The prospects for the demise of the New England Patriots’ dynasty and the imminent breakup of the three people most responsible for it – quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft – have been well-chronicled in recent days. Speculation has commenced about where Belichick might coach next if he leaves the Patriots after this postseason, and it has focused on the New York Giants.
That seems plausible. Nothing lasts forever, particularly in the “Not For Long” NFL. The duration of the Patriots’ run of success has been remarkable. The fact that Brady, Belichick and Kraft have coexisted for so long has been astonishing. If there was ever going to be another team that Belichick was going to coach, it would probably be the Giants, given his respect for the franchise and its ownership from his days working for the organization as an assistant coach.
So it’s decided, right? The Patriots will make a push in the coming weeks for their eighth Super Bowl appearance with Kraft, Belichick and Brady, and their sixth Super Bowl triumph. And then it’s over.
Not so fast.
Some people familiar with the inner workings of the Patriots organization say they don’t necessarily see a breakup in the immediate future. These people point out that Belichick is believed to be under contract and, even if Belichick is inclined to leave, Kraft is not about to trade perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history. And that’s assuming Belichick even wants to leave.
Those people give a different description of the events of this season when it comes to the trade-deadline deal that sent Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers. They say Kraft and Belichick discussed the Garoppolo situation last summer and resolved to try to sign Garoppolo to a contract extension that would pay him well to be Brady’s backup and even better if he were to become the starter. The next time Kraft and Belichick discussed the matter, according to these people, is when Belichick told Kraft on the day of the trade that he had an offer from the 49ers and he was going to make the deal.
According to this version of events, there have been fewer than a handful of times throughout the working relationship between Belichick and Kraft when the owner has told the coach what to do on a football move, and those instances have occurred when there was a risk involved because of a particular player’s background.
If this is to be believed, the Patriots of Brady, Belichick and Kraft will go on. Not forever, but for at least a little while longer.
Brady turns 41 before next season. He has played at a league MVP level this season. But that brings no guarantee for next season, even with Brady’s diet and training methods. When age and injuries finally caught up to Peyton Manning and his body betrayed him, it happened quickly. It will happen someday to Brady, even though he is the greatest quarterback in history and even though he believes he has several more good to great seasons left in him. And when it does happen, there never has been a coach or a roster architect less sentimental about making the moves that are best for a team than Belichick.
Belichick turns 66 in April. He won’t coach forever. It’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else with his life. But there are other things that he could do and probably do well.
During Super Bowl week last year in Houston, Kraft was asked during an interview with The Washington Post how much longer Belichick will coach the Patriots.
“As long as he wants,” Kraft said.
And how much longer will that be?
“We have a pact that we don’t talk about that,” Kraft said then. “He knows and I know. But he won’t be done this year.”
Kraft also said that day: “I’m at a certain age. I love what I do. I’m passionate about it. And in life, that’s one of the keys is that you love what you do. I really think he was put on this earth to coach football. He is so good at it and loves it and is energized. He’s been with us 17 years. After the first three or four years, I would say to him, ‘You leave late at night.’ I wanted to know what I had and how much autonomy I could give. He would explain things to me. He’s just energized by the work, which is very special.”
None of this is to dismiss what has been reported about the tensions between the three men and the possibility that the end is at hand.
There have been multiple reports in recent weeks about a strain on the relationship between Brady and Belichick over the role of Brady’s friend, business partner and trainer, Alex Guerrero. That was amplified Friday by the detailed report by ESPN, which said there is a “palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together” for Brady, Belichick and Kraft.
The ESPN report documented a meeting between Kraft and Belichick two weeks before the trade deadline in which Belichick was given a “clear mandate,” the report said, to trade Garoppolo and was “furious and demoralized” about that. The ESPN report chronicled Brady tiring of Belichick’s rugged coaching methods and mentioned that the team’s internal evaluations have noticed “slippage” in Brady’s play.
A report later Friday by the New York Daily News said Belichick “sees an opening” to coach the Giants.
Much of this rings true, despite the denials that have been issued by the Patriots of certain unspecified details of the ESPN story. There are issues and there is melodrama within every NFL team and, for that matter, within every workplace. And if Belichick is going to coach elsewhere, returning to the Giants makes perfect sense. He was a Giants assistant from 1979 to 1990. He worked for Bill Parcells. He coached Lawrence Taylor. He knows the organization’s stability and ownership’s patience.
But to believe that Belichick would leave the Patriots for the Giants is to believe he could coexist with that team’s powerful and just-hired general manager, Dave Gettleman. Working side by side with a powerful GM has not been Belichick’s way. In New England, the final say over football decisions has been his. And to believe that Belichick will end up with the Giants also is to believe Kraft will allow it to happen.
Belichick’s two coordinators in New England, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, are interviewing for head coaching vacancies. McDaniels is viewed by some as the successor-in-waiting to Belichick with the Patriots and has passed up head coaching opportunities in recent years, but this could be the time he leaves. Does Belichick want to stay and start over with new top coaching lieutenants? Does he want to groom another quarterbacking successor to Brady?
Kraft certainly isn’t going anywhere. He owns the team. It doesn’t seem likely that Brady is leaving, especially with Garoppolo already gone. If anyone is going to leave, it’s probably Belichick. But does that mean now?
Friday was a day when the Patriots seemed under siege. But they’ve had far, far worse days during the throes of Spygate and Deflategate. And they’ve trudged onward, forging a complicated legacy of on-field greatness surrounded by fierce public debate over whether they are cheaters or victims of jealous competitors and unsubstantiated accusations. This time, the issue is “only” office politics, not videotaping coaching signals or deflating footballs.
Brady, Belichick and Kraft issued a joint written statement Friday expressing their unity. The Patriots are on their playoff bye week and will spend next week readying for a conference semifinal at home.
Certainly, the end is near for the Patriots as currently constructed. Brady and Belichick will not go on churning out victories and championships for Kraft for much longer. But does “near” mean a few weeks or a few years?