Fire Bill Belichick or retain him? What if Patriots had another option? Let’s talk trades

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There’s a belief around the NFL that coach Bill Belichick might still be able to help usher the New England Patriots into a new generation after this season.

It just might not happen in the conventional way.

As the Patriots’ losses mount throughout their most disappointing season in decades, it feels increasingly likely Belichick’s historic run with the organization could be coming to an end. But what if the sides find an amenable way to split by working out a trade?

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Three high-ranking executives from rival teams who were polled by The Athletic believed the 71-year-old could be worth as much as a first-round draft pick. And for the Patriots, who are well on the way to securing their own top-five pick, such a return could do wonders to jump-start the franchise’s post-Belichick era.

“He (would) likely have multiple suitors,” a team executive said.

It’s no sure thing, however. Two executives were skeptical the Patriots could corral such a bounty for Belichick, with one outright dismissing the idea.

“I’ve got questions about how he relates to this generation of players,” the executive said. “Can he still be a motivator? A leader of men? How does he pivot and adjust his culture?

“I’ve got a lot of questions with those recent roster moves. Is he going to just be the coach, or does he want (general manager) responsibilities? Because I’m not trading for that.”

There is a hypothetical path to a trade that does make sense. An owner could call Robert Kraft as soon as the season is over to gauge which way the Patriots are leaning on Belichick’s future and offer a package to expedite a split.

Kraft would need to solicit Belichick’s approval, knowing the coach who currently has 331 career victories would want to remain on the sideline long enough to pass Don Shula’s record of 347. That’s a far more amicable transaction for all involved than the potential firing of one of the league’s all-time legends, especially as Kraft hopes to keep Belichick close to the organization after his career.

It’s fair to be skeptical an owner would trade for Belichick if it’s apparent he’d ultimately be fired, but consider this plausible scenario. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, who already has an opening after firing Frank Reich, could get the ball rolling on the process. And then Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris could be eying a splashy first hire to sell tickets to his new fans.

If both want Belichick badly enough — and Belichick is OK with joining either organization — a trade might make the difference in their pursuit.

“(Belichick) would have options, especially with a young ownership group like the Commanders,” another executive said.

There’s precedent for the price, too, including with the central figure of this discussion. The Patriots had to give up a first-round pick in 2000 for the New York Jets to allow Belichick out of his contract.

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The Denver Broncos traded a first-rounder to the New Orleans Saints in January as part of their package for Sean Payton. The Buccaneers coughed up two first-round picks, two second-rounders and $8 million to the Raiders for Jon Gruden in 2002. The Jets gave up picks in the first four rounds to hire away Bill Parcells from the Patriots in 1997. The Seattle Seahawks traded a second-rounder to the Green Bay Packers for Mike Holmgren in 1999. The Miami Dolphins violated the tampering policy in 1971 to hire Shula and forked over a first-rounder.

Those situations were not directly comparable to the Patriots’ impending decision with Belichick, but they will help with Kraft’s negotiating leverage.

“It only takes one owner, so (the Patriots) should be able to trade him,” another executive said. “If any team is interested, I would think New England would get a first-round pick.”

Now, there are also a handful of reasons to suggest a trade might not happen. For starters, Belichick has a limited shelf life in the business, so he might not be inclined to get into a rebuild with a team that doesn’t have a first-round pick.

Or what if there’s a difference in philosophy over personnel control? Belichick’s new team might prefer to have a general manager in charge of the 53-man roster decisions, but Belichick isn’t used to operating with any such restrictions. Of course, if Belichick recognizes the alternative option is getting fired and remains truly set on continuing to coach elsewhere immediately, he might also know GM control isn’t in the cards.

Belichick could have his own apprehensions, too. Though the wins record is important to him, he also knows his legacy is secure regardless. Is it worth dealing with Tepper’s overanxious ownership style or an unknown commodity in Washington to pursue Shula’s record?

Belichick was submarined by former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell in 1995 and surely won’t want his career to end with a quick hook at the hands of an owner who has less experience in the NFL than his own two sons. Plus, Belichick has said in the past it took a fourth season to get his system in place with the Patriots, and that might not be a practical timeline with his age and the league’s accelerated urgency to win in the current era.

There’s also another obvious deterrent: Belichick and the Patriots have been an afterthought without Tom Brady. At 2-10 this season, Belichick is on pace for the worst record of his career. His draft record has been poor for most of the last decade. Their development of quarterback Mac Jones was a spectacular failure. And there are younger head-coaching candidates who will be in high demand and won’t cost anything in a trade.

“(The Patriots have) struggled since Brady has been gone, and none of (Belichick’s) disciples have ever done anything, and the draft record is not good as the GM,” another executive said. “Somebody could pay for past glory, but they would have to fit their entire culture to his operation.”

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It’s a complicated situation. And if Belichick’s time in New England is nearing its conclusion, the legendary coach and the Patriots will need to quickly determine the best course of action. So, too, will a team with a coaching vacancy.

But Belichick will have one claim to his resume that might trump every reservation.

As one executive who wouldn’t trade for Belichick still conceded, “He’s the greatest coach in the history of the league.”

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(Photo: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)


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