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Sunday Patriots Notes: The pressure is on Bill Belichick this year

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL.

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Free agency has slowed down significantly, and the draft is still a few weeks away. And yet, the NFL news cycle rarely sleeps. In order to get you up to speed on some of the secondary stories that emerged over the course of the last week, especially in regards to the New England Patriots, please enjoy this week’s edition of our Sunday column.

Today, our Sunday Patriots Notes will take a look back at the NFL owners meeting, Matthew Judon’s media tour, Nate Ebner the Olympian, and more.

The pressure is on Bill Belichick this year. Coming out of the NFL ownership meeting in Phoenix last week, there were questions about the relationship between Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. There has been a lot of speculation of what may or may not been going on behind closed doors, but the best way to evaluate the situation is by looking at what is actually being said.

And Kraft appeared to put some pressure on Belichick during a brief media session on Monday. While he called his long-time head coach “exceptional at what he does,” he also mentioned winning as the bottom line — something New England has done inconsistently since quarterback Tom Brady’s departure after the 2019 season.

“In the end, this is a business,” Kraft said. “You either execute and win or you don’t. That’s where we’re at. I think we’re in a transition phase.”

Kraft was later asked about Belichick breaking Don Shula’s record for head-coaching wins — he currently needs 18 to tie Shula at 347 — and he again did not make any definitive statements or commitments.

“I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record,” he said. “But I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats. We’re about winning. That’s what our focus is now.”

So, is Belichick on the hot seat? Not necessarily, despite Kraft adding that he would expect the Patriots to return to the playoffs in 2023. That said, it is clear that the team has fallen short of expectations ever since its victory in Super Bowl LIII.

That game remains the Patriots’ most recent playoff win, meaning that 20 clubs have won a postseason contest more recently. Needless to say that Kraft wants Belichick and his team to change this as early as this season.

Belichick’s messaging is in the spotlight. Belichick also spoke at the ownership meeting, and one of his most notable remarks came in regards to the quarterback position: Belichick would not guarantee Mac Jones’ job as starting quarterback, or in fact any player’s role on the team. So, this a cause for concern?

Hardly, because Belichick has always been a master when it comes to messaging — something Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon pointing out during an appearance on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football on Tuesday.

“That’s just who he is, that’s what his demeanor is, that’s how he handles interviews. I don’t really know why people still ask him questions. Leave him alone, he’s really set in his ways,” Judon said.

“He means business, and everything he says is the truth: everybody’s going to get an opportunity to play, and he will play the best players. I think if he has a chance to better our team, he will do that but he’s not going to tell anybody else he’s going to do that. He’s not going to tell anybody else his decisions, or his game plan, until he really has to.”

One thing that flies a bit under the radar through all of this is one of Belichick’s best qualities as a coach: he knows how to push buttons as well as anybody, and how to get the message across to his players.

This one is pretty clear: you have to earn your job, even if — on paper — you are still very much locked into the starting quarterback position.

Cash spending remains a topic of discussion. One of the more popular topics of discussion around the Patriots these days — especially when you listen to local sports talk radio — is cash spending. Looking simply at numbers, however, is not a sufficient way to analyze the issue.

Let’s start with the simple facts. The NFL has a salary cap all teams need to be under (it is $224.8 million this year); it also has a spending floor, even though it is not calculated on a year-to-year basis like the cap. Clubs are required to spend at least 90% of the cap over a three-year period.

This year is the final year of such a cycle, and the Patriots know that they can’t be “too cheap,” for lack of a better term. Of course, they entered 2023 ranked cumulative 13th for 2021-22, so they have some wiggle room within the framework provided by the cap.

That said, them being on the lower end of cash spending this year is a) irrelevant and b) not necessarily new either. They have never been among the NFL’s top spenders and still have maintained their competitiveness. A one-year snapshot doesn’t change any of this. That is especially true given that there is virtually no correlation between cash spending and winning.

Take the Los Angeles Rams as an example: they were last in the NFL in spending in 2021 and went on to win the Super Bowl; a year later, they ranked first and missed the playoffs.

So, what does this mean for the Patriots? Obviously, it means that on-field success depends on a lot more factors than those. But even with that in mind, cash spending only plays a minimal role at best What can therefore be said is that contrary to some narratives out there, the Patriots are not cheap or unwilling to spend — something Robert Kraft himself pointed out during the owners meetings.

“We have never had a situation where we didn’t commit the cash capital needed. Bill, in 24 years, has never come to me and not gotten every dollar he’s wanted,” he said. “We spend to the cap every year. The teams who really spend over the cap are teams who make big capital commitments to players, so your cash over cap always has to come out to balance out.

“You know, if you’re going to sign a quarterback, or you do what we did three years ago — where we spent, I believe, No. 1 or No. 2, over $120 million — I don’t know that it was worth it. But I’m willing to do it if we’re going to win. So, ownership has always made the cash available.”

A nice Belichick gesture is going largely unnoticed. Amidst all the stories coming out of the ownership meetings, one went largely unnoticed: according to veteran NFL reporter Mike O’Hara, Bill Belichick sent flowers to the funeral of Jerry Green. Green, who passed away earlier this month at age 94, spent four decades covering the NFL for the Detroit News — including when Belichick was coaching with the Lions from 1976 to 1977.

Nate Ebner tells the story of his trip to the Olympic Games. Appearing on Chris Long’s Green Light podcast last week, former Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner spoke about a variety of issues. One of the most interesting parts of the conversation was him speaking about his trip to the Olympic Games in 2016; Ebner participated in the rugby 7s as part of the United States’ squad.

Ebner, of course, had just signed a new contract extension with the Patriots ahead of his leave of absence.

“I became a free agent after that 2015 season — well, I didn’t quite become a free agent — but I talked to Bill and we got the contract squared,” he said. “I was like, ‘Look, Bill, I’m glad we got that squared, but rugby’s in the Olympics and I want to try to do that.’ I said, ‘This is something that I want to do. I feel very conflicted.’ It wasn’t a question, it was more like ‘This is something I’m going to do and if you can’t get with that I totally get it. But I have to do this; I’d think about it my whole life if I don’t.’

“We had that conversation, and instantly Bill is like, ‘Oh yeah, go for it.’ He didn’t have any hesitation.”

Ebner added that the Patriots ultimately went on to adjust his contract in order to account for his trip to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That said, the whole experience was a positive one for the now-34-year-old.

“I never thought it would work out that well,” he said. “And then to get that support, that leadership from Bill and the Patriots organization, Mr. Kraft, they were all wearing my shirt and supporting me, stopped training camp to watch me play ... that’s a first-class organization. I don’t care what anybody says, that place is awesome. Great people, and that’s a great example of it.”

Ebner, Long and the rest of the 2016 Patriots ultimately won the Super Bowl just six months after the Olympic Games.

Robert Kraft launches $25 million campaign against antisemitism. While there was plenty of football talk over the course of last week, Robert Kraft made headlines for his off-field initiative in the fight against antisemitism. He launched a $25 million campaign that he sees as all-encompassing in the fight against hate in the U.S.

“I love this country,” Kraft said, “and I see hate building and developing in a lot of areas. I think it’s something we have to stop.”