AFC East Reporter
Bill Belichick is on to …
Well, we don’t actually know where. Belichick is — in a surreal yet unsurprising twist — the former coach of the New England Patriots. He is without a job. It’s the end of an era in New England.
No more Tom Brady.
No more Rob Gronkowski.
No more Julian Edelman.
And now, no more Belichick.
His mark on the franchise is incalculable. But starting now, it begins to fade. That’s the nature of a league that resets every season. And — boy — do the Patriots need a reset.
“I’ll always be a Patriot,” Belichick told reporters on Thursday. “I’ll look forward to coming back here. But at this time, we’re going to move on and I look forward, excited for the future.
By about midseason, this outcome seemed inevitable. The writing was on the wall going back to previous offseasons, when owner Robert Kraft began to exert pressure with passive-aggressive remarks about overspending in free agency (“I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason,” Kraft said. “So we know nothing is guaranteed.”) and poor draft classes (“If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft said. “You have to do it through the draft.”).
Surely, Kraft didn’t appreciate Belichick moving on from Brady, whom the owner has long said is like a son to him. When Brady won the Super Bowl for Tampa Bay in 2021 — with the Bills blowing out the Patriots in the wild-card round a few weeks earlier — it was the first strike against Belichick. And it has all been downhill since then.
Leading up to this, Belichick did not show any vulnerability — nor did he crack in recent weeks when asked about the possibility of this exit. Kraft, though, seemed to be carefully spinning the story, because exits like this are almost always ugly. One side often ends up looking bad. Just look at how Belichick handled the exit of Brady. That move and Brady’s Super Bowl win have Belichick’s legacy looking far more complicated than we thought it would.
And Kraft will have to worry about the exact same issue, with Belichick on the move.
Back when the Patriots were 2-10, it was easy to start thinking about what openings might work for the coach. In fact, at that time, Buffalo looked like a potential destination. How scandalous: Bill … a Bill? But no, the Bills started winning. The current list includes:
Los Angeles Chargers
Unlikely but possible
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After months of speculation, we get to see exactly what happens. Belichick’s legacy needs renovation, and he’ll have to decide if he prefers a team like the Chargers, who are in salary-cap jail but have a franchise quarterback (Justin Herbert). Or maybe Belichick is drawn to the Commanders, who are actually quite similar to — though even more appealing than — the Patriots. Both teams have massive amounts of cap space and high draft picks. And finally, Belichick could try to find an already completed roster. That seems to make the most sense for a coach who wants to win now and get his name past Don Shula’s all-time wins total. That’s why the Bills make sense. It’s why the Cowboys make a tiny bit of sense.
And then there’s the question of who wants him.
Should teams be lining up for Bill Belichick?
As successful as he has been, Belichick might find himself in a situation like Brady was in 2020, when the suitors were not as prolific as he might have expected. Like Brady, Belichick is coming off a bad stretch when he is showing his age. Like Brady, teams might view Belichick as a stop-gap option. Even though Belichick has experience and an ultra-impressive résumé, some teams will think they can find two in the bush with a candidate like Ben Johnson (Maybe he’s the next Sean McVay!?) rather than a known entity like Belichick.
Once the awkward period of frictional unemployment ends for Belichick, he’ll have a new landing spot and a fresh start. If he’s smart (like Brady was), the free-agent coach will find a team that lets him correct the recent influx of criticism that has come his way. Because make no mistake: Belichick is a great coach. He is one of the best to ever do it. And while Brady has earned more credit for winning a Super Bowl without Belichick, the coach might actually use this departure from New England as an opportunity.
Because Belichick’s legacy is complicated. He helped make Brady. The quarterback has made that clear. And Belichick put together good offenses, defenses and special-teams units that supported Brady in his early career. I’d argue Belichick was to credit for those first three Super Bowl wins. But Brady definitely deserved more credit for the fourth, fifth and sixth. And because of recency bias, Belichick’s bungling of team management and personnel — something he was previously so shrewd about — makes him look less capable. His inability to get good offensive players on the field, in particular, calls into question all the times when people praised him (not Brady) for overachievers like Julian Edelman, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, among others.
Belichick has left the door open for doubters. Some of them are acting in bad faith. Others are fair.
And both things can be true: Belichick was truly great with Brady. Belichick has not been the same without Brady.
Now is the time — likely the last time — for Belichick to prove his greatness. He can pick a situation that sets him up for success, like Brady did. He can build a new team in his image and vision. And Belichick can take another crack at winning a Super Bowl. Just like Brady recast what everyone had to say about his final season in New England, which ended with four losses in a six-game stretch, including the postseason game where Brady’s final throw was an interception.
An interception … that no one talks about.
Maybe that’s the final lesson Belichick can learn from Brady. This whole season was a disaster for the Patriots and Belichick. But if he can get back to winning somewhere else, people will largely forget about 2023. They’ll remember the six Super Bowls and whatever else the coach accomplishes in the years to come.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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