In recent years, best-selling author Jeff Benedict has chronicled two of the most outstanding individuals in sports, Tiger Woods and Steve Young. But in his new project, he takes on three at the same time, and in the process, explains how the greatest dynasty in NFL history stayed together for 20 years and won six Super Bowls.
“The Dynasty” documents the story of the New England Patriots from doormats to dynasty. Benedict spent two years around the organization and spoke to the hundreds of people who were central the franchise’s meteoric rise, including the holy trinity: Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Benedict focuses his story on Kraft, whose adroitness and flexibility was the key to keeping the operation together. Towards the end of the run, tabloids were filled with titillating scoops about growing dysfunction between Belichick and Brady, but Benedict reports Kraft always stood as the intermediary between the two football titans. In 2010, Kraft told Brady he would be permitted to leave the team if he ever felt his relationship with Belichick became too strained.
Eight years later, Brady asked Kraft if the offer was still good.
There are many scintillating nuggets within the “The Dynasty’s” 522 pages: Gisele Bundchen lambasting Belichick in Kraft’s living room, Kraft holding a special meeting with Belichick and Brady at his home after Super Bowl LII. But most of all, Benedict says he wanted to focus on how three of the most consequential figures in NFL history dominated the league for two decades. He spoke with me about the reporting process and his biggest takeaways from the project. Answers have been edited for brevity.
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Alex Reimer: How did you decide this was the next project you wanted to tackle, and what was it like to go through the notoriously tight-lipped Patriots?
Jeff Benedict: I thought about this project for a long time before actually working on it. By the time I was ready to start working on it, I had really distilled down in my mind what the focus of this book would be for me. There are so many tentacles to this story, there isn’t one way to approach it. I was looking for, what’s the unique approach that I want to take? What occurred to me was, I looked at Sports Illustrated’s 100 greatest sports books of all-time. That list was published some years ago, but I went through the whole list and what stood out to me isn’t what was on the list. What stood out to me was what wasn’t on the list. There wasn’t one title in the top 100 that had anything to do with an owner. I thought, ‘that’s really interesting, because here’s an organization that has these two larger than life figures, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but what about the owner? He’s the one who built the franchise. He’s the one who took it from the doormat of the NFL to the crème de la crème of the NFL.
I wanted to start with the owner, because it’s his team. He’s the one who built it from the ground up. So I just approached him very directly. I wrote him a letter. I’m a writer, and I figured a letter allows me to say clearly what I want to say to him. It’s better than a conversation. My first communication with someone who is a total stranger is me calling them on the phone and talking to them. That’s not going to be the best way for me to introduce myself, and outline why I’m reaching out to you. A letter allows me to do that, because it allows me to communicate through writing. Then he responded with a letter of his own. When I got that letter, that said something about him. I still haven’t met him, but I’m already drawing an inference about him, because he wrote me back. He didn’t have to write me back. That surprised me, and I like to be surprised as a journalist.
Reimer: How about Belichick and Brady? Did you write letters to them as well?
Benedict: I didn’t. In my letter to the owner of the team, one of the things I said I wanted to do was write a book about the dynasty and franchise, and naturally I would start with you, because it’s your team. I wanted to see the franchise and be around the team and see things and learn things. It wasn’t until after that process got started that I eventually got around to asking Tom and Bill if I could interview them. That was much later. Like I said, in that first year, I was trying to get oriented. There was a lot to figure out. In that first year, I didn’t even ask either of them for an interview.
Benedict: Yeah. I didn’t ask until probably sometime last summer. At that point, I felt like I knew enough. Had I tried to interview them earlier on, I didn’t want to waste their time. Their team is valuable, and I didn’t want to waste it by having an uninformed interview. It took me about a year to figure out what to ask, if that makes sense.
Reimer: You go to the Seahawks Super Bowl, and it seems like there’s such a euphoria around the team after that. Then, three or four years later, it really all falls apart. Looking back on it, how would you define that period, and do you think there was one turning point where things started to fray?
Benedict:I don’t think there’s one point or moment. I wouldn’t make this comparison lightly, but in Chapter 1 and Chapter 44, the last chapter, I make a comparison between Belichick and Brady and (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney. That’s a big comparison to make, but when you think about it, I think it works for this reason: Lennon and McCartney were what separated the Beatles from everybody else. It’s why 50 years later, they’re still The Beatles. George Harrison would’ve been a star in any other band. But he’s like third-string with The Beatles. The Patriots are like that. Belichick and Brady are that. The genius of Kraft is, he knew what he had early on. He knew he had John and Paul on his payroll.
Reimer: How did Kraft keep it going?
Benedict: He has to have a different relationship with (Belichick and Brady). In Brady’s case, Brady wants approval and appreciation, like any player — but maybe to a greater level with Tom. And he’s not getting that from the coach. That’s not the kind of coach that Bill is. Robert fills that, and not just because he knows it has to be done for practical reasons, but he actually looks at Tom that way — like a fifth son. I think a turning point is after the first three Super Bowls, and Tom is maturing into a man and great player, Kraft takes him to Israel for a week. There’s this great scene where they’re sitting in a bar together, and they’re certainly not talking about football. They’re talking about life. And I say, ‘think about Brady. He gets to go to Israel with his owner and sit on a rooftop bar and talk about the meaning of things that really matter in life. Then in Foxboro, he gets to go into dark rooms with Bill Belichick and study film and basically learn from the master.’ That’s the trinity here. Kraft has the familial relationship with Tom, and with Bill it’s different. His nimbleness and ability to have those relationships is what stretches the Brady and Belichick relationship further than where it could’ve gone on its own.
Reimer: Even now, at a later stage in life, Kraft is just as nimble?
Benedict: Yes. That’s who he is. He’s a great operator, and I say that in a complimentary way. He does a lot of operating behind the scenes. He and Jerry Jones are the two most visible owners in the NFL, and the two most influential owners. But where Robert really makes his gold, is what he does behind the scenes quietly. That’s where the wisdom comes out. He is a true citizen of the world, and he’s in a league where the other owners are not necessarily citizens of the world. I’m not saying negative things about the other owners, I’m just saying Robert Kraft’s experience prior to coming into the NFL, and during the NFL, is much different than everybody else’s. That’s why you see a different level of success in Foxboro.
Reimer: Do you think Deflategate had a long-term impact on the relationship between Kraft, Brady and Belichick?
Benedict: I guess my answer would be, not necessarily. Deflategate was, in the end, a galvanizing event. As has been the case with other things that have happened to this organization over the years, they always manage to turn these things into motivation. They’re unifying factors. When everyone is coming after you, Belichick is a masterful coach, he knows how to use this. Tom uses it as a source of motivation. Kraft thrives in this environment, because I think he’s at his best when the chips are down and there’s stress everywhere and it feels like the walls are coming in on these guys. What I came away from is, look what it triggered. The back half run of the dynasty is, to me, more impressive than what they did in the beginning. Deflategate is the pre-cursor to that.
Reimer: You write a lot about Alex Guerrero and his rift with Belichick. How great of a challenge was that to manage?
Benedict: It was challenging for everybody involved. When you have a genius coach like Bill and an outlier athlete like Tom, it’s going to be complicated. Guys aren’t supposed to play football until they’re 43. That’s not supposed to happen, unless you’re George Blanda and you’re just kicking. There’s no precedent for what Brady is doing, and by the way, there’s no precedent for what Belichick is doing. When you have that sort of wealth of riches on your payroll, you have complexity. It’s not that one of these guys was right and one of these guys was wrong. Alex Guerrero is essential to who Tom Brady is as a football player. Take him away, Tom Brady is not there for part of this Patriots history, and he’s not performing at age 43. This poses a genuine challenge for the head coach, who’s got a training staff, and you’re trying to run your team this way. As a journalist, I looked at all of that as really rich material, and figuring out how to navigate and work this thing out. There’s some fraying around the edges — there are all of those things — but to me, it’s expected. The interesting thing is, how they dealt with it. The role of the owner again becomes really critical in this. I call that chapter, ‘Shuttle Diplomacy.’ There’s a lot of diplomacy going on here, and the owner is doing the back-and-forth.
Reimer: You mention Belichick. He’s 68. Like Brady, this is historic. How do you think he’s doing it at this stage?
Benedict: I didn’t spend one-on-one time with Bill. I sent him lots of questions in writing, which is what he asked, and then after getting them, he chose to answer the questions in writing. There is a lot of upside to that, actually. I am a writer, and I know when you’re writing, you have to be thoughtful about what you’re saying. It takes time to write answers. Bill’s answers were thoughtful. They were great.
I just think Bill has unbelievable endurance and consistency. What you see as a coach, is his personality comes through in his coaching. He is ultimately reliable, and I think that’s what Kraft admires in him so much. The consistency. It’s what Kraft looks for in employees and people who work in his companies. Bill has that. He hasn’t slowed down. If you’re the Jets, every year you’re going, ‘when is this going to stop?’ It keeps going.
Reimer: I have to ask about Donald Trump and Robert Kraft’s relationship with him. That’s invited so much coverage over the last few years. What kind of impact do you think that’s had on Kraft and the organization, and how has that been handled?
Benedict: What I actually wrote about in the book was Trump’s connection not just to Kraft, but Belichick and Brady. There are different levels of connectivity between all three of them. Trump has been around them and known them for some years. I think that’s an interesting area to explore. I wanted to go there in the narrative. I just chose to do it by introducing it when Trump decided to run for president. I thought it would be interesting to just look at how the three men dealt with it differently, because all three of them dealt with it differently. It does show the uniqueness and diversity of Kraft, Belichick and Brady. Their personalities show through in that moment in time.