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The Potential Breakup of the Patriots’ Bill Belichick-Robert Kraft Partnership

Confetti rained down around Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the two hugged near midfield, Super Bowl champs together for the sixth time. It was Feb. 3, 2019. Belichick patted Brady’s shoulder pads twice. Robert Kraft, the longtime owner of the Patriots, embraced the quarterback. He told Brady he was the best ever. They all partied together that night in Atlanta as the franchise celebrated an unmatched run of dominance. The Chainsmokers and Snoop Dogg performed.

With the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams, Kraft, Belichick and Brady each cemented their status as the most successful at their respective position in NFL history. No owner, no coach, no quarterback could match the stretch of winning that the three architects of the Patriots dynasty had orchestrated.

But behind the scenes, the relationship between Brady and Belichick was fraying. The things that had made them such a good pairing for 20 years were now pulling them apart.

Brady left New England after the 2019 season to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following season, he led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title, the seventh of his storied career. Over the last four years, the Patriots, meanwhile, tried Cam Newton, Mac Jones, then Bailey Zappe at quarterback as their offense slowly decayed into one of the league’s worst.

After arguably the best 20-year run in league history, the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since that Super Bowl in Atlanta five years ago. They’re 29-37 since Brady left and 4-12 this season, earning their first last-place finish in the AFC East since 2000, Belichick’s first year on the job. Now, they’re just a week away from a potential major sea change. Rumors abound — as they have for much of the fall — that Belichick and the Patriots may part ways at the end of the season. Answers about the franchise’s future are expected to come following a sit-down between Kraft and Belichick shortly after the Week 18 game against the New York Jets that matters only in how it will affect New England’s 2024 draft position.

The Athletic spoke with multiple team and league sources familiar with the thinking inside the building to examine how the most successful relationships in NFL history soured, putting the Patriots in a downward spiral and on the doorstep of franchise-altering questions. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, left, and coach Bill Belichick before the Patriots’ Dec. 17 game against the Chiefs. (Eric Canha / USA Today) For so long, Belichick was the perfect coach for Brady. The three-time NFL coach of the year took a shovel to the chip on Brady’s shoulder. The quarterback was at his best when he believed he’d been slighted, when he could make an enemy out of the smallest knock on him. And Belichick picked at that wound. He pointed out Brady’s flaws in team meetings more than any other player. For a long time, Brady thrived on that. And for so long, Brady was the perfect quarterback for Belichick. He believed in complementary football, willing to put his stats aside for the benefit of the team. He took discounted contracts to help Belichick build out the roster at other positions, and he didn’t complain if those additional resources weren’t used on the offense.

But by the end of 2019, celebrating another Super Bowl felt like a distant memory. The relationship between Brady and Belichick was fractured. After six Super Bowls and three MVPs, Brady was 42 years old and didn’t want to be antagonized at work anymore. He wanted the kind of contract that meant he wouldn’t go anywhere until he was 45, ensuring he retired as a Patriot. Belichick wouldn’t commit to that kind of deal.

Brady complained to Kraft throughout 2019. Belichick did the same. That wasn’t necessarily new. Kraft heard independently from the two sides for over a year, often aptly walking the tightrope of letting each side vent without making rash decisions, keeping together the most successful relationship in NFL history even when it felt like they were near a boiling point. Many within the organization credit Kraft for his work as a middleman, keeping Brady and Belichick together long enough to win that sixth Super Bowl.

Kraft’s final ploy to keep together the best coach-quarterback duo in league history was to ensure Brady would have the chance to be a free agent at the end of 2019. He hoped that would incentivize Belichick to make changes. Treat Brady differently. Make him a bigger part of the operation. Focus on the offense more.

But Belichick refused to change. He told Kraft that Brady’s play was declining. As painful as it was to say goodbye to Brady, which he did during an in-person chat at Kraft’s home, the owner understood why Brady wanted to leave, and Kraft trusted his longtime coach that the separation would eventually help the Patriots.

Since Brady’s departure, though, Kraft has grown frustrated as his team, once a model of success, has cratered into one of the NFL’s worst. Belichick, meanwhile, has expressed irritation that all the success he’s helped provide hasn’t garnered more deference during this decline. When asked before the 2023 season why fans should still be optimistic about the Patriots, Belichick quipped, “I don’t know — the last 25 years?”

In rare stumble, Bill Belichick gives air of insecurity by referring to the past

In the days before this season began, Belichick, 71, spoke with a reverence for Brady that he hadn’t to that point. Brady was returning to Gillette Stadium for the first time since his retirement for a ceremony that included a halftime speech.

As the event neared, Belichick called Brady the best offensive player ever. He said that one night wasn’t nearly enough to celebrate the former quarterback. Asked for a favorite memory, Belichick said, “There are six of them that come to mind.”

For longtime members of the organization, it was jarring to hear Belichick talk like that after years of hard coaching and limited praise for Brady. Some were left to ponder difficult questions: If Belichick had spoken like that in the final years with Brady, might the quarterback have stayed in New England? Would they have a seventh Super Bowl ring together? An eighth? Tom Brady and Belichick in 2019. (Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

But Belichick hasn’t changed. And he wasn’t going to for one player, even Brady. He may have a dry sense of humor away from the cameras, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. His demeanor inside the team’s headquarters isn’t that different from the gruff, stoic attitude regularly on display at his news conferences. Patriots Hall of Famer Kevin Faulk once said he walked past Belichick in the hallways for years, greeting him every day without so much as a “Hello” in return. Players seldom hear flattering remarks from their coach. “He definitely serves a lot of humble pie,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “He don’t praise nobody,” linebacker Mack Wilson agreed.

That can make it difficult to relate to young players who join the Patriots, a different generation that wants to understand why the team is doing certain things rather than just being ordered around, one that likes to be complimented and recognized for its hard work.

In many ways, the Patriots do things differently than the rest of the league, mostly because of how Belichick runs the show. They’ve been reluctant to embrace sports science and analytics. Belichick once said he uses analytics “less than zero” to make in-game decisions. The Patriots are one of only four NFL teams that don’t employ a multiperson analytics and research department. It’s fair to reason they haven’t modernized the way most other teams have because Belichick hasn’t seen the need to with the six Lombardi Trophies as evidence for continuing to do things his way.

While most other teams have seen their coaching staffs balloon with extra assistants in recent years, Belichick has opted to keep his inner circle tight. So the Patriots began this season with 18 assistant coaches, including only eight on offense. (The 49ers, by comparison, have 27 on staff, including 14 on offense.) That was especially troubling in 2023 when two offensive assistants left midseason. Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm left the team in November for a “health-related” issue, Belichick said, and wide receivers coach Ross Douglas left in early December to take the same job with Syracuse.

Given the small size, Belichick demands more from his…

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