53-man roster solely devoted to the unit). But, they rank final within the NFL in area objective proportion, thirty first in yards per punt return and twenty third in internet yards per punt.


The 82-year-old Kraft has taken it properly that he’s been handed up for the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame the final two years, even when his absence surprises many across the league.

His resume warrants a spot in Canton. He has helped flip the Patriots right into a mannequin group. He constructed Gillette Stadium, paid for the current renovations and oversaw the creation of Patriot Place across the stadium, a multi-use business complicated that began a development across the NFL. He chairs the league’s core media committee, which was accountable in 2021 for securing a brand new media rights deal reportedly price greater than $100 billion. He has change into a trusted confidant of commissioner Roger Goodell. He was credited with serving to dealer the deal in 2011 that helped finish the league’s first lockout in 24 years. After which there are these six Lombardi Trophies that reside in Foxboro.

Nonetheless, the votes haven’t but come, although Kraft has been a finalist for the final two years. His subsequent likelihood to be inducted is with the Class of 2025.

So Kraft stays cognizant of his picture and cautious in his decision-making. It’s unlikely he’ll resolve Belichick’s destiny together with his Corridor of Fame candidacy high of thoughts; there are greater points at play. However no matter resolution Kraft makes will probably be a part of that legacy, including further weight to an already troublesome and essential alternative. After Kraft watched Brady win a Tremendous Bowl elsewhere, how painful would it not be if Belichick did the identical?

“Earlier than I make a ultimate resolution,” Kraft as soon as wrote, “I measure 9 instances and I lower as soon as.”

That’s why it’s no shock that Kraft has been calculated relating to this resolution about Belichick. It’s not going to return frivolously. In 30 years of possession, he has solely labored with three head coaches and is proud all three have discovered lasting success (Invoice Parcells, Pete Carroll and Belichick).

In fact, there’s been quite a bit to love within the 24 years Kraft and Belichick have labored collectively. However that hasn’t continued in recent times, which is why Kraft challenged Belichick in 2021. For a relationship that had been so profitable for thus lengthy, it was one of many first public critiques of Belichick’s plan and outcomes.

Belichick, for his half, appeared to start enjoying his personal video games by means of the media from that time on. He praised a number of different possession teams and the amenities of a number of different groups whereas conspicuously refraining from praising the Krafts and the renovations they’ve privately funded at Gillette Stadium. In the meantime, he’s stated little publicly about Robert or Jonathan Kraft. His solely feedback in regards to the $250 million renovation the Krafts accomplished this yr have been about how the larger video board would possibly have an effect on wind patterns for the kickers.

In August, simply earlier than Kraft came upon he hadn’t been chosen for the Corridor of Fame, Belichick was given an opportunity to publicly again the candidacy of the man who indicators his paychecks. It was a softball of a query, however Belichick was transient in his reply.

“Maintaining our fingers crossed that we get the vote this yr,” he stated.

To Belichick backers, it was a easy signal of assist for the proprietor. He hoped Kraft would get the votes. What extra may you need?

However others noticed it as a less-than-full-throated endorsement. Belichick is usually transient when discussing his present group, but it surely’s not unusual for him to speak for a number of minutes about lengthy snappers, left-footed punters or Curly Lambeau’s playbook. But when it got here to his boss’s place in NFL historical past, his reply lasted 11 phrases.


(Vincent Carchietta / USA Immediately)


On Dec. 17, Kraft sat quietly in his proprietor’s suite beneath Part 310 because the Patriots misplaced their penultimate residence sport to the Kansas Metropolis Chiefs.

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon. It felt like there have been extra Chiefs followers in attendance than these of any opposing group in years. The scene was a far cry from what the NFL envisioned at the start of the season when this sport had been tabbed for “Monday Evening Soccer.”

However even all of the favor Kraft has constructed with broadcast companions and the stardom of the Chiefs — like reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, all-world tight Travis Kelce and even pop celebrity girlfriend Taylor Swift — wasn’t sufficient for ESPN and the NFL to need the slumping Patriots as a part of their prime-time slate. They moved the sport from Monday evening to Sunday afternoon, one other intestine punch for Kraft and his group in a season filled with them.

Now change feels inevitable. Some see it as an indication of respect that Kraft didn’t hearth Belichick outright following considered one of a number of rock-bottom moments this season. However that stated, it’s arduous to think about merely working issues again with minimal adjustments.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Patriots shouldn’t hearth Invoice Belichick now, however after the season, all bets are off

Maybe Kraft is likely to be enticed to maintain Belichick because the coach if he’d relinquish energy elsewhere (like management of participant personnel or the draft), but it surely appears unlikely that Belichick, mastermind of six Tremendous Bowls, goes to willingly surrender the authority he’s amassed.

What appears almost definitely is a mutual parting of the methods, an opportunity for the Krafts to have a good time and thank Belichick for the years of success whereas bringing in a brand new voice to steer the group. The Patriots may additionally attempt to search draft compensation from one other group by buying and selling Belichick, however the coach must be on board with that plan. Or perhaps the 2 sides can in some way put this season behind them, shock onlookers across the league and hold their relationship going for one more yr.

Their collaboration has been way more profitable than both imagined when it started practically 25 years in the past with Belichick scribbling on a serviette that he was resigning from the Jets after in the future as their head coach to hitch Kraft and the Patriots.

Kraft gave Belichick what he all the time wished, autonomy in soccer operations, and let him flex an unparalleled soccer acumen constructed as a schoolboy finding out soccer together with his dad on the Naval Academy.

And Belichick gave Kraft what he had dreamed of. Earlier than proudly owning the franchise, Kraft was a diehard season ticket holder watching dangerous Patriots groups on chilly days in a decrepit stadium. Belichick gave Kraft a soccer group that received greater than another. Kraft gained clout and standing amongst an ego-filled group of billionaire house owners, none of whom may match Kraft’s success.

However 5 years after that final Tremendous Bowl, the Patriots are a shell of their once-dominant selves. By the two-minute warning of that Week 15 sport towards the Chiefs, one other double-digit loss was already determined.

Followers headed out for an early exit. Kraft did, too. He obtained up from his common seat subsequent to Jonathan and seemed round. Visiting followers have been filling the decrease bowl to cheer on their group. Kraft checked out Jonathan and the 2 obtained as much as depart.

There was no level in watching this any longer.

(Illustration by Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; pictures: Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe by way of Getty Photos, Jim Davis / The Boston Globe by way of Getty Photos, Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe by way of Getty Photos, Jamie Squire / Getty Photos, Matthew West / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald by way of Getty Photos)


“The Soccer 100,” the definitive rating of the NFL’s finest 100 gamers of all time, is on sale now. Order it right here.