Put yourself in the shoes of Robert Kraft.
Tom Brady is long gone. The dynasty is over. Bill Belichick is still in charge, but the legendary emperor that we knew no longer has the Midas touch. And it didn’t happen overnight.
The New England Patriots – with a 2-10 record that is worst-ever at this point under Belichick – have become such an embarrassment. They not only head into a national showcase game at Pittsburgh on Thursday night sharing an NFL-worst five-game losing streak, but they’ve made history in the process. Belichick’s team is the first in the NFL since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to lose three consecutive games despite holding opponents to 10 points or fewer.
No, you do not want that on your resume.
The next national showcase game? Uh, on second thought that matchup against the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs, scheduled for a week from Monday night, got flexed out and moved to an early Sunday time window.
In other words, the Patriots have become bad for TV ratings.
Something must change.
It must be gut-wrenching for Kraft, the Patriots owner, to gaze into the future of his signature franchise and consider the conundrum involving Belichick – just 17 victories shy of surpassing Don Shula’s 347 triumphs as the winningest coach in NFL history.
Kraft, a homegrown fan and business mogul who saved the franchise from moving out of New England, bet on Belichick in 2000 when no other NFL owner would. The coach’s reputation was stained from his Cleveland Browns tenure to the point that some league powerbrokers Kraft consulted – including former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and then-Browns president Carmen Policy – warned him about hiring Belichick.
Turns out that Kraft was right. Belichick made a strong impression during the years he served under Bill Parcells, and the rest is history. Kraft’s Hall of Fame credentials are bolstered by the six Super Bowl championship rings won with Belichick in charge…while backed by a certain quarterback.
And now it has come to this: History also tells us that iconic coaches – strong will, blueprints for success, track records in tow – typically don’t merely walk away just because results, critics and other factors chip away at their legacies.
Usually, it takes being pushed out by their heavyweight bosses.
When it ended after the 1991 season for Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls during the 1970s for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he retired rather than make significant changes to his coaching staff for the second time in three years at the suggestion of then-owner Dan Rooney. Noll coached the Steelers for 23 years but didn’t win as much as a division title in his final seven seasons.
Tom Landry, whose credits included two Super Bowl wins and 20 consecutive seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, was fired in 1989 when Jerry Jones arrived. While Jones regrets the messy handling of the exchange, he surely didn’t regret that it happened. When Jones closed the deal to buy the team from H.R. “Bum” Bright (who had previously made headlines for criticizing the coaching) it was with the understanding that Landry – 3-13 in 1988 and zero playoff wins in his last six seasons – was out. Jones took the hit for bouncing Landry (and for being photographed in a restaurant beforehand with the next coach, Jimmy Johnson), but it should have been on Bright or then-Cowboys president Tex Schramm to tell the legend.
Then there was Shula, with two Super Bowl victories and a perfect season on his resume. When Shula was forced to “retire” from the Miami Dolphins after the 1995 season, he had not had a losing campaign in eight years. Armed with his great quarterback, Dan Marino, he won two AFC East crowns in his final four seasons. The Dolphins never became embarrassing losers, but they weren’t good enough to compete for a championship – even with Marino. The new owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, supported Shula – for one year – as Miami led the league in free agent spending. But Miami was trounced in the wild-card round of the playoffs. And ironically, Huizenga had his eye on Johnson. Never mind that Shula indicated privately that he expected to return.
So, how will it go down with Belichick, the present-day legend?
It’s tough to imagine that Belichick, with an extreme appreciation for the NFL’s history, would retire while being so close to breaking Shula’s record. Then again, Belichick is 71. At this rate, it might take three more years to set the record if that’s a motivation beyond not wanting to go out on such a downer. Typically, he hasn’t offered any clues about his career timeline.
One thing for certain: Belichick is as salty as ever when publicly addressing matters such as his team’s funk and personal decisions.
Following the 6-0 loss on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers – the first time under Belichick that the Patriots were shut out at home twice in a season – the coach grumbled through his press conference.
"How surprised are you by the lack of production from this offense?"
Belichick: “I don’t know.”
The Patriots are last in the NFL in scoring, averaging 12 points per game. Mac Jones, drafted in 2021 to become the franchise quarterback, has been benched four times this season. Bailey Zappe, who has completed just 50% of his passes with zero TDs, is expected to start against the Steelers.
"What do you identify as some of the missteps that have contributed to the offense not producing this season?"
Belichick: “I just answered that question…This isn’t a season review. We’re talking about the game. The game’s just over. Happy to talk about the game.”
And so it went…just like Belichick would often handle the questions during the glory years.
Then someone asked: "Bill, do you want to stay here and keep coaching the Patriots?"
Belichick: “I’m looking forward to this week and getting ready for the Steelers.”
No, the postgame podium in Week 13 wasn’t exactly the place or time for Belichick to express thoughts on his future. But given the way this season has disintegrated in the what-have-you-done-lately NFL, it was fair enough for somebody to ask.
It’s a better question for Kraft. Belichick has more power than any coach in the NFL, but look at where that has led the Patriots in the post-Brady era.
Sure, Kraft owes Belichick a tremendous measure of respect for that amazing run of success. Unlike the cases of Landry and Shula, a long owner-coach relationship has been built. Yet moving forward, Kraft also owes it to his franchise and fan base to try rebooting for the long haul.
Belichick has autonomy, but the buck really stops with Kraft.
Based on their history, should Kraft give Belichick the of the doubt?
Whatever decisions that are forthcoming on Belichick can’t revolve around any chase to break Shula’s record. Kraft and Belichick would probably agree on that. Yet it would be a disservice if the decisions for the future ignore what’s happened under Belichick’s watch before and after Brady’s departure.
Brady won his seventh Super Bowl ring in his first season out of New England and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 37-20 mark, including postseason, in three years.
Imagine if TB12 remained to finish his career in New England. Belichick (27-36 since Brady’s exit) might have broken Shula’s record by now. The next quarterback might be groomed already.
Instead, Brady was undoubtedly soured enough on the Patriots culture that he bolted after 20 years. And Belichick didn’t find a way to prevent it.
Since then, Belichick has struggled with a litany of bad personnel moves and questionable decisions involving his coaching staff – including the failed experiment of putting Matt Patricia (a longtime defensive coach) and Joe Judge (special teams coach) in charge of an offense needing to groom a young quarterback.
Now the prospect exists that the Patriots will secure one of the top two picks in the NFL draft in April, with a chance to select a premium quarterback. Would that buy time for Belichick to rebuild the team?
It’s tough to even imagine Belichick staying aboard if there are altered conditions, such as reducing his authority on personnel decisions or overhauling the offensive coaching staff.
But it’s also tough to believe that it will be status quo in Foxborough. Something has to give. And it won’t be pretty as a long offseason looms.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fire Bill Belichick? Patriots' move might be sensible and a stunner