Across the ownership expanse of today’s NFL, very little business comes without some kind of historic template.
Head coaches and general managers have been hired and fired on an assembly line for decades. Quarterbacks have risen and regressed. Precedent-setting legal cases have been won and lost. Fights with the league office or commissioner have raged and subsided. It has all played out while financial gain and franchise values have rocketed into the clouds, whether a product of immense success or despite abject failure. More often than not, there are volumes of blueprints available to the league’s billionaires club that detail each potential hurdle or pitfall.
But the planned ouster of one of the league’s sport-defining legends? It’s a problem that has been confronted by a scant few team owners over the NFL’s history, providing sparse pages of instruction and offering more uncertainty than clarity.
This is the thinnest of chapters in the ownership textbooks available to New England Patriots team owner Robert Kraft when it comes to head coach Bill Belichick. And even the few available scripts — Jerry Jones’ ham-fisted 1989 dismissal of Tom Landry in Dallas; Wayne Huizenga’s 1996 force-out of Don Shula in Miami; and Dan Rooney’s gentle 1991 retirement dance with Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh — all pale in comparison to the intersection coming between Kraft and Belichick. The reason why is simple. The aforementioned head coaches constructed career records and Super Bowl winners that would stand as league and franchise monuments. Belichick? His architecture of success reshaped the league, creating a horizon of championship skyscrapers that will forever be measured. That makes Kraft’s current predicament unlike any we’ve seen before it.
And make no mistake, what’s happening in New England under Belichick is a dilemma.
Yes, he’s on the doorstep of a career-defining, regular-season victory flagpole, perched at 299. And yes, he’s within a plausible 17-win distance from Shula’s all-time victory total of 347 (including playoffs). But he’s also steering a franchise that hasn’t felt this far from real playoff contention since, well, last season. Indeed, the entire operation hasn’t looked or seemed this rudderless or off course since Belichick’s first season in 2000, when the Patriots went 5-11.
That same five-win mark might be a challenge this season, particularly if the Patriots (1-3) continue their spate of brutally slow starts and spiraling quarterback play. The remaining strength of schedule is somewhere in the league’s top three by almost any measure, the defense is already limping with injuries, the offense appears to lack explosive players anywhere, and Belichick appears to be retreating into his most bitterly redundant form when approached or questioned about these realities.
And lest we forget, all of this comes against the backdrop of consecutive offseasons when Kraft himself put pressure on Belichick to get the program back on track. Those moments could not have been more clear than when Kraft addressed Belichick chasing Shula’s record and ultimately breaking it as the Patriots’ coach.
“I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record, but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats,” Kraft said at the league’s annual owners meetings last March. “We’re about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is now. It’s very important to me that we make the playoffs. That’s what I hope happens next year. … In the end, this is a business. You either execute and win or you don’t.”
It’s probably intentional that this kind of language from Kraft echoes Belichick’s most famous mantra of “do your job.” That ethos cuts in every direction, including toward a head coach who runs the entirety of the football operation. Right now, whatever job Belichick is doing, some parts of it are not working. You can blame it on the moments when he’s wearing the general manager hat … you can blame it on his decisions for his coaching staff … or you can blame it on the decisions he has made with individual players since Tom Brady’s departure. Whatever you blame it on, the reality is this version of Belichick is winning at a rate that’s woefully similar to the version who didn’t have Brady as his starter. It is a common ground he now shares with so many of his assistant coaches who left the Patriots’ nest (and Brady), only to find failure on the other side of the decision.
Of course, Belichick has at least the rest of this season to dig himself out of this mess. But it would be foolish to think Kraft is guaranteed to wait one more season to fix this. Even with the likelihood of the franchise making a change at quarterback and an immense amount of salary-cap space, there remains a fundamental question of whether allowing Belichick to dive into those decisions would only elongate what looks like a total offensive rebuild.
Where does this leave Kraft if he feels compelled to make a move with Belichick in the coming offseason? Certainly he wouldn’t cut down his head coach the way Jerry Jones dumped Landry, in a scenario where Jones bought the team, courted Jimmy Johnson publicly enough to be photographed with him before Landry’s firing, and then ultimately had Landry find out about his firing from another staffer one day before Jones himself delivered the news. That was a wildly messy breakup with an icon that has stuck with Jones throughout his years as Cowboys owner — to the point that he’s even admitted regretting how it all unfolded.
That kind of scenario is unthinkable, given what Kraft and Belichick accomplished together over the past two-plus decades. Never mind that Kraft’s history as a team owner has (for the most part) featured a delicate touch and a checked ego that Jones has often lacked. That alone suggests there’s simply no way this comes down to Kraft making a decision that unfolds through a prism of disrespect. But it doesn’t mean a parting of company takes place without awkwardness. Perhaps even the kind that became the undercurrent of the departures of Noll in Pittsburgh and Shula in Miami — two iconic coaches who were nudged out in what felt like pushed retirements.
Looking back at both of those situations, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with longtime powerbroker and NFL agent Tom Condon, who once gave me this piece of advice on how to know when a coach is officially walking onto a chopping block:
“When the owner starts messing around with a head coach’s staff,” Condon said, “the end is coming.”
That was the context for Shula and Noll, who each retired after ownership either strongly suggested changes to assistant coaches, or demanded firings outright as a condition moving forward. Kraft and Belichick aren’t quite there at this point, although there were certainly enough inferences by Kraft when it came to the Matt Patricia/offensive coordinator experiment to suggest that Belichick knew he needed to make a change at that position whether he wanted to or not.
That kind of Shula/Noll ending might be what awaits the 71-year-old Belichick in New England. It’s a scenario where the current descent in the standings gets worse, and Kraft is faced with making a judgement call about whether there is a difference between Belichick + Brady or just Belichick by himself. If there is — if the mediocrity we’re witnessing is actually foundational — Kraft is going to have to move on. Possibly as soon as this offseason. And the best way to do it might be getting Belichick to make the decision for him.
Maybe that means stripping away Belichick’s personnel power and installing a general manager who the coach reports to. Maybe it means wholesale changes to a coaching staff that continues to be a mixture of Belichick’s friends and family. Maybe it means both.
That kind of hands-on change from Kraft would almost certainly spell the end for Belichick. Perhaps by his own doing via resignation or retirement — or by the kind of messy impasse that becomes public and defines a chapter for the coach and team owner for the rest of their lives. Either way, something new is going to be written when it comes to the handling of an iconic coach’s fading days in the NFL. And like everything else Kraft and Belichick accomplished together, it will be studied and debated long after both are gone.