Are Bill Belichick, New England Patriots heading for divorce?

By Bucky Brooks, Analyst

All good things come to an end, and from the outside looking in, it sure seems like the end is near for the Bill Belichick era in New England. Despite winning six Super Bowls and 17 division titles during one of the greatest runs in NFL history, the second-winningest head coach ever could be headed to the unemployment line at the end of the 2023 season.

It’s a possibility that I pondered in this space back in July, just a few months after some eyebrow-raising comments from Robert Kraft. At the Annual League Meeting in March, the Patriots owner was asked whether Belichick’s job could be in jeopardy with another losing season — or if the coach would comfortably remain in New England to break Don Shula’s all-time record of 347 Ws, no matter what. Kraft’s response was telling.

“Look, 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. “We’re about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. And that’s what our focus is now. And I — it’s very important to me that we make the playoffs, and that’s what I hope happens next year.”

If those particular words did not put the grizzled head coach on notice, how about these ones from the same media scrum?

“Look, I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. And I’ve given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done,” Kraft said. “His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled, from what I’ve seen, and when you talk to him, the small things analytically that he looks at. But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win, or you don’t. That’s where we’re at.”

It does not get much clearer than that when it comes to setting expectations. Back in March, Kraft absolutely expected his team to return to the postseason. But here we are in Week 6, and New England sits in dead last in the AFC East at 1-4, averaging a league-worst 11 points per game. Like Kraft said, the NFL is a business. And since the departure of Tom Brady, Patriots business has not been booming, with New England logging a 26-29 record while making just one playoff appearance. Given the “What have you done for me lately?” nature of the NFL and the extremely high standard in New England, Kraft could be hard pressed continuing into 2024 with the future gold-jacket recipient installed as the football czar of his franchise. That’s what Belichick is as the head coach and de facto general manager in New England: the football czar. Consequently, the current Patriots’ striking lack of talent and lackluster execution both fall on his shoulders.

Not only have the Pats fallen behind the AFC heavyweights in 2023, but they’ve dropped below the middleweights, too. New England’s roster cannot compare to the star-studded concoctions put together by teams like the Dolphins and Chargers. And the Patriots’ lack of home-grown blue-chip players makes it impossible for them to compete with the draft-and-develop programs utilized by the Chiefs, Ravens, Bengals and Bills. With the Jaguars also emerging as a team that utilizes a hybrid developmental approach, New England’s alarming regression suggests Belichick has failed in the talent acquisition, development and utilization phases. Moreover, the gap between New England’s top players and the elites on other squads puts the head coach squarely in the crosshairs for his personnel miscues. The team has not drafted well or utilized free agency effectively enough to keep pace with competitors, and the coach has been unable to scheme his way around the Patriots’ deficiencies.

Bill O’Brien’s re-hiring as offensive coordinator has not masked the lack of speed or explosiveness on the perimeter or the inconsistent play of an offensive line that has failed to generate any push at the line of scrimmage. Throw in quarterback Mac Jones‘ backslide over the past couple seasons, and the Patriots look like a team in need of a complete rebuild before they can even contemplate a return to the playoffs.

Now Kraft’s left to determine if Belichick can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But based on a four-year sample size since Brady’s departure, it is hard to imagine the head coach reversing the franchise’s fortunes without somehow acquiring another generational talent at quarterback. In fact, Belichick’s struggles remind me of Andy Reid’s woes in Philadelphia following Donovan McNabb‘s departure in 2010. Though he led the 2010 Eagles to a playoff appearance behind a resurgent Michael Vick, Reid was ultimately fired after the 2012 campaign.

Could Belichick be heading toward a pink slip of his own? It sure seems that way, as losses mount and Kraft’s playoff mandate becomes more of a laughable pipe dream.

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