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Bill Belichick vs Tom Brady: who was key to the Patriots' success?

Getting to the bottom of the New England Patriots’ wild success over the past two decades has occupied column inches and bar stools for almost two decades.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 26: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the sideline during the first quarter in the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Inglewood, California.   Harry How/Getty Images/AFP
Harry HowAFP

Let’s be honest, this debate is as divisive as it is pointless. Both of these men are among the top to have ever competed on their respective stages. Even if you don’t subscribe to all the “Tom Brady GOAT” media frenzy, or if you discount Belichick’s 280 career wins as head coach and two Super Bowl wins as defensive coordinator of the Giants, you must still admit that both of these men, warts and all, must be in the conversation.

And there are definitely warts to be had when you discuss both of these men. Spygate dogs Belichick, Deflategate led to a suspension for Brady. Belichick’s tenure as head coach in Cleveland led to only one playoff appearance and an overall losing record. Brady’s performance at the University of Michigan was workmanlike at best and his combine left no heads turned in the NFL.

When the Belichick machine began to show signs that it might pay dividends, the quarterback was Drew Bledsoe. In fact, the entire rebuilding process in New England was built around Bledsoe being at the helm. It was only after his life-threatening injury in week two of the 2001 season that the young 6th round backup pick who no-one thought would get much playing time in the NFL was suddenly handed the steering wheel. And through a wobbly game, going five for ten for only 46 yards, a most unlikely era began.

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Belichick-Brady magic begins

Brady lost that game and three of the next eight games that season, but then something unlikely happened. Bledsoe was deemed medically fit to return to the field but Belichick made the controversial decision to stick with the young backup and seemingly settled by the skipper’s vote of confidence, he gained confidence and led the team to their first Super Bowl win in only their third franchise appearance.

Fast forward 20 years and a veteran Tom Brady chooses free-agency and leaves the now-powerhouse of New England for the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stunning most of the sporting world. And so the tongues began to wag. As the 2020 season wore on, the Belichick theorists felt rather smug as Brady’s Bucs went seven and five going into their bye week.

The Patriots' Way

The memes made the rounds on the internet and the “just a system quarterback” jokes were on everyone’s mind, if not their lips. But then he did something that has been the cornerstone of his greatness, he leaned on the rest of the team around him and they made the improbable happen.

This is a trait that he shares with Bill Belichick, possibly even learned from Bill Belichick. The acceptance that you can put something in place, but you can’t actually do everything, you have to let the players around you play in order to get the best out of every one of them, is the hallmark of the “Patriots Way”. Riding two Super Bowl wins on Adam Vinatieri’s leg and convincing Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement are two examples of this philosophy.

The fabled rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning bears this out. In raw physical ability, Peyton Manning may well stack up above Tom Brady in all of the metrics you would measure a quarterback by. Except one. Leadership. Peyton Manning carried his team to victory. Tom Brady marshaled his team to victory. And that might be the truest sign of greatness that there is in a quarterback.

A three-way marriage

The relationship of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is like a marriage, one lifts the other and together they reach heights that neither is capable of alone. But in this marriage there is a third person. Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner has been as influential in the Patriots success as either his creative coach or his steady quarterback.

He broke NFL rules to hire him, for which he paid by giving a first round pick to the Jets, and then gave almost complete control to his new head coach, effectively making him general manager of the organization. Kraft has been, whether or not they would admit it, the key factor that has allowed the Belichick-Brady machine to function. Any of the three without the other two would likely have had some success, but not the same level of success.


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