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Belichick's exit raises questions about Patriots' power dynamics

Belichick's exit raises questions about Patriots' power dynamics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Aristotle coined the phrase, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

He’s been dead 2,700 years and even he can hear the sucking sound coming from Foxboro, Massachusetts. Not the on-field, 4-13, can’t-score-a-touchdown-in-six-of-17-games sucking. Sucking from the void left behind by Bill Belichick’s ouster.

It will be filled. It has to be.

The football buck needs to stop somewhere. The questions Robert and Jonathan Kraft need to answer are, “Who’s in charge? Who’s making final decisions? Who sets the course for the team? How do we foster a healthy transition rather than a bloodthirsty, backstabbing race for power?"

Conversations with different parties I’ve had since last Thursday indicate three things.

Who's in charge down there?!

First, ownership is inclined to make very few changes in 2024 beyond moving on from Belichick. Phil Perry was the first to report on the personnel department remaining intact.

The reasoning is this: With the biggest tree in NFL history felled, how does the ecosystem respond? Is there growth? The Krafts like the people in their building. They do not know who does what and how well.

Robert Kraft pointed out last week, “When you have someone like Bill, who's had control over every decision, every coach we hire, the organization reports to him on the draft, and how much money we spend. Every decision has been his, and we've always supported him."

Kraft added, “Accountability is important to me in every one of our companies.”

At the moment, we don’t have clarity on who’s accountable. The Patriots own the third overall pick, the third-highest amount of cap space, a host of expiring contracts and face a full offensive rebuild. These decisions will propel them back to competitiveness, lift them to mediocrity or lock them in with the bottom-feeders. It’s either a golden opportunity or a grenade with the pin pulled.

There’s mass hysteria that the Krafts are positioning themselves to make these calls.

A long ESPN article released Friday alleged Belichick felt his culture was being “eroded” by ownership meddling.

The three instances cited: re-signing current head coach Jerod Mayo, insisting last offseason that Belichick hire an experienced offensive coordinator and preferring to see how quarterback Mac Jones did in 2023 with Bill O’Brien as his offensive coordinator.

Relative to those instances, here’s what I learned: After 2022, Belichick’s preference was to continue with Matt Patricia as offensive coordinator. That was overruled. Robert Kraft wanted an experienced offensive coordinator installed. Belichick submitted a list of potential coordinators. Ownership approved them. O’Brien was on the list. Belichick pursued O’Brien. O’Brien didn’t interact with ownership during that period.

As for Jones, ownership definitely preferred to see how he performed with O’Brien. But no trade proposal surfaced in the offseason that ownership vetoed. At the trade deadline, with quarterback injuries sweeping the league, the possibility was again broached and it was OK’d, though nothing materialized.

It was indicated to me very strongly that ownership won’t be making football decisions nor have they been. There’s no desire to put a Jerry Jones-ian stamp on things. To put a twist on an old Bill Parcells-ism, “They know what they don’t know.”

Also worth noting: Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer indicated that, had Belichick been left to his own devices in 2023, he may have drafted quarterback Will Levis. So the quarterback room would have been Levis and Bailey Zappe (if Jones were traded), with Patricia in his second year as an offensive coordinator.

Bubbleguts epidemic

All this uncertainty has led to a rampant case of the the bubbleguts down in Foxboro. Which brings me to the second thing I’ve observed. There’s a lot of suspicion, whispering, mistrust and positioning going on.

Ownership didn’t do itself or Jerod Mayo any short-term favors by anointing him Belichick’s successor contractually and verbally. Even if the intention was to make sure Mayo stayed in the organization, the result was that – once the season started to spiral and speculation centered on whether Kraft would follow through on his ultimatums – Mayo became the bad guy for many in the organization.

Even though the defense he and Steve Belichick spearheaded was the only part of the team that consistently worked (despite losing its two most talented players in Matt Judon and Christian Gonzalez), the notion Mayo undermined his mentor was pushed.

Wickersham’s article noted Mayo was seen swinging a baseball bat at defensive meetings. Come to find out it was a mini souvenir bat and that -- in these never-ending meetings -- all manner of balls and fidget toys would at times appear.

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In-season reports of Mayo “rubbing people the wrong way” is further evidence of Mayo’s comportment being scrutinized and criticized in a way it wouldn’t have been had the Krafts just let things play out.

Now, if there’s no major staff overhaul coming, do people holster their grudges and perceptions for the greater good? Or is this unsettledness perceived as opportunity to make a case, keep on whispering and create alliances?

This Machiavellian atmosphere has been with this team since Belichick’s been here. The double-dealing and backroom intrigue that accompanied his leaving the Jets and landing here in 2000 is legend. As was that of Bill Parcells.

Over 24 years, the Patriots have been a closed system. Belichick preferred to hire young coaches and personnel people and develop them with his vision. The on-field results speak for themselves. But there was often a competition among coaches, especially to be Belichick’s favorite. That dynamic became more apparent the past few seasons as Belichick reeled back in coaches who ascended here, went elsewhere, failed, then returned.

It hasn’t been healthy. And now, with assertions of the Krafts meddling and Mayo apparently coming from within the building, “running it back” sans Belichick feels easier said than done.

They wanna know

Multiple sources expressed to me over the years that Belichick’s interactions with ownership weren’t that different than his interactions with the media.

Free agent acquisitions, trades, draft picks, staff structure, coaching hires, game plans, practice schedules -- that was all Belichick’s kingdom. Ownership built up a tolerance for not being looped in based on Belichick’s success. It was Bill’s world and everyone else was just living in it.

Keeping it all together was, as Robert Kraft has stated publicly, ownership’s greatest triumph.

It’s a tribute to Belichick’s ability to consolidate power when you realize that ownership wasn’t really at liberty to interrogate the process at all.

Kraft spoke directly about that dynamic on Thursday.

“In my opinion, he earned (the right to run everything his way),” Kraft said. “And, it worked pretty well for most of the time. But all of us need checks and balances in our life. We need what I say – I call it, we need 'Dr. No's' around us, people to protect ourselves from ourselves, protect us from ourselves. And, as things evolve and you get more power, sometimes people are afraid to speak up.

"I'm speaking about all companies. I think it's good to have checks and balances, but once you have it, it's kind of hard to pull it away and expect to have the accountability you want.”

The simple fact is, the Patriots went 4-13. They are three years removed from a major rebuild in which more than $170 million in guaranteed money was given out to free agents and the quarterback of the future was drafted.

The team is worse than it was then. It’s worse than it was when Belichick took it over in 2000. Ownership wants to see how things work without Belichick. They’ve walked out on a thin branch. But they believed the status quo had to change.

Moving on from Belichick was a seismic decision. What’s the new direction, the new vision? That seems TBD.