As the man himself insecurely and arrogantly pointed out this week, Bill Belichick has been the unquestioned best option to lead the Patriots for nearly a quarter century.
His success was once as doubtless as his standing in New England.
But the times, oh they are a changing.
Whether owner Robert Kraft recalls all the relatively dismal details or not, the Patriots have been a very much mediocre at best football team for the last three-plus years. New England has a losing record since Tom Brady took his aging talents to Tampa Bay, a 25-26 mark including postseason play as Belichick inches slowly closer to Don Shula’s NFL all-time wins record.
Two losing seasons in three years. Four years without a playoff win. Nothing close to the Kraft-mandated expectation of being a “contender” each and every season.
Also-ran, pretender status has been the quo in New England for the last handful of years, the back end of Belichick’s rounded-up “last 25 years” that are supposed to inject optimism in Patriot Nation.
In actuality the recent run of meandering mediocrity is the kind of production that once upon a time pushed Kraft to move on from Pete Carroll – even though the future USC and Seahawks championship winner never had a losing season in his three-year run leading the Patriots -- to bring Belichick to New England back in the day, a move with foresight and expectation that kicked off a 20-year dynasty. Kraft had a working relationship and knowledge of Belichick from their time together when the latter was an assistant on Bill Parcells’ staff in 1996 and had faith in the face of outside criticism that he was the right budding option for his organization. Right was an understatement.
While it may have been a tough decision to bring Belichick to New England back in 2000 – to surrender a first-round pick and more to the hated Jets to secure a coach with a losing record in his time leading the Browns – Kraft made that decision and never looked back as the Lombardi Trophies piled up inside Gillette Stadium.
Now, the decision of when the soon-to-be 71-year-old Belichick’s time in New England ends is and will be an even tougher one.
But two key factors could push the point for the passionate patriarch of Patriot Nation, a season-ticket holder fan at his roots. First is the mediocrity, much of which has come thanks to some incredibly bad decisions – or “experiments” as Kraft dubbed the choice of Matt Patricia to run the Patriots offense in 2022. The second is the retention of rising star coach Jerod Mayo.
Belichick’s track record is what it is. It was great from 2001-2019. It’s been below New England standards – below the level of work that Carroll put forth in the late 1990s – over the last three seasons.
“In the end this is a business, you either execute and win or you don’t. And that’s where we’re at. I think we’re in a transition phase,” Kraft admitted in Arizona this week at the NFL owners’ meetings while still professing to “believe” in his head coach.
Never before, though, has Kraft been in this position. A time when Belichick is failing to win and making curious, costly decisions that simply don’t make sense or work out. And never before has Kraft so publicly and definitively backed an assistant to Belichick as the future Hall of Famer’s potential replacement.
Sure Josh McDaniels was well thought of when he was lured into remaining in New England rather than taking the Colts job a few years back. But he was also already the failed boss of the Broncos.
Maybe Kraft really did respect Patricia’s work ethic and intelligence, but the debacle of his tenure in Detroit was there for all the world to see.
At 37 years old, Mayo is a young man in what is speedily becoming a young man’s game. He’s beloved by all. Respected by even more. And Kraft, who once had the vision for Belichick’s coaching success, expressed great hope in what Mayo will accomplish moving forward.
“There is no ceiling on his ability to be a head coach and he’ll be a head coach. I’m sure of that. I hope, you know, he’s with us. So we’ll see what happens,” Kraft said in Phoenix.
In case you didn’t hear it right, that’s Kraft letting all the world know he has options. He has a backup coach ready to go in.
Moving on from Belichick may seem blasphemous. And make no mistake it will be a monumental moment in the history of the Patriots and really the NFL.
But it’s no longer just a theoretical possibility in the distant future. It’s becoming more realistic by the day. Not so much because Kraft is unhappy with the results of the last few years and has spent the last two springs expressing as much. No, it’s more so because for the first time maybe ever, he has an appealing, flawless option to turn to that he clearly has incredible faith in.
“One of the things I learned when I came in early as a new owner, I saw and it’s like the way I run my other businesses, people come in and they make changes when something isn’t going right. But if you are going to make a change, you want to improve things,” Kraft explained.
Belichick has often said that one of the best attributes a player can bring to a team is availability. The same is probably true in a coach-in-waiting, which is exactly what it sounds like Mayo is these days in Foxborough.
For the first time, and maybe at a fortuitous time for the franchise, Kraft and the Patriots have options to turn to at the head coach position if that actually does become necessary.
And that, Mayo’s mere existence and ability, is turning up the heat just a bit on Belichick heading into a critical 2023 season in New England.