Patriots owner Robert Kraft just spent a quarter billion dollars on Gillette Stadium renovations, including the construction of the largest outdoor scoreboard on the planet.
On Sunday, that scoreboard very prominently revealed the most lopsided shutout loss in franchise history, a 34-0 meltdown against the inconsistent New Orleans Saints.
There’s a school of thought that suggests Bill Belichick has earned the right to go out on his own accord, that the architect of the greatest dynasty in NFL history can coach in New England as long as he chooses.
Kraft doesn’t subscribe to it.
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As Belichick pursues Don Shula’s all-time wins record, Kraft’s priorities will be tested. For the better part of two decades, the Patriots found new ways to measure their historic levels of success through pages upon pages of record books. But over the past two weeks, Belichick suffered the biggest blowout defeat of his career against the Dallas Cowboys (38-3) and followed it up with the organization’s worst home shutout. This is the first time since Kraft bought the team they’ve lost two games by 30 points in the same season, and it happened within a span of seven days.
The entire operation needs to improve — and fast. The Patriots are 1-4 and returning to the scene of their most humiliating loss in 2022 to take on another Kraft favorite: Las Vegas Raiders coach Josh McDaniels, as well as an owner in Mark Davis who has become business partners with Tom Brady. This is going to be a gut-check type of week for Kraft.
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Then the Patriots take on the Bills and Dolphins, two AFC East opponents that have had a one-sided advantage over the Patriots since 2020. After that stretch, seven of their final nine opponents have superior records.
Belichick is sitting at 330 career victories. For a while, Belichick had been on track to surpass Shula’s 347 wins in 2024, which would sync up with his 50th season in the NFL.
But if the Patriots don’t start beating comparable opponents, let alone the perceived superior foes, that 348th victory may not be within reach in 2024. And if this chase continues at the current pace, how much energy would the fan base realistically expend to celebrate No. 348 — whenever it may come?
Kraft likes to remind people he grew up as a Patriots fan during the organization’s darkest days. But that doesn’t mean he has patience to endure more of them. On multiple occasions in recent years, he has lamented the team’s lack of a postseason victory in the post-Brady era. Kraft has grown frustrated, if not downright angry, over this shortage of success, according to people close to the situation.
Kraft hired Belichick in 2000 because he was enamored with two primary attributes. First, Kraft gained a firsthand appreciation for Belichick’s brilliant defensive mind and leadership presence when he was on Bill Parcells’ Patriots staff in 1996. Second, Kraft loved Belichick’s savviness and organization with the salary cap as it related to roster construction. Belichick was an incredible forward thinker during a time when many teams were still struggling to navigate the relatively new cap system.
But Belichick has failed to evolve. One example: The Patriots haven’t invested in big-time wide receivers despite the league trending in that direction. That philosophy worked for a long time with Brady running the offense, but it’s an antiquated way of thinking in the current state of the league. Beyond that, the value moves haven’t panned out, with Jakobi Meyers’ instant success with the Raiders and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s struggles with the Patriots refocusing the spotlight on that free-agent exchange.
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The Patriots, under Belichick’s watch, have also struggled to draft and develop talent. Punter Jake Bailey, a 2019 fifth-round pick, was the last in-house selection to get a multiyear contract extension, and he was cut seven months later. Four other players got similar extensions in the previous four seasons, all of them fourth- or fifth-round selections.
Safety Kyle Dugger and outside linebacker Josh Uche, each in the final year of their contracts, are certainly well-aware of the pattern. Meanwhile, contenders like the Kansas Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles are consistently paying to keep their homegrown talent.
The offensive line has gotten progressively worse each season since famed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired following 2019. While injuries have been a persistent problem, the bottoming out of this line had been brewing for too long because of mismanaged assets in the draft and free agency.
New England has also gotten minimal production out of their tight ends in the post-Rob Gronkowski world, virtually ignoring the position in the draft during the 2010s before whiffing on a pair of third-rounders in 2020 and eventually signing Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to lucrative deals in 2021.
And now they’ve got a quarterback conundrum. Maybe Mac Jones isn’t the guy. Maybe he’s got above-average potential. Based on the lack of stability around him, it’s hard to truly know for sure.
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But look at the Eagles, who drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round in 2020, surrounded the quarterback with an incredible offensive line, used first-round picks to draft and acquire Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown and developed him with coach Nick Sirianni’s top-notch coaching staff. Look at the Seattle Seahawks, who revived quarterback Geno Smith and built up the offense around him. Look at the Detroit Lions with the reclamation project Jared Goff. The point is, there are ways to find a quarterback and install a user-friendly offense around him without backing into the No. 1 pick.
On the sideline, NFL observers were dumbfounded by the lack of a succession plan when then-offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels departed in 2022. Belichick’s promotion of the defensive-minded Matt Patricia backfired catastrophically, with the supposed thinking a year ago that a reunion with Bill O’Brien or a coordinator with an offensive pedigree would lead to another coach getting poached in short order.
And yet, Belichick has lost numerous coaches, executives and scouts over the years because they weren’t going to get a better job title in New England and found promotions elsewhere. They nearly faced a similar fate last offseason with Jerod Mayo before Kraft stepped in with a significant pay raise.
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Belichick alienated Jones last season, a truth so obvious around the Patriots’ building that Kraft became aware and had to take the temperature of the situation. It rattled Jones’ confidence last season, among the other issues with the offense, and it’s reasonable to wonder how much it’s hindered his play this season, questioning whether any given mistake could shorten his leash or cut it entirely.
The Patriots are already at that point through five weeks. While Jones is expected to start Sunday against the Raiders, a league source said this is still a very important week of practice for the third-year quarterback as Belichick evaluates every position on the roster. If backup Bailey Zappe provided a spark in either of his two relief appearances during the last two losses, this decision would be a lot closer, a league source said.
The defense, according to sources, has grown increasingly frustrated with the offense, which ranks last in the NFL with 10.6 points per game.
In an attempt to get the team’s attention, Belichick changed the practice schedule this week, giving the players a day off Monday before returning Tuesday with a walkthrough. Typically, the Patriots have Tuesdays off after film sessions Monday. If these subtler tactics don’t lead to a better performance in Las Vegas, more prominent changes with the depth chart could be on the horizon.
The fact is the Patriots are 26-29 since 2020, the 20th-best record in the league and the third-best in the division over that stretch. More than half the league (18 teams) has won a playoff game since the Patriots’ last postseason victory in Super Bowl LIII.
They’ve fallen multiple games under .500 at some point during a fourth consecutive season — something that hadn’t happened since their 0-2 start in 2001. They’re at an imminent risk of falling four games under .500 for the first time since 2000.
One particular statistic tells the most damning story: During the offense’s last 31 possessions, which spans more than two games, the Patriots have actually been outscored, 22-3. That’s three points for the offense and three touchdowns for opposing defenses.
While the Patriots have gradually pulled themselves out of these early holes in the previous three seasons to at least get into the playoff conversation, they weren’t doing it on the heels of the two most lopsided losses of Belichick’s career.
Maybe the Patriots do find a way to buck these trends. Maybe they just weren’t ready to compete with Dallas and needed a dramatic wake-up call against the Saints. Maybe they’ll beat the Raiders and catch a better team sleeping a week later to reshape their confidence, and they’ll improve as they get healthier in the second half. Then maybe they’ll rally together as underdogs and remind the world they were once written off at 1-4.
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But the Patriots dynasty wasn’t built on maybes. They were the better team on the field nearly every week for almost 18 years — outplaying and out-coaching their opponents almost every week.
Now, they’re second to last in point differential (-76), turnover differential (-8) and in current possession of the fifth pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, an indication of how far they’ve got to climb if they’ve got any designs on being relevant this winter. Based on their lack of execution in the first five games, there’s little evidence to suggest a marked turnaround is imminent.
And Kraft has long since gotten sick of watching other teams’ highlights on his new scoreboard.
(Photos: Maddie Malhotra, Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)
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