Kraft backs Belichick as both express optimism about 2023

PHOENIX -- Facing the longest Super Bowl odds of his tenure as New England Patriots coach, Bill Belichick was asked Monday at the NFL's annual league meeting what message of optimism he might share with the team's fans.

He succinctly answered: "The last 25 years."

It was a flex, of sorts, from the soon to be 71-year-old Belichick, who is 18 wins away from tying the late Don Shula on the all-time coaching wins list (including playoffs).

Belichick enters his 24th season as Patriots coach and has won six Super Bowls and nine AFC championships over that span, while posting a 292-120 record in the regular season and 30-12 mark in the playoffs. Including his tenure as Cleveland Browns coach from 1991 to 1995, he has totaled 329 career victories, with only Shula (347) ahead of him.

But the Patriots are coming off an 8-9 season and haven't won a playoff game since defeating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019.

Furthermore, it has been three seasons since the free agent departure of quarterback Tom Brady.

Caesars Sportsbook has the Patriots at 70-1 to win the Super Bowl this season, the team's longest preseason Super Bowl odds under Belichick. According to SportsOddsHistory.com, it's the franchise's longest preseason Super Bowl odds since 1993, when it was 100-1. The last time the Patriots entered a season at least 50-1 to win the Super Bowl was 2001, when they won their first title with Belichick and Brady -- 20-17 over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Monday that he supports Belichick despite the team finishing below .500 two of the past three years.

"I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. I've given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done," Kraft said at the NFL's annual meeting. "His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled from what I've seen. In the end, this is a business -- you either execute and win, or you don't. That's where we're at. I think we're in a transition phase. We've made some moves this year that I personally am comfortable with. And I still believe in Bill."

One of the most significant changes is hiring Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, as he replaces Belichick's 2022 setup that leaned most heavily on Matt Patricia as the playcaller despite his primary background in the NFL coming on defense. The Patriots had plummeted to the bottom of the NFL in several key categories, such as red zone and third-down efficiency, with quarterback Mac Jones dipping after a promising rookie campaign.

Kraft said of Patricia: "I think he got put in a difficult position and it was sort of an experiment. In retrospect, I don't think it was the right thing. And I feel bad for him because he's such a hard worker."

Kraft said O'Brien was his first choice as coordinator this year, but that the decision was ultimately Belichick's. He believes O'Brien's arrival will "work to [Jones'] advantage."

"I thought we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn't work when it came to him," Kraft said. "I think we made changes [this year] that I think put him in a good position to excel. I'm very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year, and I personally am a big fan of Mac."

At the same time, Kraft shared a story with reporters that rapper Meek Mill, his close friend, texted him recently to say that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson wanted to be traded to New England. Kraft relayed that type of decision would fall to Belichick, who earlier in the day deflected on the topic.

"I'm not going talk about players on any other team. Period," the coach said.

As for his own situation approaching Shula's all-time wins mark, Belichick said: "I have great respect for the game and all that. I'm not really focused on that right now. The 2023 season is all I'm concerned about."