By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Since taking over as head coach 20 years ago, Bill Belichick has served double duty as the team’s de facto general manager.
It’s quite a bit of power for Belichick, but allowing the coach to “shop for the groceries” is something Robert Kraft learned firsthand as the easiest way to avoid conflict with the on-field leader of the team.
That being said, Bill is not always fully autonomous when it comes to opening up the Patriots’ purse strings. In certain scenarios, he has needed to seek approval from the big boss … and also from the quarterback.
That’s kind of how the chain of command looked last year around this time, when the Patriots jumped to sign Antonio Brown shortly after he was released by the Oakland Raiders after a summer spent causing problem after problem for Oakland. Those outbursts came after Brown caused problem after problem after problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who unceremoniously dumped one of the very best receivers the franchise has ever had.
Despite the obvious red flags, Belichick wanted Brown. And as detailed in the new book “The Dynasty” by Jeff Benedict, which was released on Tuesday, Belichick had to convince the Krafts that Brown was worth the trouble.
To be up-front, this was a retelling that clearly came from the Kraft side of things. It’s possible that Belichick’s recollection of the process is a little bit different, but Belichick told WEEI on Monday that outside of answering a few questions via email from the author, he “had a very minimal interaction with” Benedict.
Nevertheless, the story goes like this.
As soon as Brown was granted his release from the Raiders, Kraft assumed that Belichick would be interested. Jumping at the chance to add a high-talent player at a bargain price is, after all, a staple of the 20-year dynasty.
“The moment that the Raiders cut Brown, Kraft expected he’d get a call from Belichick,” Benedict wrote early in the book. “After being together for so long, he knew how Belichick rolled.”
When Kraft did get that call from Belichick on a Saturday afternoon, the Patriots owner was skeptical.
According to the story, Belichick argued, “I don’t think he’s really that bad to deal with.” When Kraft said that Belichick’s lack of personal relationship with Brown was a risk, Belichick apparently said, “I’m not really worried about that.”
“He’s a pretty good kid,” Belichick pleaded to Kraft, according to the book. “Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t smoke. I’m not aware of any domestic violence.”
At that point, Kraft — the owner of the franchise and the man in charge of the entire operation — made a phone call to consult on this particular decision.
Kraft called Tom Brady.
According to Benedict, “one of his biggest frustrations in recent years had been the way key personnel decisions that affected the offense were made without input from [Brady].”
“It aggravated Brady that after two decades as the team’s quarterback, he still wasn’t a part of the conversation before important moves were made,” so the 42-year-old quarterback appreciate the consultation.
Brady, as Kraft disclosed at the time, was “one thousand percent in” on the Patriots signing Brown.
That was the clinching endorsement for Kraft, who knew that it may be Brady’s final year in New England and whose “priority was to extend the magic for a little longer.”
“This is risky,” Robert Kraft said on a phone call to his son, Jonathan. “Bill doesn’t know Brown. If Tom was ambivalent, I wouldn’t support it.”
From there, Belichick was free to make the deal. It was struck. The football world reacted.
It didn’t work out.
Just days after the signing was made, a woman filed a civil lawsuit accusing Brown of sexual assault and rape. A Sports Illustrated article came out the day after Brown made his Patriots debut, a story which alleged sexual misconduct by Brown. The receiver then sent text messages that could easily be considered threatening to that accuser.
On Sept. 20, just 13 days after the frenzied rush to sign him, the Patriots had no choice but to release Brown. The receiver would later take some personal shots at Kraft via social media, while expressing gratitude to Belichick and Brady.
Considering that even Bill Belichick couldn’t make it work with Brown, the rest of the NFL stayed away for the remainder of the season. Brown was officially suspended for half of the 2020 season, and whether one of the most prolific receiver in NFL history ever plays another snap remains in serious doubt.
From a Patriots perspective, the Brown saga shows that the chain of command for a signing of that nature was not particularly tenable in the long term. The coach calling the owner for permission, only for the owner to call the quarterback, whom the coach hasn’t consulted for years when it comes to personnel moves — it’s not the principled, fundamental, and organized process which we’ve seen guide the organization through the unprecedented two-decade run of success.
When the book was announced this past spring, it promised “exclusive access to the Patriots.” While the Antonio Brown situation was just one very brief moment in the grand scheme of Patriots matters, that glimpse behind the curtain helps show how desperate the decision-makers in Foxboro were to squeeze one more year out of a run that had already lasted longer than it had any business lasting.