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Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

I know, I know … we’ve been down this road before. And we keep waiting for – or predicting – the end that never comes. So keep all of that in mind and take all of this with a grain of salt.

But if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the Patriots are bracing for Bill Belichick’s retirement, probably in the next year.

In case you missed it, Patriots “character coach” Jack Easterby is leaving the organization, according to a report by Ben Volin and Nora Princiotti in Friday’s Boston Globe. Most fans couldn’t care less about the “character coach” save for a few punch lines, but there was a detail or two in the report that caught my eye and should catch yours, too.

“The Patriots coaching staff has suffered another substantial loss this offseason as Jack Easterby, the team’s `character coach’ and one of Bill Belichick’s closest confidants, is leaving after six seasons, multiple league sources confirmed. Easterby’s contract with the Patriots expired after last season, and he has decided to pursue other opportunities in football.”

Look, I’m not that gullible anymore. When a coach’s contract expires and he isn’t brought back, that is usually a euphemism for him being fired. You can belabor the semantics all you want, but the team either wants you or it doesn’t. And when the team doesn’t, they’re effectively pushing you out the door.

But when Volin and Princiotti write that Easterby “has decided to pursue other opportunities,” I actually believe it. And the reason is that they go out of their way to point out that Easterby is “one of Belichick’s closest confidants,” which puts my antenna up, particularly during an offseason when Patriots staff members have been leaving Foxboro as if trying to beat the traffic on Route 1.

Now, could it be that the Patriots were upset with Easterby’s performance given the ultimate failing of Josh Gordon, whom Easterby had a significant hand in overseeing? Sure – at least if the Pats expected Easterby to be a miracle worker. Could it be that he and Belichick had some sort of falling out? Absolutely. Could it be that he just got tired of Foxboro and indeed wanted something different? Of course.

But when you weigh it all out, the facts are hard to ignore. According to Volin and Princiotti, seven Patriots staff members have now departed the team since the end of the season – six of them with expiring contracts. (The lone exception is Brian Flores, who took the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins.) Some of them have made lateral moves, which is both unusual and curious. And now Easterby is leaving for the ever-vague “other opportunities.”

Late in the 2017 NFL season, amid the inner turmoil at Foxboro, we learned that Belichick had multiple years remaining on his contract with the Patriots. Then Josh McDaniels committed to the Indianapolis Colts and abruptly reneged at the behest of owner Robert Kraft, as if the Patriots had learned that Belichick was about to give his notice.

Again, take all of this with a grain of salt and the usual amount (or even more) of skepticism. This might all be nothing. It probably is. But there have been some strange things going in Foxboro with regard to the Patriots coaches, and now one of Belichick’s “closest confidants” is leaving, too.

With any other team at any other point it time, we’d wonder if Easterby knows something we don’t.

Because at the moment, the Patriots coaching staff currently looks like a team transitioning from one era to the next.

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.