Inside Bill Belichick’s failed offseason job hunt

Sports

Reported by Don Van Natta Jr., Seth Wickersham and Jeremy Fowler

ON THE MORNING of Jan. 25, a few hours before the Atlanta Falcons named Raheem Morris to be their next head coach, Bill Belichick believed the job was his.

The second-winningest head coach in NFL history had interviewed twice with the Falcons — a one-on-one session with owner Arthur Blank on his superyacht, followed by a lengthy interview with Blank and team executives at Blank’s home after Belichick flew to Atlanta on one of the owner’s private jets.

From Belichick’s perspective, according to sources close to him, he had done everything right.

He assured Blank that he wasn’t seeking the total control he had for most of his 24 seasons in New England. He pledged to work with the team’s existing group of decision-makers, including general manager Terry Fontenot. Belichick also knew that Blank had checked his references with a group that included Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan.

Belichick was in a strange place, unemployed for the first time since 1996, when he was without a job for a few days after Art Modell fired him from the Cleveland Browns. Still, at 71, he was confident in his chances, discussing potential staff, despite all that had transpired the past few years, including losing seasons and damaged relationships with Tom Brady and the Krafts. Even in Atlanta’s crowded field of 14 candidates, including former Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, 11 offensive and defensive coordinators and a defensive line coach, Belichick was confident he would be hired. No other candidate owned eight Super Bowl rings.

And then, like many fans, Belichick was blindsided by news that Atlanta had hired Morris, the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator who had worked for six years as an assistant coach and coordinator in Atlanta. Soon, the seven offseason coaching vacancies outside New England were filled — all by coaches with lesser résumés.

Blank later told reporters that Morris “was the right fit for us going forward, made the most sense. I understood the man, understood the history, understood the presence, understood how he had grown.”

Whenever he was asked about Belichick’s failed candidacy prior to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, Blank always spoke respectfully about the coach with nearly a half-century of experience. “A living legend,” Blank called him.

What Blank didn’t say is that he and his top lieutenants had voted on the team’s next head coach, ranking each candidate.

Bill Belichick didn’t even finish in anyone’s top three.

The greatest coach of all time hadn’t come close — and that was as close as Belichick would come in 2024.

THE NFL HAS moved on from this year’s firing-and-hiring cycle, first to free agency and now to the draft, but what transpired in January is still hard to fathom: Why is Bill Belichick suddenly and seemingly unemployable? And will he coach again?

The answer goes beyond his recent run of busted draft picks and underperforming personnel decisions, particularly at quarterback, and a combined 29-39 record since he opened the door for Brady to leave New England. Owners have evolved in the 28 years since Belichick last hustled for a job. Belichick’s brand of dual GM/head coach leadership has not fallen completely out of favor in the NFL. The 49ers and Chiefs, this year’s Super Bowl contestants, both use strong head-coach models.

But most team owners are loath to grant a single person as much power as Belichick wielded in New England, even with his career results. Owners now value collaboration and cooperation among football operations, the coaching staff and other team executives. Most reject the fear and leverage that fueled New England’s dynasty.

This time around, what made Bill Belichick great limited his options.

Belichick’s leadership style led, in part, to the decision by seven team owners to pass on him this offseason, and the bad blood between Kraft and Belichick was no secret around the league, according to more than a dozen sources close to the coach and owners who spoke with ESPN on the condition they remain anonymous. Both Kraft and Belichick declined to comment for this story. Belichick’s long-time agent, Neil Cornrich, also declined to comment.

“He was essentially voted off the island.”

ESPN source on Belichick’s inability to persuade Falcons owner Arthur Blank and his executives that he was the best choice for the Atlanta job.

Next season, the list of potential suitors for Belichick will be limited, the sources said.

“There’s an inherent discomfort with change because people want to protect their jobs,” said Michael Lombardi, one of Belichick’s closest friends and confidants with the Browns and Patriots.

Even Belichick was aware that his head coach/GM hybrid had fallen out of favor around the league, sources said. A year ago, Belichick had drinks with another head coach. Over cocktails, Belichick told the coach that perhaps there was a better way than the way Belichick had been doing things for nearly a quarter-century.

And in the pair of interviews with Blank and Falcons executives, sources said, Belichick pledged his willingness to co-exist with Falcons executives under this new paradigm. In fact, he insisted he just wants to coach. But the Falcons realized that if you hire Bill Belichick, you hire all of him, an entire philosophy and ethos stemming from one man’s ethic and ingenuity, sources said.

In the end, his assurances failed to persuade Blank and team executives. “He was essentially voted off the island,” a source close to the Falcons’ hiring process said.

In the coming weeks, Belichick is expected to sign a deal to do analysis for Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, which produces ESPN’s “ManningCast” during Monday Night Football. He is believed to be biding his time until next January for openings on teams he has told confidants he would be interested in coaching: the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. A source who spoke with a longtime friend of Belichick said the friend wonders if the coach will have another opportunity: “I don’t think Bill Belichick will ever be a head coach again in the National Football League,” the friend said. “Unless it’s [for] Jerry Jones.”

WINNING A SUPER Bowl after trailing 28-3 or with the opponent a yard away from the game-winning touchdown requires a head coach who refuses to concede to the inevitable. For most of the 2023 season, when chatter around the league was that Belichick was in his final season in New England, he believed he could turn it around and coach the Patriots in 2024, serving the final year of a two-year contract reported to be worth $25 million a year. A source close to Robert Kraft said he considered moving on from Belichick after the 2022 season, but his son Jonathan talked him out of it.

By mid-December, when the Patriots were 3-10, Belichick knew that his time in New England was coming to an end. Kraft wanted to reassert control and emphasize better collaboration. Four days after the season finale, it was made official at a Gillette Stadium news conference: “Like a good marriage,” Kraft told reporters, “a successful head coach/owner relationship requires a lot of hard work.”

“I will always be a Patriot,” Belichick said. “I look forward to coming back here. But at this time, we’re going to move on. I look forward, am excited for the future.”

Not since Paul Brown in the 1960s had such a revolutionary head coach been available. Owners and executives, even on teams that didn’t have openings, discussed hiring Belichick. Among them were the Eagles, who were coming off a disappointing finish one year after a narrow Super Bowl loss. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manger Howie Roseman, both Belichick fans, still strongly believed in their current head coach, Nick Sirianni, who over a stretch went 26-5. But Lurie thought it was worth asking a confidant of his about Belichick. A source close to Belichick said the coach would have been interested.

Roseman told ESPN he had a conversation with Belichick, a check-in to see how the coach was doing after he was out in New England. A source close to Belichick confirmed there was no talk during the call about working for the Eagles.

Still, there was chatter in league circles that Philadelphia and Belichick could be a match. Despite some owners and executives believing the game had passed Belichick by, the Eagles felt he still had his fastball; he had nearly beaten them in the 2023 season opener with an inferior team. There’s also a belief that Belichick will coach only until he gets 15 more wins, enough to pass Don Shula as the winningest coach in NFL history. Though not seriously considering a move, Lurie wondered to a confidant: Was it worth overhauling the building, changing personnel and philosophies on everything from training staff to salary cap structure, for someone who might coach only two years?

“You’ll have to start over again,” said a source with firsthand knowledge of the Eagles’ thinking. “Who would replace him? He hasn’t had a good record of developing coaches. They were afraid that he’ll have changed everything and every person, and [then] you’ll be starting from scratch again. He didn’t demand those changes, but they felt like, if we hire him, we have to give everything to him and trust how he does it.”

Dallas was another potential suitor. On paper, the Cowboys seemed to make sense: Belichick and Jerry Jones are decades-long friends, and both are in win-now mode. Nobody is better than Belichick at converting a talented roster into a championship team. And Belichick told a friend that he liked the idea of sticking it to the Krafts by working for Jones. But Jones, for all his flash, bluster and vows this offseason to go “all-in,” is change-averse when it comes to head coaches. He decided quickly after Dallas’ blowout exit in the wild-card round to let Mike McCarthy coach the final year of his contract.

Washington seemed to be another good fit, and multiple sources said Belichick was very interested. He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, and the combination of his hometown ties and football acumen might have helped the Commanders win and land a stadium in Washington, D.C., considered the most-prized location for a new venue. Commanders minority owner Magic Johnson lobbied hard for Belichick to be the team’s new head coach, sources said. Belichick spoke to new Commanders GM Adam Peters, a former Patriots staffer, and said he respected the job Peters had done in personnel since he had left New England, helping the Broncos and 49ers reach a combined three Super Bowls.

However, principal owner Josh Harris, who had spoken privately with Kraft about Belichick, told confidants in early December that he respected Belichick but wasn’t going to hire him. He wanted the same leadership structure he has with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils: a strong general manager over a head coach. Harris’ hiring of the 44-year-old Peters as GM before he looked for a coach was a big tell that Belichick was not a fit, a decision that Johnson endorsed. A source close to Belichick said the coach had questions about working in a strong-GM system. Washington decided to hire Cowboys defensive coordinator and former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. The victim of the Patriots’ 28-3 Super Bowl comeback had a job. The primary architect of that historic victory did not.

The Carolina Panthers briefly discussed Belichick, before he signed his two-year extension with New England a year ago. But this offseason, Carolina decided to pass, a source said. Panthers owner David Tepper often sifts through data to critique his coach’s playcalling. That, according to a source, “is tough to do with Belichick as the figurehead.” The Panthers opted for 42-year-old former Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dave Canales.

Belichick wasn’t interested in going to Los Angeles, which was fine because Chargers owner Dean Spanos had targeted Harbaugh from the start. The Chargers were looking for a long-term solution at head coach and Belichick’s window felt like, at most, three to five years, sources said. Harbaugh is 60 and has a runway of at least a decade.

The Raiders had just fired a pair of Belichick’s former acolytes in Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler. Owner Mark Davis considered reaching out to Belichick but instead removed the interim from head coach Antonio Pierce’s title after interviewing other candidates.

The Titans, meanwhile, had fired Vrabel, one of Belichick’s favorite former players. They wanted someone to collaborate with GM Ran Carthon. In a comment echoed by others, a source with a team that had a head-coaching vacancy this year said Belichick’s “ability to build a culture at this stage is an issue. … He was so stubborn with the offense. He ran that offense down to a pulp. Mac Jones looked like a capable quarterback early. You think [Joe] Judge and Matt Patricia can run the offense for him? It’s arrogance.”

That left only the Falcons.

ON JAN. 15, four days after Kraft bid farewell to Belichick in Foxboro, Falcons owner Arthur Blank met one-on-one with Belichick aboard his 295-foot, $180 million superyacht named DreAMBoat, moored late that day in Antigua. It was Belichick’s first official job interview since 1998, when he met with Al Davis and the brass of the then-Oakland Raiders. The job went to Jon Gruden. In a lengthy interview with Blank, Belichick showed no rust, sources said. Blank told colleagues that he was very impressed. “I think Blank came away from the boat thinking this is my guy,” a source close to Belichick said, though from his vantage point, any momentum following that meeting seemed to die over the next week. A second meeting was planned with team CEO Rich McKay and other Falcons executives.

Despite that friendly first session, the unthinkable happened for a billionaire and a legendary coach: Blank and Belichick checked each other’s references. Blank spoke by phone, at least twice, to Robert Kraft. Among the NFL owners, Blank considers Kraft his closest friend. Publicly, Kraft and Blank have said Kraft expressed only support and offered praise of his former coach.

But in a conversation with Blank, Kraft delivered a stark assessment of Belichick’s character, according to a source who spoke to two people: a close Kraft friend and a longtime Belichick confidant. The source quoted the Belichick source as saying, “Robert called Arthur to warn him not to trust Bill.” That account was backed up, the source said, by the close Kraft friend.

Multiple sources said that Kraft spoke with “some candor” to Blank about Belichick, though the sources declined to elaborate. One source close to Belichick said Kraft “was a big part” of why the Falcons passed on hiring him.

The sources said Kraft made clear to Blank that “you’ll never have a warm conversation with” Belichick, echoing what Bill Parcells told Kraft in 1996 when he wanted to bust the budget and hire Belichick. “Blank likes coaches who feel part of a family,” a Falcons source said, “and it wasn’t going to be that way with Bill.”

The comments were consistent with what Kraft had been telling confidants for months: After an unprecedented run, after Spygate and Aaron Hernandez, after backing his coach in moving on from Brady, after disagreements public (cash the Krafts were willing to spend) and private (leaking against each other directly or through associates), the owner had lost trust in Belichick, which was a key reason for their deteriorating working relationship and the end of the Patriot Way. A second source close to Kraft said, “[Kraft] found Bill to be extremely difficult and obstinate and kind of stubborn and, in the end, not worthy of his trust. And also very, very, very arrogant.”

The same source said he did not know if Kraft had warned Blank about Belichick’s trustworthiness, but he said both Krafts felt “betrayed” by the coach. “I don’t think they’d try to hurt Belichick,” he said. “But I don’t think they’d try to help him either. They weren’t going to try to sink him. He was finished as an effective head coach. Just look at his last four years in New England. A disaster … If you’re Arthur Blank, why do you want the headaches?”

A spokesman for Kraft strongly denied that Kraft said anything disparaging about Belichick during the owners’ two phone conversations in January.

“Robert steadfastly denies saying anything negative to Arthur Blank about Bill Belichick after Robert and Bill mutually agreed to part ways,” Patriots spokesman Stacey James said. “In fact, Robert advocated for Bill to get the job.”

“[Kraft] found Bill to be extremely difficult and obstinate and kind of stubborn and, in the end, not worthy of his trust. And also very, very, very arrogant.”

Source close to Patriots owner Robert Kraft

When asked if Kraft had ever criticized Belichick in conversations with Blank, James said Kraft had no recollection of doing that. But James acknowledged Kraft might have done so prior to January.

“It would not surprise me to learn that owners sometimes lament to those close to them when their teams are struggling,” James said, “but Robert Kraft never questioned Bill’s character or trust when talking with Arthur Blank. Trust is important to Robert. He wouldn’t have employed Coach Belichick for the past 24 years if he ever questioned his trust.”

A Falcons spokesman declined to comment on whether Kraft criticized Belichick to Blank during the interview process but pointed to Blank’s repeated comments to reporters during Super Bowl week that Kraft had endorsed Belichick.

If the Falcons had hired Belichick, the reported $25 million annual salary owed him by the Krafts for the upcoming season would have been offset by Blank.

Asked whether Kraft had any motivation to keep Belichick off the sidelines, a source close to the coach said: “If Bill goes on to have success and Tom already had success, then who does [Kraft] have to blame?”

Kraft’s assessment of Belichick occurred in the run-up to the much-anticipated 10-part docuseries, “The Dynasty,” which debuted in mid-February on AppleTV+. The Kraft-supported project has been criticized by several former Patriots players and fans as intentionally and blatantly anti-Belichick. In the docuseries, Kraft blamed Belichick for the team’s Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles, citing his mysterious benching of cornerback Malcolm Butler. And he also confirmed what he had publicly denied over the years of a contentious and, in his words, “dysfunctional” relationship between Belichick and Brady. “To be honest, my head coach is a pain in the tush,” Kraft said on camera. “But I was willing to put up with it — as long as we won.”

Lombardi, who is close to Belichick, said that since the docuseries, “everyone is asking why this guy isn’t working.”

Kraft has since distanced himself from the project, which lists Kraft Dynasty LLC in the credits, even though James said the Patriots had no editorial control over the docuseries. In late March at the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Kraft said he was “disappointed” that the docuseries emphasized negative stories over the team’s two decades of dominance and barely showed two of the Patriots’ Super Bowl titles. When asked by reporters about how the docuseries depicted Belichick, Kraft dodged.

“I feel so privileged that we had Bill here,” he said, later adding: “And, you know, I look forward to the privilege of putting Bill into the Patriots Hall of Fame one day in the future.”

No matter what he’d heard in the reference checks, Blank entertained trading headaches for wins.

Four days after huddling on the yacht, Belichick was interviewed for a second time on Jan. 19 at Blank’s Atlanta-area home. Blank and top Falcons executives, including McKay, Fontenot and team president Greg Beadles were present. The executives, whose team has had just three winning seasons since 2012, took the measure of a coach who is used to doing it his own way.

The 4½-hour meeting included explanations of the team’s process with player contracts.

Belichick asked why contracts didn’t include offseason bonuses to entice players to work out at the facility during the offseason, an essential team-building incentive in New England. He was told that’s not what the Falcons have ever done.

Belichick wasn’t eager to work with McKay, but it was unclear how much that would have mattered anyway: McKay is a longtime trusted aide to Blank but would soon be promoted out of daily team oversight, sources said. Belichick assured Blank that he was willing to work with Fontenot.

“But where I think he’s not getting a fair enough evaluation is if you have a good way of doing something, he’s one of the all-time best listeners. He’s open to change, it just has to be smart change.”

Belichick friend Michael Lombardi

By the time the meeting was over, Belichick felt confident it had gone well, a source close to him said. But a source familiar with the Falcons’ thinking said neither McKay nor Fontenot wanted to work with Belichick. Their concerns mirrored those of the Eagles: If you hire Belichick, he will inevitably run the team, even if he doesn’t demand total control.

“You have to be all in,” Lombardi said. “But where I think he’s not getting a fair enough evaluation is if you have a good way of doing something, he’s one of the all-time best listeners. He’s open to change, it just has to be smart change.”

But several Falcons executives did not see it that way. They viewed Belichick as “an older, stoic coach who’d blow up the building” and wouldn’t likely stay beyond two years after he sets the all-time wins record, a source said. Also, Blank hates coaching searches and he would have to do another.

The executives also were concerned about the staff Belichick would bring with him, including assistants who had worked with him in New England and who had struggled on their own: Josh McDaniels, Joe Judge, Jack Easterby, Matt Patricia. At one point, Blank asked Belichick why his charges had failed elsewhere. Belichick replied that he thought they were better soldiers than generals.

The source close to Belichick said the coach had concerns about the Falcons’ roster and would have needed his most trusted former assistants to execute a quick turnaround. He told one confidant that the Patriots’ lackluster performance in recent years was because some of those former assistants had left.

And there were other considerations for the Falcons. “If Bill were 63 … this might have been different,” a source said. It was ultimately Blank’s decision, but he is notoriously averse to confrontation and controversy. The fact that his top lieutenants pushed against Belichick swayed him, sources said. The Falcons’ second interview was granted to Belichick “largely out of respect.”

In the media, Belichick was portrayed repeatedly as the Falcons’ favorite. One analyst, Boomer Esiason, even reported on his radio show that Belichick had been offered the job. And multiple sources said Belichick felt he was the favorite, in part because of how his meetings went with Blank.

But inside Falcons headquarters, Morris was the leader after he “blew away” his interview and energized the organization with his enthusiasm, ideas and deep football knowledge, both in terms of personnel and strategy. Morris, hired by Tampa as a rising-star head coach in 2009, later held multiple positions on the Falcons’ coaching staff from 2015 to 2020 and was defensive coordinator and interim head coach after Quinn’s firing in 2020. Morris’ defenses with the Rams shut out the 49ers and Bengals in the fourth quarters of the NFC championship game and Super Bowl, respectively, after the 2021 season, and he had become one of Sean McVay’s most trusted confidants.

Morris is where Belichick was in 2000: 47 years old and at a career crossroads, eager to prove that he wasn’t just a brilliant assistant who lacked the gravitas to lead a team, aware that this might be his last, best chance. Morris needed what Belichick was desperate for 24 years ago: an owner unafraid to believe in him.

On the morning of Jan. 25, Blank and executives interviewed a final candidate, Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik. The meeting went 90 minutes longer than scheduled. They liked him but were worried about losing out on Morris, who was due to interview with the Seahawks. After Slowik left, Blank and the Falcons execs compared notes. Morris was the unanimous first choice. The team then discussed alternatives if they couldn’t hire Morris. In that straw poll, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, eventually hired by the Seahawks, was the second choice. Slowik finished third.

Blank offered Morris the job. Told that morning that the job was his to lose, Belichick was eliminated. This offseason’s lack of opportunities left Belichick “kind of shocked,” a source close to him said.

Within a week, he was interviewing agents to help him find a TV gig.

BELICHICK ONCE SWORE he wouldn’t coach into his 70s. He will be 73 when the 2025 season kicks off.

He has told confidants he thinks he’ll get at least one interview next year. Dallas could be an option, if Jerry Jones moves on from Mike McCarthy, a lame duck in the final year of his contract. Belichick has a strong relationship with both Jerry and Stephen Jones, dating back years. On the other hand, Jerry Jones has been close with a lot of excellent head coaches whom he has never hired. Belichick has told confidants that he hopes if a team in the northeast has an opening, it will consider him. That way, key former assistants who live in the region, such as Patricia and McDaniels, will be able to join him with minimal family disruption. But in the end, if he works, or where, or how much power he is granted, won’t be up to Belichick.

“The Patriot Way is damaged,” a former Patriots assistant coach said.

Belichick also, like many in the New England circle, quietly observed the attacks of the Patriot Way in recent months, through Belichick’s job hunt and fallout from the docuseries. “A lot of people are pissed,” a Belichick confidant said. “His name was smeared.”

This year, Belichick plans to travel abroad, speak to football programs around the country and to write a book — not a tell-all memoir but a football leadership guide. The model is one of the books that influenced Belichick most: “Finding the Winning Edge,” Bill Walsh’s 550-page bid to put his football genius on paper. Walsh’s system was coach-centric, of course. It was the NFL system. Walsh mocked the role of a general manager on losing teams, saying that most of them sit next to the owner during games and blame the coach, avoiding accountability. Belichick read the book and then developed an entire system based on accountability.

Not long ago, a confidant of Belichick was asked why the coach would write a book if he still wanted to coach. Why give away his secrets? The answer was that Belichick could write everything and still not disclose much. He can explain the design and structure, the theories and tenets, the guardrails and bullet points, but how someone thinks cannot be replicated. No book can tell a coach to refrain from calling timeout with 30 seconds left in the Super Bowl and the opponent a yard away from victory. The system is Belichick. Was Belichick.

ESPN reporters Tisha Thompson and Michael Rothstein and researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.

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