Robert Kraft didn't step lightly in discussing Patriots' slide to mediocrity

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Tom E. Curran
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Curran: Kraft's assessment of Patriots is a challenge to Belichick originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Over the past couple weeks, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft agreed to new player contracts that total about a quarter-billion American dollars.

Even if all that doesn’t get paid out, the nearly $170 million in guaranteed money in those deals will. That’s about what Kraft spent to buy the franchise in 1993 (h/t ESPN's Mike Reiss).

On a long and candid conference call with media Wednesday afternoon, Kraft sounded like a man who wasn’t real interested in stepping lightly so as to not offend. He sounded like a guy who just agreed to spend a quarter-billion American dollars and isn’t going to shrug if the employees he spent it on don’t work out.

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He sounded like a real sharp almost-80-year-old who -- with all due respect -- DGAF about what happened with the football business from 2000 to 2018. He hasn’t liked the direction. He hasn’t liked the decisions. He’s spent the money. Now he wants to see some results.  

This wasn’t nearly Kraft putting Bill Belichick “on notice.” But it was definitely Kraft confirming that he has noticed. And that he’s no more pleased about it than you.

Kraft has gone along to get along for the entirety of Belichick’s tenure. He’s done so because Belichick brilliantly turned Kraft’s $172M investment into about a $4B asset, created the gold standard for performance in sports and business and yadda, yadda, yadda.

But over the past few years, Kraft has held his tongue through a few things. The Malcolm Butler benching that probably cost the team a Super Bowl. The protracted pissing match between Belichick and Tom Brady that made things untenable. The Antonio Brown mess in which Kraft got all kinds of mud thrown on him by Brown. The sad saga of Josh Gordon, who the Patriots were forced to add in 2018 because they didn’t staff wideout well enough. The puzzling resistance to adding tight ends until the position became virtually non-existent in the New England offense.

Kraft still gets blamed for allegedly forcing Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo, a charge Kraft insists is untrue but one that Belichick has never corrected. Meanwhile, Garoppolo has proven to be one of the worst big-money investments in league history because he’s brittle as a Ritz cracker.

And then there’s the litany of missed picks in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft that ultimately led to Kraft having to buy this year’s team rather than watching Belichick grow it.

Patriots Talk Podcast: A blow-by-blow breakdown of Robert Kraft’s State of the Patriots address | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

So what we got on that call was Kraft politely stating his dissatisfaction with what’s gone on recently and calling it like he sees it.

“In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent winning football team you can’t do it in free agency,” said Kraft after just trying to buy a winning team through free agency.

“You have to do it through the draft. Because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent … and get them at a price where you can build a team and be competitive. Once they get to their first contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them.

"So the teams that draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years. I really hope and I believe I’ve seen a different approach this year. In the end it all comes out to what happens on the field and how well people execute.”

As opposed to Belichick saying he wasn’t going to apologize for the past 20 years or that he’s “seen a lot worse” or bringing up players like Matt Light and Rob Gronkowski as proof the team’s been terrific with second-round picks, Kraft opted to live in the present.

He cited the “weapons” surrounding Cam Newton as being insufficient. He acknowledged there still seems to be work to do at quarterback instead of opting for “we’ll see” and “we’ll make the best decisions for the football team.” He pointed out how, even if Brady stayed, he wouldn’t have saved them.

“Look at what happened at the end of his last season here," Kraft said.

Where's the juice?

Patriots' NFL rank in yards per game, 2019

15th

Patriots' NFL rank in yards per game, 2020

27th

Variation

Double

One thing Kraft circled back to time and again was how much the team benefited from having its teardown/rebuild take place in a year when the salary cap dropped. They were lucky.

“We had to make the corrections,” Kraft said. “In all businesses we’re involved in, we try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the market – in the paper business and anything. We were in a unique cap situation this coming year going forward and it allowed us to try things. We missed, to a certain extent in the draft, so this was our best opportunity. I don’t ever think the market over the next decade will be like unless, God forbid, there’s another pandemic.

“ ... I think if there was ever a year to do it, this would be the year because we’d move quickly and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three.

“ ... People would say exactly what you’re saying now, ‘Look at what’s happened with other teams.’ But you have to look at the customized part of what’s going on and I think we collectively made a decision that this is a unique time and now we’ll see how good our people were in evaluating talent and the chemistry.” 

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That little word choice: “Now we’ll see how good our people were in evaluating talent…”? That’s not an edict and it’s not a mandate. But it is a challenge.

None of what Kraft said Wednesday will escape Belichick’s notice. And the fact it’s this newsworthy that Kraft points to something and says, “That hasn’t been very good…” is testament to just how carefully the organization is conditioned to step around the head coach for fear of drawing his ire.

It’s kinda wild. Then again, nobody’s ever done what Belichick’s done. There is no “maybe” in front of the “best to ever do it.”

Belichick is the best head coach in NFL history. Maybe in the history of organized American sports. He hit a rough patch two decades in. The guy who owns the team doesn’t need to apologize for pointing that out.

“In the end, I trust Coach Belichick’s ability to build a team and put the right players in the best position to succeed,” Kraft concluded. “Over the past couple decades, he’s done ok. When I’m privileged to have good managers … we give them autonomy and we let them do their thing.”

We’ll see what direction this thing goes now.