Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make some bit of NFL history every time they step into a stadium now. But their decorated, nonpareil partnership, the engine that has driven the Patriots’ sustained success, is closer to being history with each season, whether we want to admit it or not.
The 66-year-old coach and the 41-year-old quarterback are now in Year 19 in New England. They have defied the NFL’s preordained parity and pro football’s actuarial tables with five Super Bowl titles and eight Super Bowl appearances. Players come and go, but the two principals and their success stays the same.
Savor these seasons with Belichick and Brady, folks. We don’t know how many we have left, and we’ll long for them wistfully when they’re gone, when Fort Foxborough is transformed into a mundane NFL outpost.
All football followers around here have been spoiled by the Patriots’ Super Bowl-or-bust mentality. It’s fair to fret about the state of the receiving corps or the potency of the pass rush, but take a deep breath and don’t take these gridiron glory days for granted, because who knows how much longer they will last? Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the Lombardi Trophy.
No organization has an endless supply of football excellence. No empire, football or otherwise, endures forever. The sun will set on the Patriots dynasty just as it did on the San Francisco 49ers one. Enjoy it while you can.
Belichick has stated that he won’t be coaching into his 70s like former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy. Brady is under contract for only one season beyond this one and feels the tug of his family responsibilities. The friction between them this offseason heightened questions about how long each man planned to stick around.
Often pitted against each other in theoretical debates about who deserves more credit, they found themselves in a real power struggle.
Things felt a bit frayed between Brady and Belichick following the team’s 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Brady (and tight end Rob Gronkowski) abstained from OTAs. There were hints of displeasure and a disconnect between the two men. In April, Brady notably pleaded the fifth during an appearance at the Milken Institute Global Conference when asked if the team had the proper gratitude for what he had achieved.
It was easy for both men to pridefully remain dug in to their positions during the offseason. Now that it’s football season, what unites them — a burning desire to win a sixth Super Bowl — supersedes any petty differences.
So, a rapprochement was brokered in which each man compromises for the greater good, for the best interests of the team. Brady accepted a meager $5 million in performance-based incentives on a reworked contract. Belichick relented and allowed Brady’s body coach/business partner/svengali Alex Guerrero back on the team plane.
Brady and Belichick dashed the dream of 31 other franchises that they would burn down their own house.
Even if their reign is waning, there is still a lot to accomplish for the canonized coupling in 2018. Games to win, opposing fan bases to demoralize, and records to claim — all the usual stuff.
The Patriots can become the first team in the salary cap era to advance to three consecutive Super Bowls. It has been done only twice before in NFL history. The Miami Dolphins played in three straight Super Bowls from 1971-73. The last team to do it was Levy’s star-crossed Bills, who lost four straight Big Games from 1990-93. The salary cap was instituted for the 1994 season.
The AFC East title and the NFL’s final four are Patriots birthrights/berth rights. They’ve played in a record seven straight conference championship games. They’re seeking a 10th straight division title to rewrite their record. They’re pursuing an 18th consecutive winning season, after setting an NFL mark last year with 17.
With another 10-win season, the Patriots will tie the 49ers for the most consecutive 10-win seasons in NFL history with 16. It would take divine intervention for the Patriots to not qualify for the playoffs. They’ve done it nine straight seasons, last missing them in 2008 when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener. If they do it for a 10th, they’ll break a tie with the Dallas Cowboys (1975-83) and the Indianapolis Colts (2002-10) for the most consecutive playoff berths.
The numbers can make your eyes glaze over, but don’t take them or the two men behind them for granted. Someday you’ll be longing to see both.
What could derail the Patriots’ inevitable march to more NFL marks?
With a dearth of depth at wide receiver and Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension to start the season, Brady’s Circle of Trust feels downright claustrophobic it’s so tight. The most pliable part of Brady this season might have to be his patience.
As he comes off an MVP season at age 40, the Patriots have put a lot on the plate of the 41-year-old Brady with this wide receiving corps, which on paper is the team’s weakest since 2013. If Gronk gets hurt, as he did that season, Brady’s burden could be unbearable. Brady wasn’t wrong when he said, “This team needs a great quarterback . . .”
On the other side of the ball, a defense that bent and broke against the Eagles moves on without cornerback/Super Bowl cause célèbre Malcolm Butler and with a rookie de facto defensive coordinator in the highly regarded Brian Flores, who, per Belichick tradition, will have to formally earn the defensive coordinator title.
The defense looks better than last year’s unit, last seen allowing the Eagles to score on their final five possessions. The return of clutch playmaker Dont’a Hightower from injury and the emergence of rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley buttresses a linebacking unit that was the weak link.
No matter the challenges, Brady and Belichick usually find a way to make it work.
As a combination, they’ve won 223 games, including the playoffs, since 2001, when Brady fatefully replaced Drew Bledsoe and went from little-known backup to the best thing to ever happen to the Patriots.
Who knows how much longer they’ll be together, at the top of their games? They’re closer to the end of their storied careers than to the beginning.
They can’t afford to take any season for granted and neither can we.