In December 2019, HBO released a documentary about the four-decades-long friendship between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, the winningest active head coaches in the NFL and college games. Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching includes plenty of archival footage of the two working at various coaching posts, including together in the 1990s when Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Saban was his defensive coordinator. Most of the film involves them simply talking about football and how they lead their teams. Midway through, Saban gets going on a topic that, apparently, irks him greatly: when his Alabama assistants get other jobs and take members of his staff with them.
To be clear, it’s the second part that bothers Saban. He’s proud when his coaches get bigger opportunities but thinks it’s poor form when they hire their assistants from his staff.
“We’ve always had a sort of mutual respect for how we, sort of, take each other’s people,” Saban says, looking at Belichick. “It’s one thing that I always try to emphasize to the guys. What I have a tough time with, all right, is we’ve had however many guys who’ve worked here who are at Georgia, Tennessee, whoever, wherever, and when they get these jobs—and in most cases you’ve helped them—they have a hard time understanding why they can’t take your people.”
Belichick simply nodded.
Saban could hardly have found a more sympathetic audience than Belichick, though. There are currently 10 FBS head coaches who were previously Saban assistants; four of the NFL’s 32 head coaches worked or played for Belichick.
When the film came out, the Patriots had recently lost multiple high-profile assistant coaches and would lose another a year later when wide receivers/special teams coach Joe Judge left to become Giants head coach. In 2019, former linebackers coach and defensive play-caller Brian Flores was hired to coach the Dolphins and took several notable Patriots assistants with him to his new post, and in 2018, former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was hired as Lions head coach. Several personnel executives departed during that period as well. It’s a good problem to have—a sign of Belichick and Saban’s dominance and their competitors’ desire to emulate that success. But the revolving door leads to a brain drain that can be difficult for even the best coaches to replenish.
Tom Brady’s return to New England Sunday night pits the two titans of the Patriots dynasty against each other, but this New England team is wildly different from the one Brady left in March 2020 when he signed with Tampa as a free agent. Brady’s New England career lasted so long that he became accustomed to players and coaches moving on, but other than a handful of long-tenured Patriots players and coaches, he’ll have few familiar faces on the opposing sideline. Brady won a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers, his seventh in his career, offering quick evidence of his ability to succeed outside of the Patriots system and without Belichick. Brady’s been a much more jovial presence since he left New England—he loves Florida and even bought a boat. Belichick is as stern and focused as ever, but life after Brady hasn’t been smooth sailing. The Patriots went 7-9 in 2020, their worst record since 2000, and are 1-2 to start this season after a sloppy loss to the Saints in Week 3.
Because of the acrimony surrounding Brady’s departure, Patriots-Bucs seems like a referendum on Brady-Belichick, a chance for coach or quarterback to notch a point in his own favor in the contest over who was more responsible for their six Super Bowls and hundreds of wins. (The two men have been quiet on any conflict between them, but the tension is apparent, at least to those closest to them—Brady’s father said on a podcast last week that Brady’s family felt vindicated by his son’s success outside of New England.) But Patriots-Bucs is a game between teams in two different places: It’s the defending champions playing a team trying to make something of a young quarterback and coaching staff that’s been picked over by the rest of the league.
Belichick is recovering from his worst season in two decades while building up a young roster that can sustain success, and doing so not just without Brady but also without most of the brain trust he’d built over 20 years. Brady-Belichick is about the history between the two men, but so far only Brady has proved he can move on and thrive on his own, and his departure revealed how many gaps he’d papered over in his last seasons in New England. Fixing those holes in the Patriots’ roster is Belichick’s task now, and delivering a winning future for the Patriots—one largely built from scratch—is a greater challenge than anything TB12 can bring in a single game.
“By the time it was last year we had like five guys [who were veterans],” said former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who retired this offseason after a 12-year career in New England. “I was the second-oldest guy on the team. You’re like, ‘What’s going on here? Who are you?’”
The few holdovers from the Brady era, as well as the Patriots’ humbling rebuilding process, might explain why Belichick and his supporters have been quiet about any rivalry between the two. They have declined comment or taken the high road while Brady’s father and others close to him have recently opined over how things ended. (The basics: The Patriots were willing to commit only short term, hesitant to move forward with a quarterback older than 40, and offering only a two-year contract, according to The Boston Globe; Brady preferred a long-term commitment or to go it alone.)
“Belichick wanted him out the door and last year he threw  touchdowns,” Brady Sr. said on NBC Sports Boston’s Patriots podcast. “I think that’s a pretty good year.”
Brady’s close confidant and business partner Alex Guerrero also told The Boston Herald that “people could have made different choices, they could have rode out into the sunset together,” and that Belichick never “evolved” in how he coached Brady.
“That was such a Bill thing, he never evolved,” Guerrero said. “So you can’t treat someone who’s in his 40s like they’re 20. It doesn’t work.”
Brady himself responded by jokingly reading a statement Monday on his Let’s Go! podcast with Jim Gray about his father’s comments, though he didn’t exactly say he disagreed with them.
“Comments made by Thomas Edward Brady, a 77-year-old insurance company CEO, who should know better at this point in his life, don’t necessarily reflect the views or positions held by his son, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr,” Brady said. “Furthermore, should Tom Sr. continue to speak out on behalf of his son without express written consent, Tom Jr. reserves the right to eventually put him in a home against his will.”
Belichick has offered little pushback.
“We made a statement when Tom left, and that covered it,” he said Monday.
The furthest he went was in a radio interview on WEEI the same day when Belichick said Brady “looked at his options and made his decision. We weren’t as good of an option as Tampa. You’d have to ask him about all that, but it wasn’t a question of not wanting him that’s for sure.”
That much, that the Patriots weren’t as good an option as the Buccaneers, is true, and it started before Brady left.
Since 2019, the Patriots have lost more than a dozen coaches, scouts, and executives with significant tenures within the organization. All told, they represent more than 100 years of experience walking out the door.
When Flores, who started his 15-year tenure in New England as a scouting assistant in 2004, left to become the Dolphins head coach after the 2018 season, he took three Patriots assistants with him: receivers coach Chad O’Shea, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer, and assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinksi. That same offseason, defensive line coach Brendan Daly left to take the same job in Kansas City and national scout DuJuan Daniels left for a senior executive position with the Raiders. Another national scout, James Liipfert, and a longtime area scout, Pat Stewart were hired away by the Texans and Eagles, respectively, the prior offseason.
After losing O’Shea, the Patriots asked Judge to add receivers coach to his special teams responsibilities. Judge did so for a year, then was hired by the Giants. He was replaced as receivers coach by former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, who’d joined the staff in 2019 through a coaching fellowship, and as special teams coach by former assistant Cameron Achord, who was elevated to the coordinator position. Achord has been with the Patriots since 2018, before which he was an assistant coach at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Along with Judge, the Patriots also lost director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort, who became director of player personnel for the Titans, that offseason. In January 2020, longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired. Scarnecchia had spent 34 seasons with New England, predating Belichick, and was regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL—“among the very best assistant coaches ever,” Belichick said at the time. Scarnecchia was replaced by Carmen Bricillo, who joined Belichick’s staff in 2019, and Cole Popovich, who joined in 2015.
And yes, they lost Brady last year. The Patriots offense was limited in his final season in New England, but without him, a combination of Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer led the 27th-ranked attack. Wide receivers struggled to get open, the running game floundered, and the tight end position—a driver of the offense for many of Brady’s years in New England—was nearly nonexistent. Rob Gronkowski, who retired after the 2018 season, rejoined Brady in Tampa last season. For years, Gronkowski gave the Patriots so much production at tight end that they could neglect the position, but his departure has sent the team scrambling for answers from draft picks (Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene) and free agents (Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith). Since Gronkowski left, though, no tight end has surpassed 60 receiving yards in a game for the Patriots. Replacing Brady would always be a gargantuan undertaking, but his departure put in sharp relief how many other holes New England had to fill.
It was a slog for Belichick, who noticeably hated going 7-9.
“If you talked to him last year like we talked to him, he was miserable,” said Louis Riddick, an analyst for Monday Night Football on ESPN. “He was grumpy about what was going on with his football team and how fundamentally he could not get it to play to the level that he’s accustomed to it playing to, and that you knew it wasn’t going to sit well with him.”
So, this offseason, Belichick came out swinging.
The Patriots spent an NFL-record $159.6 million in guaranteed money on their 2020 free-agent class, adding players like Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Henry, Smith, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive back Jalen Mills, and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux.
Then, in the draft, they added the most important piece. Quarterback Mac Jones fell to them at no. 15 overall, so the Patriots drafted a quarterback in the first round for the first time under Belichick.
Jones’s selection and the free-agency spending were out of character, but Belichick and owner Robert Kraft said they were necessary given the circumstances.
“What happened here last year was not something to our liking and we had to make corrections,” Kraft said in March. He also acknowledged that paying market rates for free agents was in part necessary because the team had “missed to a certain extent in the draft,” which wasn’t a harsh callout of Belichick, but a pointed request for improvement.
The pressure was on for the Patriots to get better this season. But as Belichick set out to do that with a young, mercenary roster, more pillars of the organization said goodbyes.
In January, Nick Caserio, who’d been with the Patriots for 20 seasons and was the highest-ranking member of the personnel department, took the general manager job in Houston.
Then, after the draft, longtime Patriots director of football research Ernie Adams retired. Adams’s job description in New England was always intentionally vague, but he had a seat in the war room on draft days, spent time on the field during practices, and had a direct line from the booth to Belichick on the sideline during games.
“He’s literally been involved in every single aspect of the football program at every level you could possibly be involved in,” Belichick said in May. “He’s done an outstanding job in all of them.”
Belichick, who met Adams in high school and has worked with him at various stops for most of his football career, lost not only a trusted football mind, but a best friend at work.
Because of the opacity surrounding Adams’s job, it’s hard to say what the Patriots have done to replace him. According to multiple sources, his retirement didn’t come as a surprise to those within the organization. In January, New England hired back Patricia, who was fired in-season by the Lions, as senior football advisor, which includes a role in personnel. When the Patriots went on their spending spree in free agency this offseason, it was Patricia’s signature representing the Patriots on many of the new contracts. Patricia also brought a research assistant, Evan Rothstein, with him from Detroit.
It’s easy to look at the 2021 Patriots’ performance so far this season and see the cost of these personnel departures. Bricillo is now coaching the offensive line solo—Popovich left the team for at least this season before training camp because of a decision related to the COVID-19 vaccine and NFL guidelines, according to ESPN–and it has struggled. Jones has faced pressure on 41 of 129 dropbacks this season, tied for 12th among all quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus, and the offensive line ranks last in ESPN’s run block win rate metric. Jones has looked promising at times, but free-agent pass catchers like Smith have struggled with drops and haven’t looked fluid in the New England offense. And on Sunday, after trimming their deficit to the Saints to 21-13 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense allowed quarterback Taysom Hill to easily scramble 4 yards for a touchdown with 2:37 remaining. Upon review, New England had only 10 men on the field.
Take all that into account and a little humble pie served at the hands of a former quarterback doesn’t seem like priority no. 1. Still, here is plenty of hope in New England for the post-Brady era. New England has a potential replacement in Jones, and it still has Belichick, but organizational attrition has taken its toll. Some of Brady’s former teammates have aged up into the coaching ranks, including Brown and linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. They’re looking forward to seeing their former quarterback on the opposing sideline Sunday, though it’s a strange feeling now being tasked with stopping him.
“It’s a little bit awkward,” said Brown.
Brady’s time in New England spanned generations. Both of Belichick’s sons, Steve and Brian, are now on the Patriots’ coaching staff, and both were around Brady as young kids. Brian, who’s now the safeties coach, remembers a rare instance when he was allowed to go practice. It was 2000, Brady’s rookie season, and Brian was 8 years old. As Brian stayed late on the practice field with his father, he remembered there was one other player still training—Brady, at that time a fourth-stringer. Belichick had recently taught Brian the basic route tree with the numberings coaches use—3 is an out, 4 is a curl, 8 is a post. He asked Brady if he’d stay a little longer to throw to Brian.
“He asked Tom to stay after and signal the route tree to me so I could see the signal and know the route and run it,” Brian said Tuesday. “He laid a couple out for me on a rubber mat that I could dive on and stuff. That was a really special memory for me growing up.”
In the car ride home with his dad, Brian mused that this must be the greatest quarterback of all time (scouting report: enthusiastically throws passes to an 8-year-old).
You probably know what happened next.
Perhaps the irony of the Belichick-Brady rivalry will be that Belichick’s new brain trust was influenced by Brady just as it was by Belichick. Brian will use that same numbering system this week, coaching the safeties to contain the Bucs’ wide receivers, or to guard the middle of the field that Brady has so often picked apart. “We have a hell of a challenge coming up to try and stop him,” Brian said. And to move past him, too.