Last in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Front Office/Ownership
About the only man in New England who doesn’t like Bob Kraft is John Rowland.
The duped Governor of the state of Connecticut, who practically handed a free new stadium to Kraft if he’d move the Patriots to Hartford, perhaps still feels the sting of a huge financial windfall lost, as well as the feeling of simply being used. With apologies to the good people of the Nutmeg State and Insurance City, the thought of the Patriots leaving the hub of New England to what is really Jets/Giants country was very unappealing. That unappealing feeling is a hundredfold right now ever since the events of February 3, 2002.
Not long ago, many other New England folk had bad feelings for Kraft, and not just HRH King Thomas Finneran. Five years ago, Bill Parcells was managing to pry himself from the Patriots, and Kraft was at the root of the reason why. Kraft turned into a meddling owner, getting involved in team business that he knew nothing about nor had any business getting into. The rumours of Parcells leaving ruined the Patriots’ experience at Super Bowl XXXI, and Green Bay laid a 35-21 licking on Kraft’s team.
And this was on the heels of a region that hailed Kraft as a hero by buying the team and keeping it here in Massachusetts. James Busch Orthwein, the owner who hired Parcells, hailed from St. Louis and wanted to move the team there. But Kraft, who owned Foxborough Stadium, bought the team from Orthwein in 1994 and kept it here in the region.
And now, with a Super Bowl championship in his clutches, Kraft’s football experience has come completely full circle, and then some. He came in as a hero, then slipped to the point of near mockery status, and is now on the highest pedestal he will ever be on in his life. With new CMGi Field poised to open in the fall of 2002, Kraft will have cemented his legacy here in the region, a legacy that will likely exceed that of all other owners in the history of the region.
Right now, the only owner in Boston sports history that rivals Kraft is Walter Brown. Tom Yawkey won zero championships despite his longevity and his history of being unusually kind to his Red Sox players. Charles F. and Weston W. Adams had a decent legacy of owning the Bruins, but played in Brown’s crib. Brown was everything to Boston: Irish, local, owned the Boston Garden, linked to two teams, and his Celtics were in the midst of eight straight championships when he died.
Kraft and his family have a storybook legacy themselves, and they literally became a family in Foxborough Stadium. Bob, wife Myra and their four sons were season ticket holders in section 219. Yours truly and his dad graced that very section several times over the years. They maintained that tradition while the elder Kraft was becoming a successful businessman in paper products. On November 23, 1988, Kraft bought Sullivan Stadium from the Patriots, at the time owned by Victor Kiam and Fran Murray.
For six years, Kraft watched the Patriots suffer through some of the worst days in the history of the franchise. The Kiam years were miserable most of the time, and are best remembered for the putrid 1-15 1990 season, the year of the Lisa Olson scandal. Orthwein bought the Patriots on May 11, 1992, hired Parcells the following January 21st, and sold the team to Kraft on February 25, 1994.
Kraft held aloft the Lamar Hunt trophy as AFC Champion for the first time in 1997 at his stadium. In accepting the trophy, Kraft dedicated the trophy to his fellow fans, saying that “we’ve been fans together”. You’d be hard pressed to find an owner in any sport who had this kind of fan connection prior to ownership of the team.
Now today, with son Jonathan at his side as vice-chairman, Kraft presides over an organization that everyone wants to copy, and everyone has to marvel at. Known as a shrewd businessman, Kraft learned from his early mistakes and has entrusted his football operations to the people who know best. By extending fellowship to Bill Belichick when he was defensive backs coach in 1996, Kraft was able to cash in on that by bringing him aboard as head coach in 2000. Kraft and Belichick have a solid relationship, the opposite of what Kraft and Parcells had. Kraft has sat back and watched Belichick deliver his dream of a championship, and that perhaps has been his smartest act as owner.
Despite the belief that Belichick would have total control over personnel, Belichick has a great deal of help and assistance in Scott Pioli. Belichick and Pioli have teamed up to corral a bevy of quality free agents, and have watched the last two drafts produce such key players as Tom Brady, J.R. Redmond, Matt Light, Greg Robinson-Randall, Richard Seymour, and Leonard Myers.
If you believe in karma, the hiring of Pioli had some mystical qualities to it. Going against the grain of the last four years, the Patriots stole Pioli from the Jets. And to make things really special, Pioli’s wife, Dallas, is the daughter of Parcells. One has to wonder how Parcells allowed this to happen. But happen it did, and Pioli is drawing lots of praise in his ability to judge NFL talent.
Other than Kraft, perhaps the most important cog in the Patriot front office has to be Andy Wasynczuk, the team capologist. No one can remember in recent history of any Super Bowl champion who goes into the next season under the cap. Wasynczuk has shown a great knack for re-doing contracts, assessing player values, and managing the team’s money.
While other prominent teams have had to gut themselves and rebuild (Dallas, San Francisco, Jacksonville, New York Jets), the Patriots will return all of their offensive starters in 2002 and may lose only Brandon Mitchell from the defense, not considered a devastating blow. Being able to do this in today’s salary cap environment portrays Wasynczuk as much a genius as Belichick is. Wasynczuk’s most recent re-done contract, that of Willie McGinest, is a terrific example of how the organization works, but part of the reason is that McGinest badly wanted to stay rather than be cut.
The biggest news for the Patriots in 2002, other than the awarding of the rings and the defense of their championship, will be the opening of brand new CMGi Field. The place is already being hailed as the finest stadium in the NFL once completed. It might be that CMGi opens on a Monday night national audience, and right off the bat we’ll see that lighthouse shine that awesome beam of light to the heavens. The light in and of itself carries with it a great deal of symbolism.
The stunning beam of light the nation will see will be that of a new era in Patriot football. The team opens the season as champions. The team opens the season in a stadium that will forever dispel any myths of vagabond teams or inadequate facilities. The fan base in the area rivals that of any in the nation, with a season ticket waiting list that would make the Redskins shake their heads. The team that once was the laughing stock of the NFL will no longer wear that moniker.
And presiding over all this prestige and promise is Robert K. Kraft. This organization has his name written all over it. Demolishing Foxborough Stadium by and large takes with it the last vestige of the Sullivan name. Billy’s legacy remains only in the name Patriot and the town of Foxborough. Everything else belongs to Kraft.
And “everything else” is pretty impressive. It now has pedigree, prestige and personality. It now has great riches and great foundations. It now has a prime facility, a place that lots of great players will want to play in for many years to come.
Looking ahead, what Kraft did to the Patriots may yet turn out to be similar to what Brown and Red Auerbach did for the Celtics. Don’t look for the Patriots to win the next seven Super Bowls, but don’t rule out a run of many good to great years, with perhaps more great ones than good ones. With the coaching and talent base squarely in place, and with plenty of cap room to build for the future, expectations can be through the roof.
It is a model franchise. It is everything it never used to be.
It is a championship organization, “krafted” by a great owner.
This concludes this year’s series on positional analysis.