Not very long ago, the idea that Bill Belichick might be involuntarily dismissed as head coach of the New England Patriots seemed something close to unthinkable.
Yet here we are. There is a month left in the regular season, and the Patriots are 2-10 heading into Thursday’s game against the Steelers, and last in the AFC. In a season that began with playoff hopes, they are one of the worst teams in the NFL. In Week 4, Belichick took the worst defeat of his head-coaching career when the Patriots lost by 35 points at Dallas. The week after, this time at home, he added the second-worst defeat of his career to his résumé, losing 34-0 to the Saints. Last month, his team failed to score a touchdown against the Colts in a game played in Germany, a meaningful event for Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has made expanding the NFL’s reach globally a personal interest. Last week, Belichick’s team lost to the Chargers, who covered a 5.5-point spread by winning 6-0. On Thursday night, the over-under for New England’s game against a Steelers team playing backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is 30.5 points—and Pittsburgh is favored.
No other coach could have survived this long with these results, and the look on Kraft’s face as he hangs his head in the owner’s box each week suggests that Belichick’s time really is running out. In New England, the coach has ignored questions about his job security, but veteran reporters like Albert Breer, Mike Giardi, and Tom Curran, all of whom have covered the team since the early days of the dynasty, discuss it as an inevitability.
Letting go of a coach who has held the position for 24 years and won six Super Bowls is so rare that it’s hard to see past the “if” to get to the “when.” Only four coaches in NFL history—Miami’s Don Shula, Dallas’s Tom Landry, Chicago’s George Halas, and Green Bay’s Curly Lambeau—were with their teams longer. Of that group, only Landry was fired—a decision that the normally stubborn Jerry Jones has said he regrets.
So is there a scenario in which Belichick returns to New England in his current job next season? The Patriots are at the moment set to pick second in the upcoming draft, which would give them the chance to take one of the two top quarterback prospects, Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, to replace Mac Jones. Belichick’s defense has performed well lately, and, though all but one of their remaining opponents is currently .500 or better, if they win a game or two down the stretch, could it maybe, possibly, make things feel ever-so-slightly less cataclysmic? Enough for a nostalgic Kraft to give the most storied coach in his team’s history one more shot, with a new quarterback?
You have to strain pretty hard to see any path for Belichick to stay in New England. It’s possible the Patriots could try to sell him on an advisory role, but it’s hard to envision Belichick agreeing to step off the sideline. And it’s hard, after how he’s handled Jones, to see how Kraft could justify letting Belichick develop another highly drafted quarterback.
Certainly, the “when” of the end of Belichick’s tenure feels inevitable, though how it all might end is rather complicated.
Things would be much simpler if Belichick, who is 71, wanted to retire. Kraft is sentimental about the dynasty years and figures to want a peaceful and mutual parting. The problem? It does not seem that Belichick has any interest in retiring. He has another year left of a very lucrative contract, and he cares about chasing Shula’s record for all-time wins as a head coach.
Belichick currently has 331 career wins, putting him 17 shy of topping Shula’s 347, which includes playoff victories.
With a better roster, Belichick could reasonably expect to get there in two more years. But even this is not so simple. If Belichick merely cares about besting Shula, who publicly referred to him as “Beli-cheat,” 17 wins is good enough. If his aim is to set a record that would last more than a couple of years, though, he could have a problem. Andy Reid, who is 65, currently has 277 wins. Since Patrick Mahomes became Kansas City’s starting quarterback in 2018, Reid’s Chiefs have won an average of 15 games per season, including playoff victories. They are slightly off the pace this year, but if they close strong and go on a postseason run and make it to the average of 15, Reid would head into next season with 284 wins—63 shy of the Shula record. If he and Mahomes continue their current pace, Reid would surpass Shula early in the 2028 season.
If Belichick’s priority is to get the record and to put as much space as he can between himself and Reid, his incentive would be to keep coaching and try to go to the team he thinks will win the most games. Kraft’s incentive is likely to keep the peace as much as possible and recoup whatever he can of the investment he’s made in Belichick, via either trade compensation or salary offset.
Even in a year when there could be as many as 10 head-coaching vacancies, it’s hard to find the job that would satisfy all parties. The Chargers job would come with an elite young quarterback in Justin Herbert, but it’s hard to imagine the Spanos family paying Belichick near the rumored $25 million annual salary he makes in New England. Last offseason, Sean Payton was reportedly interested in the Chargers job and willing to take a pay cut down to around $10 million, but even that was steep enough for the Spanos family to stick with Brandon Staley at around $4 million per year. Former Patriots and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton recently said on his podcast that he thinks team owner David Tepper wants to hire Belichick in Carolina, and, while Tepper has the money to pay Belichick whatever he wants, that seems like a tougher sell to Belichick if he’s most interested in collecting wins. The smoothest solution might be something like a trade, in which a team like the Chargers gives the Patriots a meaningful draft pick for Belichick, and the Patriots agree to pay a chunk of his salary. A huge caveat over all of this is that Belichick’s contract is a black box, and you can count on one hand the people who know what kind of language governing trades, offsets, or responsibilities like personnel control would influence any potential deals.
Belichick might prefer to be fired, especially if that means the Patriots would be on the hook for his 2024 salary. He could take a modest deal from a team like L.A. and be made whole anyway, at least for a year.
Here’s one wild-card scenario: The Cowboys may be riding high now, but let’s say Mike McCarthy suffers another ignominious early playoff defeat. Is there enough Johnnie Walker Blue in Texas to give Jerry Jones ideas?
Of course, what the Patriots might get for Belichick and how much leverage he has to negotiate will hinge on how many interested parties there are. I don’t think the Krafts would fire Belichick before the season ends out of respect, but waiting also gives other team owners a chance to start talking about trades.
On gut feeling alone, I believe others will be interested. Bill Belichick in recent years has failed at in-game coaching, player acquisition, player development, and hiring assistant coaches, but he’s still Bill Belichick. Also, if he has completely lost his touch, someone forgot to tell the Patriots defense, which despite missing its two best players in edge rusher Matthew Judon and cornerback Christian Gonzalez has held opponents under 10 points for three weeks in a row.
But Belichick is running low on allies around the league. This Patriots season has felt, in part, like a referendum on the top-down, militaristic leadership style Belichick exemplifies. The key failure of last season was his decision to hire two longtime colleagues and members of his inner circle (Matt Patricia and Joe Judge) into offensive coaching roles for which they were not qualified. His solution this year was hiring another coach (Bill O’Brien) he’s known for decades, albeit a better-credentialed one. He’s surrounded himself with a small staff of former players, his friends, his sons, and his friends’ sons.
Meanwhile, the rest of the league has moved on. Most organizations don’t run like the Patriots, and many coaching trees have spread out across the league, while Belichick’s has not. The end of the Bill Belichick era in New England is coming, and for the Patriots, it will be a delicate dance between contractual obligation, incentive, and pride. For teams around the league that might be interested, it’s a moment to decide whether an “old-school” coach can still take a team forward.