By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — From the outside, the offseason for the New England Patriots coming off their Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles has included some uncharacteristic uncertainties. From the speculation in early January that the end may be near for the triumvirate of Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady; to the reported discontent and retirement contemplation of all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski; to the still-baffling coaching decision to bench Malcolm Butler for the entirety of Super Bowl LII; and to the apparent change of career length for the dejected quarterback, there’s been some rightful consternation among locals regarding the most successful football franchise of its era.
But Kraft himself, after taking the necessary time to reflect after a painful loss, provided some perspective on Monday when he met with reporters at the NFL owners meetings. It was the type of long-view approach that has properly steered the franchise for well over two decades.
“Think about this,” Kraft proposed. “If someone had told you 10 years ago that Tom Brady would be quarterbacking a team that would go to seven straight conference championship games, and when he’s 40 years old he’d be playing in a Super Bowl and be the MVP of the league, how many people would’ve bought into that?”
Kraft’s presence on Monday was not just about taking the optimistic viewpoint on all matters involving his team, though. He acknowledged the reports and discussions about the tension that’s been growing inside the walls at 1 Patriot Place.
“OK, so that word, ‘tension.’ I’ve owned the team 24 seasons. When you think about it, in any relationship – and I’ve had Bill as a head coach for 18 of those seasons. When I think about tension, I think about my first year as an owner,” Kraft said. “I love Bill Parcells, but if you knew him as a coach, the players walked on eggshells. And maybe ownership did, as we went down the learning curve of how to get along. And it was a great lesson for me to learn and train and try to understand how to be a good owner and at the same time how to work with a very strong and powerful coach. I think the so-called tension gets greater when you lose. We were 10-6 our first year. The second year at 5-11, we really had tension in my second year of ownership. That’s the pejorative term.
“In any successful business or in a marriage if you have a good relationship, there’s going to be things where you disagree. But hopefully you come together and you have a meeting of the minds and you discuss things. If everyone’s all on the same page, usually things don’t go as well.”
Kraft acknowledged that he did hold a meeting with Belichick and Brady after the Super Bowl loss, but he downplayed it as being any sort of significant event.
“We’ve had the meeting,” Kraft said. “And just to be clear, I don’t know … things sort of … it’s like, we have meetings all the time. We’re not a big bureaucratic organization. We’re a private company. We don’t have boards; we answer to the fans the best we can. And we met, and I meet individually with each of them. But the thing that I don’t know if it’s completely understood is that Bill and Tom communicate and meet a lot and spend a lot of time communicating. I think the residual of this loss was really hard on everyone. But I sort of see that as a high-class problem, because I sat in the stands when we never were in the playoffs at home for 20-odd years.”
What may have been the most worrisome part of the fallout to the Super Bowl loss was the decided change in Brady’s outlook, as it was documented in his Facebook series “Tom Vs. Time.” After saying for years that he wants to play until he’s 45 years old, Brady ended the six-episode series by asking himself, “What are we doing this for? What are we doing this for, who are we doing this for, why are we doing this?” Brady said that one must answer those questions with conviction if he intends to continue to compete, and he never indicated that he didn’t believe that he had that conviction. Nevertheless, it was a marked shift of tone.
Kraft chalked up Brady’s comments to being those of a man still feeling the pain of losing the Super Bowl.
“Well, I talk to Tom a lot,” Kraft said. “I think anyone right after a Super Bowl loss is … fortunately we’ve had the privilege to go to nine of them. So probably we’re not quite as jaded. But the loss — except for the win of the first one — when you lose, the feeling of losing is worse than the feeling of winning. And I think Tommy’s in that category. I think Coach has been wise and he’s told players and people that you don’t make any decisions or go public with feelings in that few weeks after a Super Bowl loss.”
A conversation about that Super Bowl loss could not take place without referencing the puzzling decision by Belichick to not put Butler on the field for even one defensive snap after the cornerback led the team in defensive snaps all season and played in 100 percent of the team’s postseason defensive snaps to that point. Kraft admitted that as a fan watching the game, he of course had some questions about that decision. But as a successful businessman who entrusts his managers to lead their respective units, Kraft had no issue with Belichick’s call.
“Yeah, well, with my fan hat on, I can come up with all kind of reasons or things,” Kraft said. “But here’s the deal, you know, we in New England are privileged to I believe have the greatest coach in the history of coaching. We’re involved in a number of businesses in our family and we’re in 95 countries in the world, and we try to encourage to have good managers. We want them to be bold. We want them to take risks. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. But I have faith in Bill as a coach that I don’t think there’s anyone who has the football knowledge and expertise combined with understanding personnel – no one can merge those two worlds. He’s done pretty well for us over the last 18 years.
“As a fan, I can question some of the moves. As someone who’s privileged to be the owner of this team, I encourage him to keep going with his instincts and doing what he thinks is right,” Kraft continued. “There’s no doubt in my mind, even if he made an error, and this is true with any of our managers, that if they’re doing it for the right reason, then I support it 100 percent. And I have never had one instance in the 18 years where Bill hasn’t done what he believes is in the best interest of our team and help us to win games.”
As Kraft put it, having hard and fast plans in the NFL doesn’t often matter much. He referenced the 2008 season-ending injury to Brady as evidence. That’s why, according to Kraft, Belichick’s ability to maintain a complete roster at all time remains one of his greatest strengths.
“Part of why the networks pay us the funding they do and the reason that this is the best entertainment product in America, is you don’t know — one play can change a whole season. One play with one person,” Kraft said. “So to do a good job managing an NFL franchise, we’ve always said understanding quality depth management. That’s our business: quality depth management. Knowing that we have a salary cap, and how do you balance that and have the depth you need?”
Kraft also shared a bit of commiseration with any fans who are still struggling to deal with the events of Feb. 4 in Minnesota, while also speaking very highly of Butler.
“Well, putting my fan hat on, which is on most of the time when I’m watching games, the fact that we lost and we lost the way we did, I still haven’t gotten over it,” Kraft said. “But when it comes to Malcolm, I have a unique spot for him. I had hoped he would be a Patriot for all his days. I think that play at the end of the Seattle Super Bowl is iconic. I think he’ll be in the memory bank of our fans for the next 50 years. And what he did, he’s such a humble, nice young man. I was thinking about it, he was making, what, eight-and-a-half dollars an hour at Popeyes, and seven months later he’s making the biggest play in the history of Super Bowls – in my opinion. And he’s a great guy. I’m just sorry it didn’t work out for him with us, but I’m happy he got the contact he got. And he’s doing it with some Patriot-related people in Tennessee, in [Mike] Vrabel and the GM [Jon Robinson], so I wish him well, and I’ll miss him.”
While Gronkowski’s status remains unresolved — at least publicly — the team owner did not sound too concerned about the near future of his 28-year-old tight end. In fact, Kraft seemed more amused by Gronkowski’s party tricks than anything else.
“I saw him a few weeks ago come into the building after hours,” Kraft said of Gronkowski. “I should say one thing when it comes to Gronk: I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I’ve never met anyone like him. If the good Lord lets us come back as someone, I’ve said it before, he’s the most care-free, happy, up kind of guy. I must say I sort of got excited seeing him vault up on [Shaquille O’Neal’s] shoulders. So for a guy that size to be able to hop up on a 7-2 or whatever Shaq is, it’s pretty cool. So that speaks well about his potential athletic moves this coming year.”
And whether it’s the future of Gronkowski or Brady or anyone else, Kraft made it clear that he fully believes that Belichick is the man best-suited to continue to build a roster for the long-term health of the franchise.
In all, Kraft’s comments likely serve as a welcome message to anyone who’s spent the better part of the last two months wondering what exactly is going on in the offices of Gillette Stadium. His ability to articulate his personal emotions while distinguishing them from his overall business philosophy in order to present a clear message was much-needed for an organization that’s seemingly been scrambling a bit since the jarring Super Bowl loss.