Robert Kraft’s problem this offseason wouldn’t elicit a shred of sympathy from his peers around the NFL. The New England Patriots owner needed to find a new and memorable way to present his players their Super Bowl rings, his fifth such ceremony in 23 years of ownership.
So Kraft thought inside the box.
At a lavish party in June, each member of the team was presented a ring box locked in a transparent case. The players couldn’t open them until a specific point in the evening when they were provided the three-digit combination all the locks shared.
“He wanted to make it such a special night,” quarterback Tom Brady said by phone. “There was so much detail — the food, the music, the presentation, the party. It was perfect.”
Kraft has cracked the code as an NFL owner, with his team making a mockery of the notion of competitive balance in the league. Likewise, he dialed up a clever combination for those tumblers: 8-3-1.
That was an obscure number in the Patriots’ history-making comeback over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, when they overcame a 28-3 deficit in the second half to win in overtime, 34-28.
The reason for the 8-3-1 combination: There were 8 minutes, 31 seconds remaining on the clock in the third quarter when New England began its wildly improbable revival after falling behind by 25 points. Also, there was 8:31 left in the fourth quarter when the Falcons ran a third-and-1 play in which Dont’a Hightower made a pivotal strip-sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Another challenge for Kraft cropped up in the past few weeks. The Patriots didn’t have room in their stadium to display five championship banners, only four, with two on either side of the video board. The owner said the club has “changed construction around” to squeeze in a fifth banner, with the unveiling at Thursday night’s opener against Kansas City.
Kraft’s haul as owner is the envy of the league. Since Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriots have had 20 winning seasons out of 23, and have won more division titles (16), conference championships (eight), and Super Bowls (five) than any team during that span. This was a franchise that had played host to one playoff game before Kraft — a loss to Houston in 1978 — but since has gone 20-3 in postseason home games.
Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers during their dynasty, said Kraft bailed the NFL out of a “disastrous” situation when he bought the failing Patriots for $172 million. (In Forbes’ latest list of NFL franchise valuations, the Patriots are valued at $3.4 billion, second to the Dallas Cowboys at $4.2 billion.)
“New England was really, if I’m not mistaken, our worst franchise,” Policy said, referring to the period just before Kraft bought the team. “I was on committees at the time that were trying to deal with it, the finance committee, just trying to straighten it out and move it forward. We weren’t even talking about a new stadium, we were just trying to get the existing stadium to be presentable.
Once an afterthought, now the Patriots are impossible to ignore. They are the most polarizing team in the NFL, if not all of professional sports. Football fans either love them or hate them, but everyone has an opinion on them.
“It’s a little like the Yankees were,” said Kraft, who was a Patriots fan and season-ticket holder during their 34 years of existence before he bought the team. “Once a team starts winning, it doesn’t endear them to fans of other teams. When I was a kid growing up, it was the Celtics.
“We try not to be arrogant, and I think most of the people in this organization are not. Stylistically, sometimes the way Bill (Belichick) comes across to people … But it’s just that people want other teams to win.
“I understand it, but we’re going to try to do our best to keep the haters hating.”
Whether detractors call them robots, or cheaters, or swaggering bullies, there’s no denying that the triangle of Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and Kraft is significantly ahead of the rest of the league in terms of sustained excellence.
“He’s at the peak of the pyramid, so it all funnels down from him,” Brady said of Kraft. “It’s his vision in running the franchise, and obviously hiring coach Belichick and all the directives and so forth. He’s put together a winning culture.
Kraft has hired just two head coaches in his 23 years of ownership: Pete Carroll, then Belichick. Carroll replaced Bill Parcells, hired a year before Kraft bought the team.
“I believe to be good at something, you need stability and a common goal,” Kraft said. “What I’m proudest of is the stability.”
Kraft often has been praised for the hiring of Belichick, who at the time was not a hot commodity. More impressive to some observers, though, is the fact their professional relationship has lasted 18 years. It’s often the case that these arrangements crumble under the weight of ever-growing egos.
“You never got the impression that anything ever went on behind closed doors that had any kind of wrinkle in it in terms of the relationship between the front office and the head coach,” Policy said.
“You would think that Kraft gets in his plane, flying all around and calling every now and then saying, ‘Anything new, Bill?’ … That’s not how it works. But you can see the positive effect that’s had on the organization for these many years.”
“Some people, when they’re unhappy with something, they make a change for change’s sake,” Kraft said. “But I’ve always disciplined myself not to do that unless I have something better to put in its place.”
Sometimes, change is unavoidable. Brady was suspended for the first four games of last season — fallout from the alleged football-deflating controversy near the end of the 2014 season — then returned and led the Patriots back to the mountaintop, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after executing the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
“Think about it, we started the season and the best player in the league in my opinion didn’t play the first 25% of it,” Kraft said. “It was in the Old Testament: There’s no bad without good, if managed properly. So he had no wear and tear on his body for 25% of the season. And we went 3-1 without him.”
Amid the falling confetti, after his team came back from the dead to beat Atlanta in overtime, Kraft gave a victory speech that will go down in Patriots lore.
“Two years ago we won our fourth Super Bowl down in Arizona and I told our fans that was the sweetest one of all,” Kraft said. “But a lot has transpired over the last two years and I don’t think that needs any explanation. I want to say to our fans, brilliant coaching staff and players who are so spectacular, this is unequivocally the sweetest. I’m proud to say for the fifth time, we are all Patriots.”
“You know what the odds were of us losing when we were down, 28-3? They were 99.6%,” Kraft said. “The biggest comeback ever in a Super Bowl was 10 points. I knew that. But my whole life is going against the odds. I never give up, and I always have hope. I looked over at [my son] Jonathan when we were losing, 28-3, and said, ‘How do you think Tommy feels? You think he’s giving up?’”
“Jonathan said, ‘No… way.’”
Before the game, the owner met with Brady, whose parents were there to see him play for the first time all season. The quarterback’s mother, Galynn, had been quietly battling cancer, something that was not known publicly at the time.
“I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to win this one for Mom,’” Kraft said. “And he shook my hand and said, ‘OK.’ I really believe the karma of that had something to do with it.”
Kraft, who ultimately sent Brady’s mom a Super Bowl ring, has memorized every moment of that game.
“I’ve re-watched it about eight times, especially the second half,” he said. “I have a 45-minute version and a two-hour version. I watch it when I work out on the elliptical.”
Not so for Brady.
“He gave me a DVD,” the quarterback said. “I watched it once, and I saw it twice on a coach’s copy, just watching the game, my footwork, my throws. I kind of just — no. For one reason or another, I haven’t just sat down to watch it.”
Kraft’s league-wide role has been similarly impressive. He privately financed his stadium without selling personal-seat licenses — no one else has done that — and developed a retail district around it that’s the precursor to the stadium and retail district Rams owner Stan Kroenke is building in Inglewood.
Not only was Kraft key to resolving the lockout in the last collective bargaining agreement impasse between owners and players, but also to bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles after a 21-year absence.
“Bob Kraft definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame,” Policy said. “It’s an honor he should absolutely receive.”
Since 2000, four NFL owners have been enshrined in Canton: Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney in 2000, Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson in 2009, and in the past two years, San Francisco’s Eddie DeBartolo and Dallas’ Jerry Jones.
Kraft could be next.
“You see why New England is the way it is,” Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said. “We only get to see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But you get to spend some time with Robert Kraft, and you say, ‘Aha.’ ... It’s clear who sets the tone.
“Ownership is everything.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer