Bill Belichick Exits As He Entered: As A Bore Who Never Won Without Tom Brady
2:11 PM EST on January 11, 2024
The biggest question of the Patriots dynasty was also the most boring: Who was more responsible for the team's wild successes, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick? It was boring to think about at the time, because the two were always together, in six Super Bowl wins, three Super Bowl losses, and too many iconic moments for me to settle on a favorite throughout the years. (28-3, right now). In the thick of all the wins, I never thought I'd have to find out the answer to that question, because I never thought either man would suit up for or coach another franchise, and especially not without the other right next to him.
Of course, the duopoly broke back in 2020, when Brady left the Patriots, went to Tampa Bay, and promptly won a Super Bowl without Belichick, while the Patriots sank into mediocrity. That Super Bowl 55 win for the Bucs cemented that Brady could win without Belichick, if there'd been any doubt that the most accomplished quarterback the sport has ever seen could win in almost any situation. What has happened to New England since Brady left has also seemed to answer—or at any rate underline—the question of Belichick's relative value. The results haven't been pretty, in the Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe of it all. It's not surprising that things went this way: Lose the best player ever, replace him with bozos, get worse. I'm not broken up about Belichick leaving, and that's not surprising either.
There are two main reasons why this departure feels like less of a gut-punch than Brady's. First, Belichick the coach was always better than Belichick the general manager, and I blame the latter more for the Pats' moribund descent into the top three picks of the draft and a 4-13 season that felt much more futile than even that record makes it seem. He simply missed too many times in the draft over the years, a problem Brady papered over in his time in New England. Belichick never drafted a good wide receiver or running back, and his penchant for trading down instead of taking a potential star bit him in the ass many times. Could Belichick still be a good coach in the modern NFL if he just lets someone better do the personnel job? It's a good question, and hopefully one that his next team answers.
The second reason is that Belichick simply wasn't as interesting or compelling (or, let's be honest, frustrating) a figure as Brady. Sure, his gruffness and "We're on to Cincinnati" soundbites were entertaining in their own way, but he didn't have Brady's innate ability to make everything about himself. That's a quarterback's prerogative, and Brady took to it with aplomb, from the Ugg commercials to the rich, white-guy dorkiness to, in a less fun register, the MAGA hat in the locker room and the pseudoscience around water. Everything Brady did he did under a different kind of microscope, one he invited, and whether you loved him or (probably) hated him with all your heart, he was fun to have around. Brady was perplexing to the very end, and this made him a great hero or villain, depending on your rooting interests and proximity to Quincy.
Belichick was much simpler to understand and therefore less exciting to engage with. Sure, the downfall of the Pats post-Brady gave enough schadenfreude to the rest of the league's teams and their fans; how could Belichick be the greatest coach of all time when he was 84-103 without the quarterback he lucked into at the tail-end of the 2000 draft? (A quick aside on that: Belichick does deserve some sort of award for getting an 11-5 season out of Matt Cassel when Brady went down with an ACL injury in 2008.) Still, though, Belichick was just a coach, and not even a fun one to follow. He gave nothing more than his required answers at press conferences, and often less than that; he had a gaggle of assistant coaches that would turn out to be putrid head coaches elsewhere; and he wore his stupid hoodies. He was the platonic ideal of an NFL coach, because he was nothing special except for how often he won.
His biggest controversies somehow fell on the shoulders of others, too. Spygate was seen as an organizational failure, and though Belichick took a big part of the public scorn from it, so did the team as a whole, and so did Brady. Deflategate fell even more heavily on Brady, who served a four-game suspension for it. Belichick's letter to Donald Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election drew less attention than Brady's hat. He dodged all of these bullets to some degree, in part because there was always someone more interesting to blame.
When Brady left, the intrigue left with him. Sure, I got excited to see if Belichick could salvage Cam Newton's career when he signed in 2020, and I took the Macpill out of necessity but also curiosity. The reality, though, turned out to be pretty simple: The NFL is a quarterback's league, and Belichick was the best when he had the best. If that's a bland conclusion, then it suits him just fine.