A few years ago, Harvard researchers developed artificial intelligence software to help decipher whether John Lennon or Paul McCartney had the most influence on the Beatles’ biggest hits. The idea was to identify the “musical fingerprint” of their songwriting tendencies and assign credit accordingly. I understand the impulse to do this, but I also deeply, in my bones, do not care. If you are scanning “In My Life” to see which Beatle deserves credit and where (according to the AI, Lennon wrote the verse and McCartney wrote the bridge), take a deep breath and maybe grab a beer. Also, don’t forget that George Harrison ruled.
Most debates of these types are fruitless, and I’d come into this NFL season thinking the one about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady was in the same bucket. I figured that their respective talents were so intertwined, and they helped each other so much, that assigning any individual credit for the two-decade Patriots dynasty was not only a waste of time but it was very likely to be wrong. No one parses The Wolf of Wall Street looking to argue its success was due to DiCaprio or Scorsese, they just take in the Lamborghini scene. I believed coming into the 2020 season that I would not glean anything about the Brady-Belichick partnership by what happened after their separation. Brady was already the best to ever do it, and if you needed more evidence of that based on what he did with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, congratulations on getting into football for the first time. Belichick made an impossible game easy for two decades. I thought the 2020 season for Brady and Belichick would exist in a vacuum and leave the past untouched. I am starting to think I was wrong. Football legacies are a sort of living document that can change weekly. You cannot memory-hole six Super Bowl wins in nine appearances between the greatest coach and quarterback of all time, but you can change the context. Not every game Brady plays in Tampa, or that Belichick coaches in New England without him, has to be a referendum on their partnership—but you can’t ignore it, either. The past is not even past.
This Super Bowl has morphed into something a little bigger than usual. All Super Bowls are about legacies, but the Bucs-Chiefs even more so. Life is never so perfect as to get Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl—one trying to put a bow on the greatest quarterback career in NFL history and one trying to advance on the path to surpass him. When you are lucky enough to witness two all-time greats overlap like this, you have no choice but to do everything you can to soak it up. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras played only once at Wimbledon, but never in a final at Centre Court. Michael Jordan retired two months before LeBron James was drafted, and even if they had overlapped for a season or two, neither was in any danger of making the Finals at that stage in their careers. So, the most obvious legacy-building implications belong to Mahomes and Brady and the idea that a huge chunk of Mahomes’s Super Bowl narrative will be shaped by how he does against the Buccaneers. Even if Mahomes gets to six or seven Super Bowls in his career, people will talk about his head-to-head performance with the other guy who did. Mahomes might have 20 years to collect as many rings as possible, but he has a week to beat Brady in the biggest game.
However, if it’s possible to have your legacy affected by a game you aren’t involved in, Belichick has done it. He’s the greatest coach in modern football history, and the only debate is about who is no. 2. He has won six Super Bowls, two more than any other coach, and nine conference titles, three more than anyone else. He built defenses, a coaching staff, scouting advantages, and countless other things to give Brady a runway to win big football games at an unprecedented rate.
Tom Curran, the great Patriots reporter, probably has the best summation: Belichick is more responsible for the first decade of the Patriots’ 20-year run, and Brady should get a little more credit for the second. Even within that framework, there are massive and obvious exceptions. The short answer is both needed the other. Belichick helped Brady scout opposing defenses. Brady could erase any problem the Pats defense might have been having with surgical passes in crunch time. The system worked. It won six titles. Now Brady gets to go for his seventh while Belichick is getting Photoshopped into Bernie Sanders memes.
Wins are not a quarterback stat necessarily, but they are what build narratives. Brady has already defeated Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and has the chance to beat Mahomes to cap off a title-winning season with a new team in a season where starting anything new—with no offseason programs, limited training camp and almost no off-field interaction with teammates—was seen as harder than ever. Belichick went 7-9 with Cam Newton, a well-intentioned, low-risk move that I certainly thought was savvy at the time. There are reports that Belichick thought this season was not serious because it was so different from a normal year. The Patriots were hurt not only by Brady’s departure but also by a league-high eight opt-outs that hurt the team’s depth. Add to this that the Patriots possibly derive more value than any team from practicing situational football and preparing for everything. When preparation has been harder than ever, yes, you get some unserious elements from this season. I agree with some of this rationale, but I do know that Brady probably counts this as a fully serious season.
We learned a lot in 2020, the first time Brady played for an NFL coach other than Belichick. The first is that Brady still has it, and he had more to give in New England in the last few years. Writing for Pro Football Focus this week, Andrew Erickson laid out an extraordinary case on how Brady turned in one of his best seasons ever in 2020. After one of his worst years ever in 2019 in a dink-and-dunk offense, Brady led the league in yards on deep passes in 2020 and led the league in lowest turnover-worthy play percentage, a mind-boggling statistic given that in Bruce Arians’s aggressive offense, turnover-worthy passes seem to be a feature, not a bug: Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston all had 40 turnover-worthy plays in their first season working with Arians. This, of course, suggests Brady was capable of much more in his final season in New England. As Erickson points out, the only receiver Brady had graded over 90 by PFF was James White, a running back. In Tampa, Brady has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin grading out that high in the passing game. And there’s more, per Erickson: “Julian Edelman caught 11 passes in two seasons that were on targets 20-plus yards from Brady. That was the most of any Patriots receiver. Evans (14), Scotty Miller (eight) and Chris Godwin (eight) nearly matched Edelman’s production in one season.” Woof.
The problem with the Patriots’ shortcomings in Brady’s final season in New England is that it runs counter to what has made Belichick great. When you talk to people who’ve worked with him, one of the traits that made Belichick’s team-building so perfect is he focused on what players can do, not what they can’t, and built from there. Brady was forced to leave yards and points on the table last season because of the talent around him. The Patriots did not have a team that allowed Brady to be Brady. No one is seriously suggesting that Arians and Bucs GM Jason Licht (coincidentally, a former Patriots executive) are better team-builders than Belichick, but they knew they had built a team well suited for Brady. Bucs executives dubbed the pursuit of Brady “Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson” after the Field of Dreams motto, “If you build it, he will come.” They meant if you built the infrastructure, Brady would pull the trigger. They were right. Even outside of the offensive weapons, the Bucs defense has helped Brady. The defensive line pressured Rodgers 22 times in the NFC title game, the most he’d ever been pressured in a playoff game. According to PFF, linebacker Devin White leads all players in tackles for a loss or no gain this season. If you’re looking to parse what changed about legacies this year, it’s this: Brady gets credit for knowing exactly what he needed at this stage of his career, and Belichick wasn’t able to provide it.
Belichick will rightly be remembered as the greatest coach in the Super Bowl era, but that doesn’t mean he can’t botch a roster or two. Brady’s departure and success in Tampa revealed the Patriots’ team-building flaws of the last few years, especially on offense. Brady can solve almost any problem a football team has, but he shouldn’t have to. Richard Sherman, speaking last week on his podcast with Cris Collinsworth, said Brady was “killing the rhetoric” around the long Brady-Belichick debate in these playoffs. “One year with this team, one year in this scheme, Arians’s scheme is one of the toughest to be a part of, especially to be efficient in,” Sherman said. Obviously he has the weapons, but so did Jameis Winston.”
Tom Brady Sr., on a bit of a well-deserved media victory lap this week, said of Belichick: “I’m guessing he’s on a little bit of a hot seat right now.” This is funny needling that goes a bit too far—Belichick’s not on a hot seat and his legacy is secure. But what is true is that when you tell the story of Brady and Belichick, you’ll have to include 2020 and the ensuing playoffs. I did not think that was possible. I thought they were Lennon and McCartney, whose solo careers rarely factor into the discussion. The lesson, as always, is you still need George Harrisons.