Bill Belichick-Robert Kraft Feud at Heart of Patriots Split

Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and
Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and / Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Kraft had gotten what he wanted. On Wednesday, mere hours after news broke that the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick would be parting ways, the two walked out in front of the hoard of media members that had congregated in Foxborough. The notoriously dispassionate Belichick even cracked a joke to the media: "I haven't seen this many cameras since we signed Tebow."

Belichick and Kraft gave statements, the legendary coach followed by the owner of the Patriots. Their words straddled the line between gratitude and somberness as the pair reminisced about their unprecedented success of the last 24 years. Each of them cracked a smile and embraced as the shutters clicked, Kraft getting his picture perfect moment. In their statements, both made a point to stress that their parting of the ways was mutual and amicable.

In the days before the news of a Belichick split from the Patriots arrived in the early morning hours on Wednesday, reports had emerged that Kraft was "sensitive to the narrative that he'd fire one of the best coaches in history" and that the situation would "be handled delicately". When Adam Schefter and Mike Reiss broke the news, their account of the Belichick's last days in New England hinted at being carefully curated by Kraft himself.

"From sources familiar with those conversations, there was said to be no conflict, no disagreement, and in the end, productive talks resulted in a mutual decision that left both sides comfortable and at ease."

Adam Schefter & Mike Reiss

Kraft had controlled the narrative about the divorce between him and Belichick, something that he had so desperately craved all along. With a year remaining on Belichick's contract, Kraft "took the high road" in allowing him to leave without seeking compensation, granting the former head coach the freedom to choose his next landing spot. Everything was sunshine and rainbows, down to the "no conflict, no disagreement" and the "mutual decision" of both parties to go their separate ways.

The tale of the last days of Bill Belichick in New England were told through the lens of the public relations masterclass put on by Robert Kraft, but that version of events lacks full veracity. The full story of their breakup can't be told without the context of animosity and friction in the years that preceded.

Belichick's Handling of the Quarterback Position Put Cracks in the Foundation

Much of the tension between the Krafts and Belichick can be traced back to the coach's handling of the most important position in sports, quarterback. The Patriots came up 39 seconds short of a historically perfect 19-0 season in Super Bowl XLII, and in the aftermath Belichick internally floated the idea of trading Brady and expressed his desire to win a Super Bowl without the three-time MVP. Going behind Belichick's back, Kraft promised Brady in 2010 that the owner would allow him to have a say in his next destination should Belichick ever decide to move on from him.

Perhaps arrogance had gotten the better of Belichick, he and his staff had famously drastically underrated the quarterback position. In Ian O'Connor's 2018 book "Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time" an unnamed long-time Patriots assistant coach had an egregiously erroneous evaluation of the team's situation at the position:

""[If] you gave us any of the top 15 [quarterbacks in the NFL], we could do it,' the unnamed assistant coach told O’Connor.' [Owner Robert Kraft] thinks Tom is the greatest gift ever, but the coaches don’t.'"

Patriots Assistant to Ian O'Connor

In 2014, with Brady poised to enter his age 37 season, Belichick presented Kraft "with a study detailing how even the greatest quarterbacks drop off in their mid-30s." Belichick selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, clearly hand-picking the Eastern Illinois product as Brady's successor under center in New England. After selecting Garoppolo, Belichick remarked "We know what Tom's age and contract situation is."

Seemingly fueled by those comments, Brady would go on to win four Super Bowl titles afterwards.

After a New England loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Wild Card round in Jan. 2020, Brady would never suit up for the Patriots again. With Brady now 42, Kraft placed his faith and trust in his head coach and de facto general manager to let Brady to walk out the door. In 2020, New England went 7-9, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and recording their highest loss total since 2000. Meanwhile, Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in his first season.

In the aftermath of the Buccaneers' championship, Kraft was infuriated. The owner's fury was two-fold. First, Kraft had trusted Belichick in severing ties for the time being with Brady. The Krafts revered Brady, with Robert even referring to the quarterback on multiple occasions as his fifth son and that he loves him "like a son". Secondly, Belichick had been dead wrong in his prediction that Brady's performance would fall off. This was not lost on Kraft:

"'Bill had told me [Brady] couldn't play anymore,' Kraft said privately afterward, 'and then he goes out and wins the f---ing Super Bowl.'"

Belichick's decision to let Brady walk in free agency must have felt like a breach of trust to Kraft, who had placed implicit faith in his coach to let his "fifth son" move onto another franchise. When Brady performed at an MVP and championship level in his first season post-Patriots, Kraft likely began to question Belichick's decision-making ability at the highest level. From that point on, Belichick appears to have never regained Kraft's trust. With his trust in Belichick dissipated, the owner began to increasingly insert himself into football decisions and "meddle".

The Krafts' Meddling & Belichick's Frustration

In the lead up to the 2021 draft, the Patriots pushed the idea of a "more collaborative" approach. Belichick had largely enjoyed unchecked power and been "very closed-off" for almost two decades when it came to draft decisions. Ultimately, New England drafted quarterback Mac Jones in the first round, a decision that was widely believed to have been influenced by Kraft. At the very least, it was not Belichick's preferred choice.

After drafting Jones, the Krafts were intent on building "something close to a Brady-like relationship with him." Once again, ownership's personal feelings and relationship with the quarterback began to permeate the personnel department. Following the 2022 season in which New England finished 8-9, Belichick "raised the idea to the Krafts of trading quarterback Mac Jones." The Krafts were adverse to the idea, and instead essentially mandated Belichick to hire Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator despite the head coach's preference to stick with Matt Patricia. When Jones struggled immensely this season, he was sometimes left in games in situations where most quarterbacks would have been benched. The rationale for keeping Jones in these games? "'A f--- you to Kraft'".

Within the walls of Gillette Stadium, Jonathan Kraft and senior vice president of business affairs for the Kraft Group, Robyn Glaser, would privately approach staff and quiz them on Belichick's decisions. Furthermore, "word leaked around the office that if Belichick were gone in 2024, football operations would be split between Glaser and Jonathan Kraft." Neither Glaser nor Jonathan Kraft have any professional football personnel experience.

It became clear that the distrust and resentment towards the Krafts was not isolated to Belichick, and in fact it extended to both personnel executives and members of the coaching staff:

"Patriots coaches and executives thought that 'the Krafts' meddling has got everyone spun around,' a source on the personnel side said."

Another assistant coach didn't hold back in his feelings about the Krafts either:

"'The Krafts should be ashamed of themselves,' a Patriots assistant coach told a confidant."

Belichick reportedly felt that much of his work had been undone by the Krafts and that he was being undermined, making "it clear that he was ready to move on, telling confidants that Robert Kraft and his son, team president Jonathan Kraft, had eroded the culture he had built over two decades."

Belichick had also made several snide comments about ownership's spending, pointing out during last season's end of year press conference that New England was 27th in cash spending over the last three seasons. Spending has always been a third rail topic to the Krafts. Even speaking two days before "parting ways", Belichick make a subtle comment about constructing the roster this season "given the options that we had", a parting shot at ownership's spending once again. This was another incentivization for the future Hall of Famer to start anew, as he has to be intrigued by the possibility of being handed the reins to a franchise with deep pockets.

Amongst his companions, Kraft wasn't shy about expressing his feelings about the head coach either, reportedly choosing to "put down Belichick at every opportunity". The owner's feelings became well-known, as "Kraft's open mocking of Belichick...was the worst-kept secret in New England."

Make no mistake, the partnership between the Krafts and Belichick was historically successful. When Kraft hired Belichick in 2000, the franchise had never raised the Lombardi Trophy. Now, the coach leaves Foxborough with six banners hanging at Gillette Stadium. Kraft also deserves credit for hiring Belichick, a controversial pick at the time.

Kraft was likely truthful that the breakup between him and Belichick was mutual, but it was assuredly not amicable. It was mutual as in they were mutually fed up with one another.