Let’s get this right before we address anything else about the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick split.
It’s not “or.”
Forever and ever, amen. No matter what happens next.
Now that Brady is, according to reports, about to become the quarterback for — this will never sound right — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots are in need of a starting QB for the first time since 1993, there’s certain to be a verbal sprint by the hot-takers and even the mild-takers to tell us who deserves more credit for the Patriots’ long-running dynasty.
Is it Brady, the greatest player of all time? Or Belichick, the greatest coach of all time? Stephen A. will tell you next, right here on “First Take,” provided Robert Kraft doesn’t call again to spin this as Brady’s decision during the commercial break!
There are hordes of people — national and even local media, and fans from pretty much every other NFL outpost — that have been waiting for years upon years for them to go their separate ways.
Now that it’s happened after 20 — 20! — amazing years, I get that it’s irresistible to try to divvy up the credit, especially in this time of COVID-19 and the extremely minor but still noticeable scarcity of sports content.
But excuse me while I resist. It will never be Bill Belichick or Tom Brady to me, even as they go separate ways. It’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, always.
Belichick is the smartest and most disciplined coach in NFL history. Brady is the smartest and gutsiest quarterback. They won six Super Bowls together. Neither would have won six without the other. It was perhaps the most mutually beneficial partnership of genius in sports history. (I’ll hear you on Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, but that’s it.)
Both Brady and Belichick deserve credit in full. That’s all they will ever get from me.
But since we do have to look at them individually now that they’re separate football entities for the first time since April 16, 2000, the estimation of what comes next is far more interesting than trying to determine a credit pie for what already has happened.
And while Brady is the one facing the greater change — good thing the Buccaneers never retired Doug Williams’s No. 12 — it is Belichick’s path ahead that I find much more compelling.
I’m not sure letting Brady walk away entering his age-43 season is the boldest thing he has ever done. He dumped franchise icon Bernie Kosar in Cleveland, and even letting Brady keep the job over $103 million man Drew Bledsoe (who preceded Brady as the de facto fifth Kraft son) was hardly a no-brainer at the time.
Belichick has never feared parting with the popular and the legendary. This distinct lack of sentimentality has led to such oddities as Willie McGinest, Cleveland Brown, and Vince Wilfork, Houston Texan. But it has almost always served the Patriots well. Even letting Adam Vinatieri go to the Colts worked out fine, and in the early years of the dynasty, he probably was as beloved as Brady.
This is different, and not just because it’s Brady, that rare special athlete who becomes part of the fabric of fans’ lives. Belichick knows more about Brady’s diminishments than we ever could. No, it’s because it’s really difficult to tell what the immediate path forward is for the Patriots.
Important veterans such as Devin and Jason McCourty and Matthew Slater have remained in free agency. Linebackers and alleged “Boogeymen” Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy are gone, as is dependable safety Duron Harmon and reliable lineman Ted Karras. Guard Joe Thuney got the franchise tag, but he could be traded.
Dante Scarnecchia, an easy Hall of Fame choice if voters ever deign to elect worthy assistant coaches, is retired. None of the appealing tight ends on the free agent market made it to Foxborough. And did we mention they need a quarterback, even if second-year QB Jarrett Stidham is the successor on the depth chart and in the huddle?
Had Belichick decided to keep Brady, to give him the extension he’s wanted for years, the mixed messages on roster building might make more sense. It would look like they’re trying to win now while still clearing some cap space. But if Belichick has a clear vision right now, it’s murky for the rest of us.
I know this: He’d better be planning on being the Patriots coach for the foreseeable future. His contract terms are a mystery, just as he likes it, but as that song from the best Jersey rocker goes, he ain’t that young anymore.
Belichick turns 68 April 16. He seems to be as sharp as ever, which means he’s sharper than anyone else has ever been. Good, because he’ll need to be.
He’s changed the structure and strengths of his roster a few times over the years, but Brady was always the fulcrum, and without him this might be Belichick’s most challenging roster makeover since he arrived in 2000 and pared off veterans such as Bruce Armstrong, Ben Coates, and Chris Slade.
It’s not that Belichick needs to be rejuvenated. He just needs to stay right where he is, sharper than anyone else, in his age-68 season.
I’d never bet against Brady and Belichick when they were together, and I’m not about to do it when they’re apart, either. I believe Brady can and will win without Belichick, for one year anyway, sort of like Joe Montana with the ’93 Chiefs. (Joe Cool was better than you remember.)
And I believe Belichick can and will win without Brady. The 2020 Patriots will be better than the giddy skeptics think. I just have no specific idea how right now.
In Bill we trust. Even if the next Patriots quarterback plays like the next Todd Philcox for a little while.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.