Tom Brady was as important as any single player can be, or ever will be again, in the building and maintenance of an NFL dynasty. Not just an NFL dynasty, either — the NFL dynasty, one that emerged and reigned in an age weighted toward parity, a dynasty that lasted twice as long as we had any right to expect. Heck, maybe four times as long. This thing could have ended in 2005 and it would have been a crazy run, you know?
Brady is the finest quarterback ever to play, and no one can make an argument otherwise without exposing a fandom-fueled bias. He is the greatest on-field, seize-the-stage winner we have had around here since the greatest winner of them all, Bill Russell. His metamorphosis before our eyes into a sunburned “Tompa Bay” cheeseball will never affect our memories of his masterful two-decade run in New England.
Man, we were blessed to have that guy. I wish he were still here. His departure is the end of an era, the kind you wished could last forever and almost convinced yourself it would.
But it is not the end of their age of excellence, even if many among us could use the reminder of how difficult it is to make the Super Bowl, let alone win the thing.
While Brady orchestrated so many thrilling victories, often when stakes were highest, there were many extraordinary moments and crucial decisions that had nothing to do with him.
Tom Brady did not …
▪ Order the long snapper to fire the ball through the end zone in Denver in 2003, take the wind rather than the ball in overtime against the Broncos in 2013, befuddle the 2014 Ravens in the playoffs with a legal alignment in which a receiver was set up where the right tackle normally would be, or figure out a way to drain the clock on delay-of-game penalties against the 2019 Jets. (OK, that one came back to the haunt them against the Titans, but all of these unorthodox navigations of the rulebook worked.)
▪ Keep the ship from listing during dramas and controversies that would have wrecked other teams, including the “We’re on to Cincinnati” loss to the Chiefs in 2014, the pair of 'gates, and the revelation that a star tight end was a psychopath.
▪ Destroy legendary Rams offenses with true-genius defensive game plans in bookended Super Bowl wins in 2001 and 2018.
▪ Jettison big names that did not fit the program or the salary cap, from Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong after that ugly first season to Terry Glenn amid the magic in ’01 to Lawyer Milloy and even Drew Bledsoe in the early dynasty years and Randy Moss later on.
▪ Spend early-round picks on Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Deion Branch, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung, Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Ben Watson.
▪ Spend middle- and late-round picks on David Givens, Dan Koppen, Asante Samuel, Julian Edelman, Stephen Gostkowski, Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers, Logan Ryan, Joe Thuney, Elandon Roberts, Jake Bailey, Jacoby Brissett, Ted Karras, James White, Duron Harmon, Shane Vereen, James Sanders, and Malcolm Mitchell.
▪ Find bargains like Mike Vrabel, David Patten, Antowain Smith, Roman Phifer, Otis Smith, Rob Ninkovich, Dan Connolly, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, Alan Branch, Lawrence Guy, Kyle Van Noy, Trent Brown, Danny Shelton, John Simon, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Malcolm Butler, Ryan Wendell, David Andrews, Adam Butler, and Ryan Allen.
▪ Acquire high-end talent such as Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Aqib Talib, Stephon Gilmore, Darrelle Revis, Brandin Cooks, and Rosevelt Colvin.
▪ Draft a quarterback who never started in college (Matt Cassel), turn a wrestler into a starting guard (Stephen Neal), an Ivy League defensive lineman into a Pro Bowl fullback (James Develin), a positionless son of a legendary NFL tackle into a special-teams ace (Matthew Slater), and a rugby star into another special-teams rock (Nate Ebner).
Also, Tom Brady also did not draft Tom Brady and have the sense a year later to let him keep the job over the popular $103 million incumbent quarterback whom he’d replaced because of injury.
This was all Bill Belichick, of course, and I’m not even including the reels and reels of highlights and achievements that he and Brady did accomplish in tandem, such as 17 AFC East titles, 9 Super Bowl visits, and 6 championships.
I cannot believe I’m sitting here pecking out a defense of Belichick to a fan base that has witnessed his genius for 20 years, but here we are.
In the month since Brady left for Tampa, there have been too many words spent on which man was more responsible for the dynasty.
The simple reality is that they were both better than anyone has ever been in their respective jobs. And when they were together, it was so unfair to everyone else that it’s a wonder Roger Goodell didn’t try to assign one of them to the Bengals a decade ago for his precious parity’s sake.
But some of that Brady/Belichick debate has led to a foolish diminishing of Belichick’s accomplishments as a coach and roster-builder. One reader last week told me I was “way overrating” him. I’ve heard from others who raged against his draft, because he didn’t pick a quarterback or receiver and the experts thought he would.
I don’t know, I kind of embrace watching him go against the Mel Kipers of the draftnik world, as he did when selecting Mankins and McCourty in the first round. It offers clues to what he likes about his own roster and how it confirms or differs from conventional wisdom. We now have a pretty good idea that he’s fond of Jarrett Stidham at quarterback. I’m looking forward to seeing what Belichick already sees.
I just can’t believe any Patriots fan would be skeptical of Belichick. You’re skeptical of him? Well, I’m skeptical of you, pal! (I said that like Robert DeNiro in “Midnight Run,’’ FYI.)
Yeah, I know the recent drafts don’t look great so far, and he should have taken Lamar Jackson in 2018. He’s not perfect, nor is anyone else trying to build a roster in the NFL. The Ravens took Hayden Hurst over Jackson in that same draft. Context is important; every single NFL executive has misses. A lot of them. The draft isn’t science. It’s a crapshoot.
Belichick and Nick Caserio habitually find talent in more places than just about any other front-office team in the NFL. There’s no one else I’d want running and coaching the team I root for. Also, his dog Nike did a fine job with some early picks this year. I expect the Texans to try to hire him as their scouting director soon.
No, Belichick hasn’t won big without Brady. But he won when Brady wasn’t yet a superstar; in 2001, Brady threw 18 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
And citing Belichick as some sort of Hue Jackson-type failure in Cleveland is just wrong. The Browns went 3-13 the year before he got there, the worst record in franchise history to that point.
He dumped icon Bernie Kosar — the right move — and built his program, and in 1994 the Browns went 11-5, allowed just 204 points, and bounced Bill Parcells’s upstart Patriots from the playoffs. Then duplicitous Art Modell decided to bail on Cleveland for Baltimore, and the 1995 season was as hopeless as any situation could be. Belichick, scapegoated, was fired before the moving trucks got to Baltimore.
Imagine how NFL history would have changed had the Browns remained in Cleveland. Belichick never would have come to Parcells’s staff in ’96, or joined him with the Jets afterward. There would be no hilarious “HC of the NYJ” resignation note, and no statue of Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Dom Capers probably would have coached the Patriots, with a parade of others after he inevitably failed. Brady probably would have ended up elsewhere in the 2000 draft, and who knows whether another coach would have recognized in him all that Belichick did?
Sports is full of what-ifs and butterfly effects and sliding doors. Luck sometimes seems as much of a factor as preparation, sometimes more. The Patriots have needed luck, in the draft, in random games, in roster-building, in Super Bowl wins, in so much along the way.
That doesn’t make them different from any other team. What does make them different is that they had Belichick and Brady on their side. They were brilliant individually and unprecedented in tandem. But some of their contributions were mutually exclusive.
If you have doubts about Bill Belichick, maybe you should have taken your eyes off the quarterback once in a while over the last 20 years. I know that was hard to do. But that genius has gone south. Best to appreciate the one that remains.