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Bill Belichick’s Contract Plays Key Role in Future With Patriots

In a season-ending press conference Monday morning, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noticeably referenced his contract. Those who have watched Belichick over the decades (including this author) can’t recall the 71-year-old ever mentioning his contract.

“I’m under contract,” Belichick told reporters. “I’m going to do what I always do, which is every day I come in, work as hard as I can to help the team in whatever way I can. So that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

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Belichick’s reference of his contract shouldn’t be dismissed as a throw-away line. The winner of eight Super Bowls (six as the Patriots head coach and two as the New York Giants defensive coordinator) seldom reveals much in his public remarks.

But Belichick, who has coached the Patriots for 24 seasons, faces an uncertain future after a 3-14 season. Since Tom Brady left the team following the 2019 season, Belichick’s Patriots have been a dreadful 29-38. Owner Robert Kraft could reasonably conclude the team needs a new leader.

That’s where Belichick’s contract matters. Sportico reported last November that Belichick signed an extension in 2023 worth roughly $25 million a year that runs at least through 2024.

There are several ways the situation could play out.

First, the Patriots could fire Belichick and pay him out the remainder of his contract, as specified in the contract. Employment contracts usually contain “liquidated damages” provisions which instruct how much money the breaching side must pay the other. The Patriots terminating Belichick’s employment would constitute a breach of his employment contract. It’s possible the Patriots would need to pay Belichick the entire remaining amount or some portion of it.

Second, Belichick could breach his contract by quitting. Belichick might prefer to leave the team on his own terms rather than being fired. Belichick, whose 333 career wins trails only the 347 held by the late Don Shula on the all-time NFL coaching win list, could also eye potential coaching openings with teams better situated to win next season.

Belichick has the right to quit—no employee can be physically compelled to perform an employment contract—but there would be contractual consequences. He may owe liquidated damages to the Patriots, or he may be bound by non-competes and other covenants limiting his ability to join another team absent the Patriots’ permission (and possible compensation).

And a third option: Belichick and Kraft negotiate his exit. Belichick is a legendary figure in New England, and while this past season has been disappointing, he is, by many accounts, the greatest coach of all time. Even the persistent criticism that Belichick can’t win without Brady is misleading, given that it was Belichick who drafted Brady and kept him as the starter even after quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who Brady replaced after Bledsoe was injured, returned to health.

Belichick and the Patriots mutually parting ways could take the form of an agreement that ends his employment contract and any remaining obligations each has to the other. Alternatively, the Patriots could “trade” Belichick—and his contract—to another team seeking to hire him and that Belichick wishes to coach. The team could send the Patriots compensation in the form of draft picks.

The Patriots surely hope Belichick’s exit is less litigious than his arrival. In January 2000, Belichick sued the New York Jets and NFL in an antitrust lawsuit, arguing “the NFL and its member teams exercise monopoly power” over the employment market for “major league professional football coaches” in the U.S.

At the time, Belichick had just abruptly quit as Jets head coach—he wrote a note saying, “I resign as HC of the NYJ”—after Jets general manager Bill Parcells himself quit as Jets head coach; per Belichick’s contract, Parcells’ exit immediately elevated Belichick to head coach. Parcells quit after the Patriots fired then-head coach Pete Carroll in hopes of hiring Belichick, who was then contractually barred from leaving the Jets. The NFL commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, said Belichick must honor his Jets contract.

It was a dizzying set of events, but Belichick’s attorney, Jeffrey Kessler (the same Jeffrey Kessler who later lost to the NFL in Tom Brady’s Deflategate case but who defeated the NCAA 9-0 at the U.S. Supreme Court in NCAA v. Alston), insisted NFL policies illegally restrained the free movement of coaches by permitting a group boycott of Belichick’s services.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed, with the Patriots agreeing to send three draft picks to the Jets for two lesser draft picks and the right to hire Belichick. Belichick withdrew his lawsuit. The rest was history.

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