Few things make sports fans happier than debate. “The Last Dance” has provided plenty of fodder over the past couple of weeks but with no live sports happening in the near future, debates are pretty much all we have right now.
One that’s already come up (and one that could soon be answered) is whether Bill Belichick or Tom Brady was the main reason for the New England Patriots’ stunning run of success over the past two decades.
Brady has, of course, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and has already made an impression in his new city — donating 750,000 meals to Feeding Tampa Bay, getting kicked out of a city park where he was working out in defiance of coronavirus guidelines, and coaxing tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to play with him on the Bucs.
Belichick remains with the Patriots, entering his 21st season as head coach and de facto general manager. As of right now, New England’s presumed starting quarterback is Jarrett Stidham, a 2019 fourth-round draft pick who has played a grand total of 15 snaps in the regular season.
The Brady-Belichick debate began long before Brady announced last month that he’d be leaving the Patriots. How could it not have? When Patriots owner Robert Kraft swung a trade with the New York Jets in 2000 to get Belichick as his head coach, he’d already won two Super Bowl rings as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator in the 1980s, and went to a third in 1996 as the Patriots’ assistant head coach/defensive backs coach under Bill Parcells, so he knew success.
When Brady was drafted, it wasn’t like there was a lot expected of him. Brady was the 199th pick in 2000, not exactly where you’d expect to find a franchise icon at the position, and New England already had Drew Bledsoe, who would become the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL a few years earlier.
But then fate infamously intervened, in the form of a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in Week 2 of the 2001 season.
Two decades, 17 division titles, nine AFC championships and six Super Bowl wins later, the relationship between Belichick and Brady had run its course. Brady opted to sign with Tampa Bay, where head coach Bruce Arians isn’t just considered one of the best quarterback coaches of his era, he’s as fond of calling everyone “babe” as his new QB.
And inevitably, the argument has begun: Will Brady turn the Buccaneers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, into a contender? Or will he flounder outside of New England? Will Belichick keep the Patriots humming with another unheralded quarterback running the offense, or will they stumble sans Brady?
The thing is, whether Belichick or Brady was the real power behind the Patriots’ dynasty won’t be answered now. Or at least it’s not a fair fight.
Hear me out.
Brady will celebrate his 43rd birthday on Aug. 3. In the 100-year history of the NFL, only three quarterbacks have even started a game in a season at age 43 or older, and only one, Vinny Testaverde with the Carolina Panthers in 2007, started more than one.
Even among professional athletes, Brady’s dedication to his body, fitness and diet is impressive. He has clearly slowed Father Time. But he’s still 42.
Were it even five years ago that he decided it was time for a new team, at age 37 and turning 38 during training camp, it would have been different. None of us, no matter how pliable or smoothie-obsessed, physically feel the same way at 42 that we did at 37.
Moving to a new team, particularly as a quarterback, comes with its own challenges. No less an expert than Brady’s own football idol, Joe Montana, said in an interview earlier this year that his advice to Brady would be to stay in New England if he didn’t have to go. When Montana was traded from San Francisco to Kansas City in 1993, he had a good deal of familiarity with the offense thanks to his former 49ers quarterbacks coach, Paul Hackett, being with the Chiefs. But the process was still challenging, and Montana believes Brady’s new teammates will expect him to be the same player he’s always been.
And there’s another unforeseen and not at all insignificant hurdle for Brady: the coronavirus pandemic. Not only is he learning a new offense for the first time since 2000, he won’t be able to meet in person with Arians and Buccaneers coordinator Byron Leftwich (who is younger than Brady) — at least, he’s not supposed to meet with them in person, though technology is such that the three can work together virtually.
But for all the studying Brady can do and all the video chats he can have with Arians and Leftwich, right now it’s not known when he’ll be on the field with his new teammates. He obviously knows Gronkowski (though it’s uncertain if Gronk will be the same player after a year in retirement), but Brady’s never played with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin or O.J. Howard before. He doesn’t know their strengths and weaknesses as players, and just as importantly, they don’t know what the exacting Brady expects.
Those things take time and repetition.
Belichick turned 68 earlier this month, and while he is the second-oldest head coach in the league (Pete Carroll is seven months older) and at an age where many of us hope to be retired, his age is not nearly as important to his performance as Brady’s is to his.
While the Patriots will also miss some on-field time with Stidham in charge, he isn’t starting fresh with the offense or coaching staff. He’ll also be playing with a lot of familiar faces from the 2019 roster.
Things are weighed pretty heavily in Belichick’s favor on this one.
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