* Future Mailbag presents one weekly Q&A from years beyond the present. With the benefit of hindsight, the columnist provides a comprehensive answer alongside context for sporting events that have transpired.
Q: Tim Malone; Boston, MA 2021 – Given what happened after they parted ways, who deserves more credit for the Patriots dynasty – Belichick or Brady?
A: Firstly, this is a nearly impossible question to answer with anything resembling a consensus opinion. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick served as the foundation of football’s greatest dynasty. Coaches, role players, and schemes shifted around them, but the result remained the same for nearly two decades. From 2001-2016, the Patriots enjoyed 14 seasons with 10+ wins out of the 15 seasons that Brady started the majority of games.
All of that success came to an abrupt end during the 2017 season. The Patriots followed up their fifth Super Bowl title by “winning” the offseason. Expectations around the league did not meet reality.
Brady started his first game as a quadragenarian with a pick six on the opening drive against Kansas City. The costly mistake proved a theme for Brady’s most difficult season to date. At the start of week 10, New England sat at an uncharacteristic 4-5. Tom mustered up a classic Brady performance during a Mexico City shootout against the Oakland Raiders, but he suffered a broken collarbone on a go-ahead touchdown pass with three minutes remaining. Derek Carr rubbed salt in the wound by answering with his own game winning drive.
Jimmy Garoppolo assumed control of the quarterback position while Brady recovered. The near-immediate turnaround was still not quick enough. The Patriots went 5-1 (9-7 overall) to snap their postseason streak. With Brady’s return imminent, many talking heads had questioned whom the Patriots should start if the team reached the playoffs. The heated debate carried into the off-season.
Then came the trade that shocked the world. Tom Brady packed his bags for Arizona after 18 years as a Patriot, ceding his starting job to Garoppolo. The Cardinals had always made a killing off of aging veterans like Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer. The front office still believed in their championship window and pulled the trigger in the wake of Palmer’s retirement. Bill Belichick received a slew of picks and began to surround his new quarterback with talent.
Now, three seasons later, Belichick and Brady have poetically retired during the same off-season. Let’s analyze their success with and without each other through three phases in order to answer Tim’s question.
It may feel like a “chicken or the egg” relationship, but Belichick definitively came first. His total record before Brady ever recorded a start is 41-55 (.427). That’s not ideal for those in the grumpy hoodie-enthusiast’s corner. Context might alleviate some of the losing record’s impact.
Belichick became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991. He was 39. The young coach needed three years to learn and to fill the system with his guys. The necessary growing pains culminated in the Browns’ 1994 11-5 record. That team lost in the AFC Divisional Round and entered the following season as a trendy Super Bowl pick. Unfortunately, the owner pulled the rug out from under them by announcing plans for relocation. The backlash partially explains away the letdown of Cleveland’s 5-11 effort.
Cleveland’s 1994 record under Belichick is tied for second best in franchise history since the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978. No Browns team has equaled or bettered the win total in the years succeeding Belichick’s departure. The obvious should be pointed out as well. Failing with the Browns is a fact of life at this point. It’s not necessarily indicative of needing Brady to succeed. Belichick’s 5-11 record in his first year with the Patriots may be harder to forgive.
Their time together in New England speaks for itself. Five Super Bowls between a quarterback-coach combo will be a feat unmatched for decades upon decades.
Belichick and Brady only put together two poor seasons when working in conjunction: the 9-7 encore to their first Super Bowl victory and the 4-6 tailspin during Brady’s final year with the organization.
The Patriots’ offense didn’t truly arrive until 2004, the year of the team’s third championship in four seasons. Tom Brady provided a steady hand and the occasional clutch moment, but he couldn’t be pointed to as the sole reason for Super Bowl seasons before that point. He was protected by a stellar defense and a strategic mastermind. For example, he threw one touchdown during the entire 2001 postseason.
Brady led comeback victories in both of their most recent Super Bowls, a feat that requires a legend between the sidelines rather than on one. If we’re assigning points for credit, Brady and Belichick both receive 2.5/5 before the breakup is considered.
Individually, Brady’s numbers as a Patriot stand among the greats, especially when considering his touchdown to interception ratio and his ability to overcome deficits. Although Belichick’s offensive scheme played a role in the decreased interception threat, Brady’s decision making was second to none.
Belichick caught fire after sticking with Brady over Bledsoe in 2001, but one might say he used his multi-year plan from Cleveland in New England. Take away the Super Bowl, and the Patriots missed the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. After three full years installing his system, Belichick’s Patriots didn’t lose more than six games again until 2017. Of course, this also coincided with Brady’s development. Their symbiosis makes it difficult to form isolated judgments.
He did improve his record without Brady. Between the 2008 ACL tear, the 2016 suspension, and the 2017 broken collarbone injury, Belichick went 19-7. Although the Patriots fell from 16-0 to 11-5 with Matt Cassel in 2008, the team also did one win worse in 2009 when Brady returned.
Finally, the question of the hour. How have events after the fact impacted our judgement of the past? Here’s a quick overview of the last three seasons:
Tom Brady worked tirelessly to return from injury and enter the twilight of his career in stellar shape. Although Larry Fitzgerald flirted with the idea of postponing retirement, the football world was sadly robbed of watching the Hall of Fame duo play together.
Brady never attempted more than 500 passes between 2018-2020 after averaging 591 in 16-game seasons between 2009-2015. He performed admirably and reaped the benefits of sharing a field with David Johnson, but the aging star didn’t piece together a playoff season until 2020.
The Patriots started a new string of double-digit win seasons under Garoppolo and Belichick. Belichick again evolved with the league, molding the offense around Garoppolo’s strengths and keeping the defense stacked with youth.
The two teams would only face each other once. In 2020, Tom Brady returned to Foxboro in a losing effort. Although Brady threw two touchdowns, his former protégé outperformed him. Anticipation mounted for a Super Bowl rematch after the Cardinals stormed through the Wild Card round, but Arizona failed to deliver.
Injuries, which had nagged Brady all year, caught up to the 43-year-old once again in the next round. It appears to have been his final NFL game. Meanwhile, Garoppolo broke through a wall of postseason criticisms to deliver a sixth Lombardi Trophy to New England.
That leaves Belichick with the head-to-head record (1-0), more Super Bowl victories (6), and a better three-year winning percentage (.667 versus .542). In simplistic terms, he’s the winningest member of the pair in a world obsessed with winning. Everyone seems set on measuring greatness by rings.
That metric is somewhat unfair. It uses a head-to-head face off and the lone extra ring to compare Belichick to a deteriorating Brady. Brady shouldn’t be faulted for the fact that Father Time remains undefeated. The Cardinals counted on him for a few vintage moments but mostly conserved the legend’s arm and sought leadership. However, a more balanced evaluation might consider how Belichick molded someone like Garoppolo (without harping on Brady’s stint in Arizona) and still place the coach on top.
Rewind the clock. Would prime Brady with an average coach or prime Belichick with an average quarterback win more Super Bowls? For example, let Belichick coach the Chargers with Philip Rivers or the Titans with Marcus Mariota. Place Brady under the tutelage of John Fox or Marvin Lewis.
They’re the greatest because of each other. They are both great alone. Perhaps each of them would win multiple rings, but the smart money is on Belichick to capture more. He meticulously put together championship winning teams and pulled the right moves on both sides of the ball for every position. Combining what we know now with our feelings toward the dynasty in the first place, Belichick deserves more credit.
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