They make up the greatest quarterback/coach combination in NFL history. Five Super Bowl championships in seven appearances with another possible Sunday in Minneapolis against the Eagles. You could argue they couldn’t have done it without each other, but if you were forced to choose who is more responsible for the Patriots’ success, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, who would you choose? We asked Globe columnists Dan Shaughnessy, Christopher L. Gasper, and Tara Sullivan to do just that. It wasn’t easy.
I hate the question. We shouldn’t have to choose. The fair, measured position would be to say that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are equally responsible for the Patriots dynasty of the last 17 years. The Patriots coach is the greatest of all time. The Patriots quarterback is the greatest of all time. Call it 50/50.
But we can’t do that here in 2018. This is an era of click baits and hot takes. The barking dogs of sports radio and television serve as the soundtrack of our sporting lives. Meanwhile, a splashy story in ESPN suggested that there’s tension at the top of the Patriots pyramid because egos are clashing and there’s competition over who’ll get the lion’s share of the credit when the history of these Gillette glory days is written.
So we are forced to choose and I choose the coach — by 1/one-millionth of a percentage point.
The only comp for me is the fabled Red Auerbach-Bill Russell pairing, which delivered 11 championships in 13 seasons over the length of Russell’s career. As a coach-player combo, they were together for 10 seasons and won nine championships — eight in a row in Red’s final years on the bench. Red retired from coaching after the 1966 title and his first move as a full-time general manager was to name Russell player-coach of the Celtics. The Russell-coached Celtics were dethroned by the 76ers in 1967 but came back to win two more before Russell retired.
Years later, when I pointed out to Red that he’d never won a championship without Russell, he took a puff from his Hoyo de Monterrey and said, “Yeah, so what? What’s your point?’’
Force me to pick between Russell and Red for the larger slice of the credit pie and I would go with Russell. He changed everything about the Celtics. The Celtics were already winners, but they were not champions. Bob Cousy last week acknowledged, “Without Russ, we might have eked out one.’’
Which brings us back to Brady and Belichick. It’s true that Belichick never won a championship (as a head coach) without Brady. Bill was sub-.500 in his Cleveland days and 5-13 as a Patriots head coach before he made Brady the starter after Drew Bledsoe got hurt in the second game of the 2001 season.
Without Brady there certainly would not have been eight Super Bowls for Belichick’s Patriots. But Brady without Belichick sounds worse. The Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback when Brady got hurt in 2008. They went 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett starting when Tom served his Deflategate suspension in 2016. And they are playing in a Super Bowl tournament in which they have faced Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, and Nick Foles.
Meanwhile, it feels like Belichick gives them a bigger edge every week. Other coaches are getting stupider. Bill keeps getting smarter.
I want both Brady and Belichick.
But that’s not the question.
Forced to choose, I choose the coach.
Christopher L. Gasper
In Bill I Trust, which is why when it comes to the thorny issue of who is more responsible for the Patriots’ epic football empire, Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, I cast my vote for the quarterback in a squeaker that’s as close as your typical Patriots Super Bowl.
More than any single Foxborough figure, Brady makes the Patriots great again and again.
Whenever he reaches his latest coaching milestone, Belichick utters a familiar refrain — it’s about the players in the NFL. That means that if we must parse the Patriots’ reign, Brady deserves top billing when assigning credit for the team’s five Super Bowl victories and eight Super Bowl appearances since the 2001 season.
Here is Belichick after he picked up his 200th career win here in Minnesota in 2014: “It means a lot, but what it really means is that I have coached a lot of good football players. Those are the guys that win the games. Players win games in this league. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to coach a lot of great players, and so that’s really about them winning the games.”
Here is Belichick this season after he surpassed legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry for third place on the all-time wins list: “Players win games. They’re the ones that go out there and make the blocks, the tackles, the runs, the throws, the catches, the kicks . . . They’re the ones who go out and win.”
Who am I to disagree?
There is modesty in Belichick’s stance, but there is not mendacity. Yes, Belichick picks the players, but even the most masterful coaches need a little bit of luck. Belichick took Brady with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach passed on Bob Cousy in the 1950 NBA Draft. Red only ended up with Cooz after the Celtics pulled his name out of a hat in a dispersal draft.
Part of His Hoodiness saying it’s about the players is fueled by Belichick’s fervent belief in individual asceticism for the good of the group. But it’s also a football truth that is self-evident. Belichick can’t turn Foxborough High’s football team into Super Bowl champions.
Could the Bobby Fischer of football coaching win a Super Bowl or two with a lesser quarterback? Absolutely.
But you don’t win five in an era of NFL football rigged for parity without being blessed with the best player of all time at the most influential position on the field.
Brady’s impact on winning extends beyond his tangible talents. He has a psychological effect. Brady inspires belief in his teammates and fear in the opposition that no game is out of the Patriots’ reach.
The biggest myth about Belichick is that he failed in Cleveland because he wasn’t yet a coaching genius. Belichick was always brilliant. We know that from the NFL Films retrospective on his days in Cleveland. He was limited to one playoff win in five seasons because he had Vinny Testaverde as his quarterback — and Art Modell as his owner.
Belichick squeezes every ounce of talent out of his teams like the last bit of ketchup clinging to the bottle. It’s remarkable what he can do with unremarkable talent. It’s remarkable how he can go to the Super Bowl relying on Sterling Moores and Eric Lees.
But you don’t stay on top of the NFL this long without a trump card. That’s Mr. Brady.
Belichick preaches the gridiron gospel that fills the Patriots’ pews, but it’s Brady who answers their prayers.
Tom Brady is the one throwing the football. Tom Brady is the one taking the hits. Tom Brady is the one leading drives and landing veritable football punches, the one with the unbelievable level of poise in late-game situations, utterly unflappable in the face of adversity. Tom Brady is the one taking his 40-year-old body to unprecedented NFL heights, ignoring time and age to continue his dominance of the all-important, almighty quarterback position, the one eating whole foods and drinking alkalized water, all in the name of longevity.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, among the handful of greatest football players of all time, and perhaps the best team athlete ever to grace our professional forums.
But he would not be Tom Brady without Bill Belichick. And if we must be forced to tip these football scales between the coach and quarterback who’ve combined to build an NFL dynasty, the weight here goes to Belichick, if only by the 15 or 16 ounces of an official NFL football. For it his system, his parameters, his rules, and his demands that have kept this train chugging the way it has for almost two decades now, a system that NFL franchises far and wide have tried in vain to emulate.
Just think of the other great NFL quarterbacks who have graced the fields across Brady’s time and ask yourselves this: Is Brady really that much better than they are? Better than Brett Favre? Than Aaron Rodgers? Than Drew Brees? Than Peyton Manning? Than Eli Manning? Than Russell Wilson? Than Ben Roethlisberger?
In some cases, sure. But Brady is not so much better to be on the cusp of his sixth Super Bowl title while none of those QBs has won more than two. The difference has to be in what Belichick has built around him, a system of accountability that keeps players focused, a system of scouting that keeps the roster deep, a system of stability that has led from one chapter of greatness (three titles in four years from 2001-04) to this one (three potential titles in four years from 2014 to now).
It was Belichick’s former boss Bill Parcells who once talked his way out of New England by lamenting an inability to buy the ingredients when he was being asked to cook the dinner, butting heads with owner Bob Kraft over control of personnel. Belichick is both chef and shopper, and has proven himself a master at both. The Patriots have 18 undrafted players on this Super Bowl roster, and not just fringe players or special teams specialists, but starting wide receivers such as Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, otherwise known as the heroes of the last two AFC Championship games.
Who’s more responsible, Brady or Belichick? Maybe the best answer to the question is neither, because the answer has to be both. But if you force me to choose, I’m going with the guy who put the shopping list together, purchased the ingredients, and cooked the dinner just a little bit more than the one who sat at the table and devoured it.