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Tension seems to be on the rise for Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft

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The Patriots are at a crossroads. The relationship between owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick seems to be at a crossroads, too.

And even with six Super Bowl trophies delivered by Belichick having full control over the football operations, there's a shelf life for everyone who isn't winning. Since winning Super Bowl LIII, Belichick hasn't been winning.

No postseason victories. Two playoff appearances, two failures to qualify for the postseason.

And since Tom Brady left after the 2019 season, it's even worse. Three years, one playoff berth — a 47-17 blowout loss to the Bills.

Entering the 2023 season, the Patriots are the worst team on paper in the AFC East, and decidedly a middle-of-the-pack member of the conference. While Belichick has a proven knack of making a team better than it appears to be on paper, he's the one who puts the team together. So even if he's good at digging a team out of a pre-existing hole, he's the one responsible for the oversized divot from which he has to dig.

In March, not nearly enough attention was paid to ominous remarks from Kraft regarding Belichick's job security.

Meeting with reporters at the league meetings in Arizona, Kraft was asked a simple question: “You guys have posted a losing record two of the last three seasons . . . if that happens again, could Bill [Belichick’s] job be in jeopardy, or is he here to break Don Shula’s all-time wins record and beyond?”

“Look, I’d like him to break Don Shula’s record," Kraft replied, "but I’m not looking for any our players to get great stats. We’re about winning, and doing whatever we can to win. And that’s what our focus is now. And I -- it’s very important to me that we make the playoffs, and that’s what I hope happens next year.”

As we explained at the time, the question wasn't about stats. It was about wins. But Kraft doesn't seem to be willing to let Belichick linger until he gets more Ws than Shula, if there are too many Ls along the way.

Last week, Kraft said that one thing will satisfy him in 2023: Winning "number seven ." While falling just short of winning a seventh Super Bowl triumph likely won't be enough to prompt a change, another failure to make the playoffs could. Or perhaps another one-and-done postseason capped by a blowout loss on the road as a wild-card team, after a failure to win the division.

Does anyone really think the Patriots will win the division? It's not impossible. But it's far more improbable than it ever was when the Patriots were the Globetrotters and the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets each played the role of Washington Generals. Now, each of those three teams is better than the Patriots, on paper. Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Tua Tagovailoa (if he can stay healthy) are MVP candidates.

The perception of the Patriots isn't aided by last year's failed experiment to put the offense under the control of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. We said as the season approached and it became more and more clear that Belichick was actually going to go through with it that, if any other coach was trying to do it, the consensus would be that the head coach had lost his damn mind.

Belichick got the benefit of the doubt, thanks to his track record. The end result was that his track record was diminished.

Then came the remarks that prompted the recent quotes from Kraft . At his final press conference of the most recent season, Belichick pointed out that, from 2020 through 2020, the Patriots ranked twenty-seventh in spending. Kraft pointed out that spending will never be "the issue" with the Patriots, and that Kraft always gives Belichick whatever he asks for.

Hidden in this back-and-forth is an old-fashioned pissing match, with Belichick trying to subtly shift blame for post-Brady struggles to Kraft for not spending, and with Kraft pushing it back to Belichick for not asking for the money to be spent.

We all know how these things will go. In the ultimate game of rock, scissors, paper, Kraft owns all three. He's in charge. What he says, goes. Who he says goes. And if Belichick fails to deliver a playoff appearance or if he runs the postseason victory drought to half of a decade, he's the one who could be going.

It sounds crazy, I know. Belichick is one of the great coaches in NFL history. Since Brady, however, his teams have been just above ordinary. At some point, a sufficient stretch of failure wipes out a history of excellence. At some point, the past will have faded from the rear-view mirror. At some point, Kraft will decide to turn the page.

And he'll be more likely to do it sooner than later if Belichick keeps trying to blame Kraft for failures that, in Kraft's mind, trace only to Belichick.

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