Years ago, Bill Belichick said he didn’t want to be like Marv Levy and coach into his 70s. Obviously, he’s changed his mind.
“I wish I hadn’t said that,” Belichick told the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy at the start of last season.
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Now on the cusp of his 71st birthday, Belichick is preparing for his 24th season coaching the Patriots. But the last three haven’t gone as well as the previous 21. The Patriots are 25-25 since Tom Brady departed, and missed the playoffs two times over the last three years. Their run of mediocrity has even sparked some speculation about Belichick’s job security, a previously unfathomable topic.
So why is Belichick still coaching? With six Super Bowl rings on his resume (eight if you count his two wins as an assistant with the Giants), there’s seemingly nothing left to achieve. That is, except for the all-time wins record. Belichick’s 329 career wins are 19 shy of Don Shula’s NFL record of 347.
In a new Athletic story, writer Chad Graff speaks to three people who used to work for Belichick about his motivations. They talk about his desire to win without Brady, and continued passion for the game. But those reasons pale in comparison, they say, to catching Shula.
“It seems like a foregone conclusion that Belichick will get to the record. But how long will it take?,” Graff writes.
That’s the most important question when it comes to determining Belichick’s future in New England. The Patriots, despite an uneven offseason so far, are still poised to improve upon last season’s 8-9 finish. Hiring Bill O’Brien should only help Mac Jones rebound, and JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki are two legit new pass-catching threats.
It’s fair to surmise that Robert Kraft, who’s 81, would prefer Belichick break the wins record in Foxborough. A 10- or 11-win season would set him up to accomplish that feat in 2024.
But double-digit wins are no longer guaranteed, especially if the Jets actually acquire Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots could enter 2023 as the fourth-best team in their own division.
That’s where plotting Belichick’s future gets tricky. As Graff writes, if the Patriots become a perennial non-playoff team, would the Krafts just sit by and wait for Belichick to limp towards Shula’s record?
That would be a difficult sell for an organization that’s lost a sizable amount of cache over the last three seasons. The lackluster Patriots were actually yanked from “Sunday Night Football” last season, a diss that Kraft probably won’t soon forget.
It’s apparent that Kraft is aware of the faltering perception around his team. On the first day of the offseason, he sent a letter to season ticket holders pledging to scrutinize all aspects of the football operation. A few days later, the Patriots issued an uncharacteristic press release touting their offensive coordinator search and extension talks with Jerod Mayo.
That last point is also pertinent to Belichick’s future. Graff’s piece from Monday details how Mayo could be Belichick’s successor. The ex-linebacker is viewed as a rising star around the league; yet, he declined an opportunity this year to interview for the Panthers’ vacant head-coaching position.
“When he turned those guys down, I understood without even talking to him what went on,” said Kevin Faulk.
While Mayo is playing the long game, patience inevitably runs out. Josh McDaniels, long considered Belichick’s heir apparent (he turned down the Colts’ head coaching job after initially accepting it in 2018), finally bolted last year to coach the Raiders.
Let’s say the Patriots stumble to another sub-.500 finish in 2023. Then Belichick likely wouldn’t be in position to catch Shula until 2025.
That’s when sentimentality would collide with responsibility. If the Krafts want to win, it would be difficult to keep Belichick as the Patriots recede from relevancy — especially with his potential replacement literally standing next to him.
There could be a collision coming, unless the Patriots return to the postseason in 2023.