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Bill Belichick's departure from New England ends an unprecedented run, puts Patriots at a crossroads

It began 24 years ago with a scribbled resignation note as HC of the NYJ and the yielding of a first-round draft pick in compensation. In the time since, there have been taciturn press conferences, league investigations, bottomless brilliance as a football tactician, a sometimes-uneasy partnership with Tom Brady, an often joyless-seeming approach to business, a staggering run of excellence that included six Super Bowl championships and, finally, an erosion of the roster crafted by the team's de facto general manager that even the greatest coach in NFL history -- who happened to be the same person -- could not mask. 

The reign of Bill Belichick over New England and its Patriots ended Thursday, and for drama and absolute dominance, the league might never again see anything like it. 

But another owner will surely try to recreate what, in happier days, they used to call "The Patriot Way." Belichick, at age 71, is notably not hanging up his hoodies. Thursday's development was a mutual parting of ways between Belichick and the Patriots, not a coach's retirement. And Belichick's gruff but wildly successful brand of culture creation and franchise molding will almost certainly be attractive to team owners who are looking for their own fresh start. Belichick leaves the Patriots with 333 total victories (playoffs included), just 14 shy of Don Shula's all-time record of 347. It is hard to imagine Belichick, who has a deep appreciation for football history, leaving the sideline without that record to his name.

The hope in New England was that Belichick would set the record there. Even after the 2022 campaign, when Patriots owner Robert Kraft did little to hide his ire for how that 8-9 season went -- especially Belichick's head-scratching decision to have Matt Patricia and Joe Judge oversee the offense, to the detriment of quarterback Mac Jones -- there was an anticipation that bringing back Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator would remedy the offense and the Patriots would get back to winning. 

Instead, the 2023 season was a long slog of crushing disappointment, and it was clear by midseason that the Patriots would need a reset of some sort. The quarterback play was messy, the offensive playmakers lacking in explosion. For two decades, the Patriots spent December positioning themselves for playoff seeding. But during this past December -- having entered the month at 2-9 -- they were simply playing out the string. Such was Belichick's stature, though, that his departure never felt entirely inevitable. And when it happened, and the full breadth of his New England career could be considered, it seemed unfathomable. The Patriots won their most recent Super Bowl just five years ago, at the end of the 2018 season. In another era, the currency earned from two decades of excellence might have bought more time to fix the recent mistakes.

Belichick's downfall, though, happened slowly, and then all at once. The schism had first truly begun in 2020, when Brady was allowed to become a free agent. The all-time quarterback had grown weary of New England by then and he did nothing to hide his frustration with what he considered inferior weapons around him during a 2019 campaign that saw the Patriots lose their playoff opener in Foxborough to the Tennessee Titans.

Belichick had long been a believer in getting rid of veteran players a year too early instead of a year too late -- he had drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 with the idea that he might eventually be Brady's heir apparent -- but when Brady left (Garoppolo had already been traded) it became clear that New England was ill-equipped to thrive without him. Brady signed with Tampa Bay, ran his own workouts during the COVID-19 pandemic at a local high school and promptly won another Super Bowl in his first season as a Buccaneer. In New England, the Patriots signed Cam Newton and missed the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.

The Patriots won an absurd 17 AFC East titles when Belichick had Brady. They have won none since, nor have they won a playoff game. The drafting of Jones in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft -- and the Patriots making the playoffs as a wild card with the rookie -- enlivened hope that Belichick had built the bridge to the franchise's future. But his ill-fated decision to replace Josh McDaniels with Patricia and Judge to oversee the offense set the unit back and sent Jones' development into a tailspin. Even Belichick's sterling résumé could not hold off the NFL's current climate and an ownership and fan base that had grown very used to winning.

Brady's departure and the miss on Jones were microcosms of what ultimately undid Belichick in New England. He had not forgotten how to coach, of course -- even opponents like the Kansas City Chiefs admitted that his defenses remained some of the most difficult to face in the NFL. But the accumulation of poor personnel decisions in both the draft and in free agency left the roster sapped of star power and dynamism. Brady was so good that he could cover up for deficiencies elsewhere. When he was gone, the holes were laid bare.

Belichick had exercised full control over coaching and personnel ever since he first arrived, and for years, he had wielded that power with stunning success. He routinely shape-shifted how his team played, emphasizing the defense and running game early in Brady's career, then going to a high-powered passing attack that produced an undefeated regular season after the Patriots acquired Randy Moss, then using tight ends to devastating effect. Always, though, Belichick emphasized toughness and intelligence -- and his teams showed it. They were known for being well-prepared and disciplined and they thrived on situational football. 

And, always, they won. The Patriots posted double-digit victories in 17 straight seasons. They hoisted three Lombardi Trophies in a four-year span at the start of Brady's career -- no team has been a repeat champion since New England accomplished the feat 2003 and '04. And then later, the Pats went to eight consecutive AFC Championship Games and won three more Super Bowls in a five-year span. In all, New England made it to nine Super Bowls under Belichick.

All of that made the recent collapse so shocking. For years, Belichick's teams had treated the first month of the regular season as an extension of the preseason, when the grizzled coach would determine what his team did well. Then the Patriots would take off in the second half of the season, building toward December and, of course, January, when they were so often playing their best football. That was still the expectation when the 2023 season began with two straight losses. But this time, there was no build, no quarterback to carry the team. Jones struggled and would eventually be benched. New England was near the bottom of the league in scoring. And, somewhat incredibly, some of the fanbase wanted the Pats to move on from Belichick.
Now that they have, the franchise must find Belichick's successor, or even two -- one person to oversee personnel and another to be the head coach. The next regime will have an unenviable task. The offensive roster is in need of a major overhaul. New England must unearth the next starting quarterback, restock the wide receiver room and shore up the offensive line. And the Pats' future leaders will take on this renovation knowing that, no matter how good at their jobs they are, they are unlikely to ever escape the shadow cast by the man they are replacing.

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