Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick smiled as they stood in front of a packed auditorium on January 1. 11 at Gillette Stadium and emotionally recalled some of their best memories from their historic 24-year union with the New England Patriots.
The relationship between the team owner and the coach had just come to an end and the time was appropriate for separation. But if there was any reservation, it was when Kraft mentioned how difficult it would be to see Belichick “in a hoodie on the bench” for another team.
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That idea seemed inevitable at the time, with the Patriots among eight teams with a job opening and the most successful NFL coach on the market. Belichick, with 333 career wins, is 15 wins away from breaking Don Shula’s record, and that seemed like an obvious draw to the property, plus, of course, his coaching acumen.
However, that perception failed. The remaining coaching vacancies were filled this week, and it appears Belichick will be out of the NFL for the first time in half a century.
Despite all the positives Belichick could bring to a new organization, numerous sources around the league, granted anonymity to speak freely and without retaliation, cited a handful of reasons why the coaching legend still is out of work, and they go deeper than the mere fact that he is about to turn 72.
The Atlanta Falcons were the only known suitor with serious interest, but they hired Raheem Morris after interviewing Belichick a couple of times.
At one point, it appeared publicly that Belichick and the Falcons were gaining momentum toward a partnership. However, sources close to both parties expressed caution throughout the courtship process.
I’ve been trying to tell people for a week that Belichick going to the Falcons was never a sure thing. Both sides were gathering information on each other, open to seeing where he would go, and the Falcons intended to keep their options open.
—Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) January 25, 2024
Each of them was on a fact-finding mission to determine whether the organization’s power structure was adequate to sustain success under Belichick, who had become accustomed to complete control over football operations, while the owner of the Falcons Arthur Blank was prepared to keep his leadership structure intact. .
Sources close to Belichick also cited a frosty relationship with Falcons president Rich McKay as the main reason the sides may have decided they could or could not work together.
It’s fair to wonder why Belichick wouldn’t just put his head down, adapt to another team’s way of doing business, and focus on coaching his way to another 15 or more wins before retiring with a monopoly on major coaching records.
But if Belichick wouldn’t go out of his way to propose to Kraft a way to reverse the Patriots’ recent misfortunes, he certainly wasn’t going to do it for a relative stranger. League sources believed Kraft could have been persuaded to keep Belichick for another season if the coach had committed to changing certain strategies with the personnel department, roster construction and his offensive vision, but Belichick was used to a specific approach and wouldn’t bend that far. .
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That’s also relevant as it relates to the mutual fact-finding mission with the Falcons, and they weren’t alone among teams in the coaching market.
But more than anything, the Falcons were completely sold on Morris, according to a league source. Belichick’s resume will surpass that of any coach (in a recruiting process or historically), but his past accomplishments mattered less to the Falcons compared to what they thought Morris could bring to his future.
When the Falcons hired Morris, only the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders had openings. At the time, league sources said it was a long shot for either organization to consider Belichick, and even those odds seemed generous.
Numerous league sources echoed three main reasons: Belichick’s mishandling of the Patriots’ quarterback situation in recent years, his desire to maintain full control of football operations and a growing concern about the coach’s ability to relate to this generation of players.
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At quarterback, people around the league still don’t understand how Belichick could let Tom Brady walk away in free agency, but the lack of a succession plan was almost as baffling. Belichick went the budget route with Cam Newton in 2020 and drafted Mac Jones in the first round in 2021, but failed to develop him to virtually every measurable degree.
Jones had three offensive coordinators in three seasons, including Belichick’s decision in 2022 to employ veteran defensive coach Matt Patricia, who was almost universally praised in league circles. The offense was poorly constructed with a ragged line and mostly players with poor skills. Executives from opposing teams were also disgusted by Belichick’s public alienation of Jones.
These issues led decision makers to wonder if Belichick could build an offense without Brady or if he would have enough patience to develop a young quarterback.
The power structure was another red flag. Belichick has been fiercely loyal to his coaching confidants and like-minded personnel executives throughout his career, and those ties can be traced to the deterioration of the Patriots’ records in recent seasons, again, notably with the move. of Patricia on the offensive.
Sources from several teams that just hired new head coaches expressed varying degrees of relief that Belichick was not joining their staff. Some were concerned that Belichick would overhaul the leadership structure and order of command.
Others, particularly on the draft side, heard stories from Patriots scouts who didn’t feel their opinions carried any weight with Belichick. His draft record has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past decade, and word had spread around the league about occasions in which he overruled his personnel department with key draft decisions. The fear, especially among explorers who spend so much time traveling away from their families, is that they are wasting their time.
There has also been a change in the way players want to be coached. Many current players want to relate to their coaches as people, often feeling that this is how they will do their best seven days a week, and prefer to feel empowered by the staff.
The latest wave of new-age coaches don’t have as much of an authoritarian complex, demanding that players do everything they say simply because they are their bosses. Players want to know why they’re doing things, whether it’s the weightlifting program or a schematic technique, and coaches who can get their message across that way have become more attractive.
Although league executives agree that Belichick can still lead a defense in the current era (and the way the Patriots played still showed revolutionary ideas, they said), concerns with the offensive approach have outweighed coaching. defensive.
History has shown us that the eight hires made this cycle will not have a high success rate. As the saying goes in the business, there are only two types of coaches: those who have been fired and those who will be fired. Time could determine whether these teams will regret passing on Belichick, whether he will get another chance on the bench to prove he can still do it, or whether he will fade into retirement as those teams’ top picks are soon replaced. time.
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Regardless of how this plays out, there was a pretty strong belief that Belichick wouldn’t be on most of their short lists due to his performance over the past four years. They cited many of the same reasons why Kraft and the Patriots opted to replace Belichick with Jerod Mayo.
And that’s why Belichick might have to wait at least a year before getting another chance to lead a franchise.
(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)