From 2001 through 2019, the New England Patriots won the AFC East outright 17 times. The other two years, they finished in a first-place tie.
In that span, they went to 12 AFC Championship Games and nine Super Bowls. They won six of them.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were together for the entire run and — thanks to the past two decades — are now recognized respectively as the greatest head coach and greatest quarterback in NFL history.
Trying to divvy up credit for a never-before-seen run of NFL dominance and perhaps the most incredible stretch in professional sports history is — to a degree — missing the point.
Did the ancient Egyptians stand in front of the Pyramids and argue whether the architect or the builders deserved more credit? Did Mrs. Wright parse out which of her sons — Wilbur or Orville — was most responsible for inventing, building and flying the first airplane?
There is something to be said for just shutting up and appreciating the accomplishment, isn’t there? Yes.
And we will get to that.
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But right now, with movers coming down Route 1 to pack up Tom Brady’s remaining things and move him out of Foxboro for good, the question hangs over everything. Which man was more responsible for authoring the history we saw written over the past two decades: Belichick or Brady?
Results may vary. In fact, I know they will. But here’s how I see it.
If not for Belichick, there would never have been the mini-dynasty they became in the decade from 2000 to 2009.
If not for Brady, the Patriots would have never become the Super Dynasty they became from 2010 through 2019 when they blasted past the ‘60s Packers, ‘70s Steelers, ‘80s Niners and ‘90s Cowboys to become the only franchise that dominated two decades.
Bill Gets the First Decade
The moment Mo Lewis sheared an artery in Drew Bledsoe’s chest in September of 2001 is fingered as the instant NFL history changed. It wasn’t. It only accelerated a process that began when Robert Kraft decided to hire Belichick to succeed Pete Carroll in January of 2000.
Belichick took one look at the roster and direction of the team and began fumigating and renovating. Eventually — despite the fat contract the Patriots gave Bledsoe in January 2001 to help boost public confidence and private investment in the construction of CMGI Field (eventually, Gillette Stadium) — Belichick was leery of being tied to a quarterback the coach was routinely able to undress whenever he coached against him.
Especially a quarterback who had to be paid top-of-market as Bledsoe and his agent David Dunn made clear.
Brady wasn’t drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 draft as the successor to Bledsoe, but it came clear to Belichick by that September that he had something. And it became obvious throughout the 2001 offseason and training camp that — while not better than Bledsoe at everything — the kid making $298,000 was more mobile, more accurate, more poised in the pocket and bound to be more apt at managing a game than Bledsoe.
Mo Lewis sped the process and — with a painful hit — made the transition relatively painless. But the credit goes to Belichick for seeing what he had, fostering it and having the decisiveness to pull the trigger.
The fact the Patriots went 14-5 under Brady after starting out 5-13 under Bledsoe is persuasive evidence that Brady was the missing piece. But Belichick built the roster, built the culture and hired the right people — from executives to coaches — to put the team in position to succeed. He deserves more credit.
Brady may have helped them get where they did, but the Patriots were undoubtedly headed in the right direction and the fruits of Belichick’s designs were harvested in 2003 and 2004.
Those Super Bowl wins — the first at the end of a season which began with the jettisoning of Lawyer Milloy in favor of Rodney Harrison; the second thanks in large part to a dice-roll on Corey Dillon — were wins for the “culture.”
Imposed selflessness. Everything done for the greater good of the team. All ego pocketed. The most imposing aspect of the Patriots then was their resilience and mental toughness. Brady was a major, major part of it. But so too were Tedy Bruschi and Harrison, Matt Light, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and on and on.
Fifty-three very intelligent and capable players rowing together in the hold of the great ship while Belichick stood above deck charting a course. That was 2001 through 2004.
The dips in 2005 and 2006 began the process that would result in Brady becoming — in large part by Belichick’s design — the engine.
The 2005 Patriots were battered by injuries — not a surprise in hindsight when you consider the nine extra games played in the previous four seasons and the difficulty of staying on top. They started to see some attrition to age — Troy Brown was 34 by then — and the running game flagged as did their run defense. They went 10-6 and lost in the Divisional Round.
The next season, a protracted contract squabble led to Deion Branch being traded to Seattle just before the season began. Reche Caldwell led the team in receptions followed by Ben Watson, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk. Still, they were in position to advance to the Super Bowl but lost on the road to the Colts.
That offseason, Brady got a toy he never had in Randy Moss and a replica model of Troy Brown named Wes Welker. The entire offense set records, went 16-0 and lost in the Super Bowl.
Which brings us to 2008. This is the season that so many point to when saying that it’s Belichick’s brilliance that’s most to credit for the 20-year run of success. The Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel starting at quarterback. He hadn’t been a starter since high school, yet the Patriots still went 11-5?
Cassel was outstanding — better than anyone could have hoped. But that’s still a precipitous drop from 16-0 to 11-5.
In 2009, the core of the defense was shipped out or retired — Vrabel, Bruschi, Seymour and Harrison. Belichick lamented to Brady on the sideline during a loss to the Saints that season that “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to. So frustrating.”
The season ended with an ignominious home loss to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoff round.
Brady Gets the Second Decade
The Patriots renovated in the offseason and, in my opinion, Brady was at the forefront of getting them places they had no business being at that stage of their rebuild. In 2010, the Patriots went 14-2, were the No. 1 seed and Brady was the unanimous MVP.
The offense, having moved away from the tight end position, drafted two — Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — and their production would become historic in 2011 when the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl and again lost to the Giants. Brady threw for a career-high 5,235 yards with 39 touchdowns and 12 picks.
In the 2012 season, he threw 637 times — a career-high and one of three times in four seasons that he attempted more than 600 passes. With a defense that too often felt like it was just holding on against better teams, it was on Brady and the offense to score and score and score some more. They were first, third, first and third in points scored from 2010 through 2013. Defensively in that period, they were eighth, 15th, ninth and 10th.
Even in 2013 when Hernandez was jailed for murder, Gronkowski was laid low by back surgery and then with an ACL, Brady still made it work by pounding the ball to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and — to a lesser degree — Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Shane Vereen.
They won the Super Bowl in 2014, winning a shootout against the Ravens in the Divisional Round, 35-31, and then overcoming a 24-14 deficit against the Seahawks in the fourth quarter when Brady went to a completely different level in the fourth quarter.
The previous April, Belichick had drafted Brady’s would-be successor, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the second round. Brady, perhaps recalling the shrug Drew Bledsoe met Brady’s arrival with 14 years earlier, wasn’t going to be asleep at the switch with the team grooming Garoppolo.
Brady proceeded to throw 69 touchdowns and 16 picks in 2014 and ’15. He lost four games to suspension in 2016 — Garoppolo made it through six well-played quarters in relief of Brady before he got hurt and gave way to Jacoby Brissett — but still threw 28 touchdowns and two interceptions before capping that season with a record-setting 43-for-62, 466-yard performance in the Super Bowl when the Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit. Brady did that at 39.
At 40 in the AFCCG, without Edelman, without an injured Gronkowski, Brady and Amendola combined to push the Patriots past the Jaguars and into the Super Bowl against Philly where he’d throw for 505 yards.
So let’s recount here. From 2010 through 2017, the Patriots made it to seven straight AFC Championship Games and the one year they didn’t, Brady was the unanimous MVP. He authored playoff comebacks against the Ravens and Seahawks in 2014, the Falcons in 2016, the Jaguars in 2017 and led the team to two Super Bowl wins.
In 2018, Edelman was coming off an ACL and then was suspended for the first four games. Gronk was hurt for a huge chunk of the year. Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan were the prime wideouts for a stretch until the team took on Josh Gordon. And still? The team went 11-5, Brady put them on his back in the fourth quarter and overtime at Kansas City in the AFCCG and then the Patriots defense checked in against the Rams and delivered a Super Bowl that Brady — aside from the throw to Gronk that led to the game-winning touchdown — only had to play OK for the team to win.
The Final Verdict
So, you see what my answer to this debate is by now. Bill gets a greater share of the first three Lombardis. Tom gets a greater share of the second three.
So many people over the years have speculated that Belichick wants to prove he can win a championship without Brady. I don’t know if that’s true.
I think if Brady is gone, Belichick would relish the opportunity, but never would I think he’d want to be rid of what he thinks is a quarterback who can deliver him a title that others couldn’t.
Maybe that’s why we’re here. Belichick doesn’t see Brady as being as special as he used to be. Great? Sure. Are there other guys that can do things he can’t now? Belichick seems to think so. Brady, it seems, has outlived his usefulness here.
Bill will do unto him what he’s done unto so many other players. Move on. But that’s the cycle of NFL life.
From what I’ve been told and what I have gathered, Brady is OK with that. He hoped he was special and could write himself a different ending here, but realizing he can’t doesn’t shock him. For a legend, he’s pretty well-grounded.
Playing for Bill Belichick will help keep a player that way. And maybe for that too, Belichick deserves a whole lot of credit. He allowed Tom Brady to become Tom Brady because he was eternally and maddeningly Bill Belichick.
Every. Single. Year.