Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick smiled as they stood in front of a packed auditorium Jan. 11 at Gillette Stadium and emotionally recalled some of their fondest memories from their historic 24-year union with the New England Patriots.
The team owner and coach’s run together had just come to an end, and it was an appropriate time for the split. But if there had been any reservation, it was when Kraft mentioned how difficult it would be to see Belichick “in a cutoff hoodie on the sideline” for another team.
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That idea felt inevitable in the moment, with the Patriots among eight teams with a job opening and the NFL’s most successful coach on the market. Belichick, with 333 career victories, is 15 wins shy of breaking Don Shula’s record, and that seemed like an obvious attraction to ownership — on top, of course, of his coaching acumen.
That perception fell flat, however. The remaining coaching vacancies were filled this week, and it appears Belichick won’t be on an NFL sideline for the first time in a half-century.
For all the positives Belichick could bring to a new organization, numerous sources around the league, granted anonymity to speak freely without reprisal, cited a handful of reasons the coaching legend is still out of a job, and it runs deeper than the mere fact he’s 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 seemed publicly as though Belichick and the Falcons were building momentum toward a partnership. However, sources close to both sides expressed caution throughout the courting process.
Been trying to tell people for a week Belichick to the Falcons was never a sure thing. Both sides were gathering information about each other, open to seeing where it’d go, and the Falcons intended to keep their options wide open. https://t.co/0Nu0PqOWGh
— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) January 25, 2024
They were each on a fact-finding mission to determine whether the organization’s power structure was the right fit to sustain success with Belichick, who had become accustomed to total control over football operations, as Falcons owner Arthur Blank was poised to keep his leadership structure intact.
Sources close to Belichick also cited a frosty relationship with Falcons president Rich McKay as a primary reason the parties might have decided they could or should not work together.
It’s fair to wonder why Belichick wouldn’t just put his head down, adapt to another team’s way of business and focus on coaching his way to another 15-plus wins before retiring with a monopoly of significant coaching records.
But if Belichick wouldn’t go all in to pitch Kraft on a way to turn around the Patriots’ recent misfortunes, he certainly wasn’t going to do it for a relative stranger. League sources believed Kraft might have been swayed to keep Belichick for another season if the coach committed to changing certain strategies with the personnel department, roster construction and his offensive vision, but Belichick had been accustomed to a specific approach and wouldn’t bend that far.
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That’s also pertinent as it related to the mutual fact-finding mission with the Falcons, and they were hardly alone among teams in the coaching market.
But more than anything, the Falcons were wholly sold on Morris, according to a league source. Belichick’s resume will trump any coach’s — in a hiring process, or historically — but his past accomplishments mattered less to the Falcons compared with what they thought Morris could bring to their future.
When the Falcons hired Morris, only the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders had openings. At that time, league sources called it a long shot for either organization to consider Belichick, and even those odds seemed generous.
Three primary reasons were echoed by numerous league sources: Belichick’s mishandling of the Patriots’ quarterback situation in recent years, his desire to maintain total control of football operations and a growing concern over 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 leave in free agency, but the lack of a succession plan was nearly as perplexing. 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 by virtually every measurable degree.
Jones had three offensive coordinators in three seasons, including Belichick’s decision in 2022 to employ longtime defensive coach Matt Patricia, which was almost universally criticized in league circles. The offense was poorly constructed with a patchwork line and mostly substandard skill players. Executives from opposing teams were also turned off by Belichick’s public alienation of Jones.
These issues led decision-makers to wonder whether Belichick could build an offense without Brady or 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 could be traced to the Patriots’ deteriorating records in recent seasons — again, notably with moving Patricia to offense.
Sources with multiple teams that just hired new head coaches expressed varying degrees of relief Belichick wasn’t joining their team. Some were concerned Belichick would overhaul the leadership structure and the order of command.
Others, particularly on the draft side, heard stories from Patriots scouts who didn’t feel their opinions had carried any weight with Belichick. His draft record has come under heavy scrutiny over the past decade, and word had spread across the league about occasions when he overruled his personnel department with key draft decisions. The fear, especially with scouts who spend so much time on the road away from their families, is they’d be wasting their time.
There’s also been a change in the way players want to be coached. So many current players want to relate to their coaches as people, often feeling that’s how they’ll show up at their best for seven days a week, and they prefer to feel empowered by the staff.
The latest wave of new-age coaches doesn’t have as much of an authoritarian complex, demanding players do everything they say simply because they’re their bosses. Players want to know why they’re doing things, whether it’s the weightlifting schedule or a schematic technique, and coaches who can deliver their message in such a way have become more appealing.
Though executives around the league agree Belichick can still lead a defense in the current era — and the way the Patriots played still showed revolutionary ideas, they’ve said — the concerns with the offensive approach have outweighed the defensive coaching.
History has shown us that the eight hires made in this cycle won’t 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 might determine whether these teams will regret bypassing Belichick, whether he gets another chance on the sideline to prove he can still do it or fades into retirement as those teams’ preferred hires are replaced in short order.
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However it plays out, there was a strong enough conviction Belichick wouldn’t be on most of their shortlists due to his performance over the past four years. They cited many of the same reasons Kraft and the Patriots opted to replace Belichick with Jerod Mayo.
And it’s why Belichick might have to wait at least a year before he gets another chance to lead a franchise.
(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)