Brady vs. Belichick: The Return

Throughout his storied NFL career, Tom Brady has beaten 31 of the 32 teams in the NFL. The lone team he hasn’t beaten? The Patriots, of course.

Brady is currently 68 yards behind Drew Brees for the all-time passing yard record, and so barring an injury, Brady will become the all-time leading passer in NFL history during Sunday Night’s game in Foxboro, and he will have the chance to score a victory over all 32 NFL teams. The NFL’s schedule makers really nailed this one.

Just looking at the two teams, we all know the Bucs are way more talented and should win the game. They’re the Super Bowl Champs, they’ve got the better QB, better offensive weapons, the better offensive line, and while their secondary is banged-up, they probably have more overall talent on defense, too. Although Tampa doesn’t really run the ball well they have better depth at the position than New England, especially now after the Patriots lost James White for the season.

Obviously Belichick is the superior coach, but Bruce Arians is no slouch.

But you can’t evaluate this game based on talent alone.

This is going to be the most emotional game of Brady’s career, by far.

For the first time in his life, that crazy Foxboro crowd is going to be against him. Sure, they’ll give him a warm welcome when he takes the field, and there will certainly be a touching tribute video (probably designed to get both Brady and the crowd even more emotional) but once the game kicks off, he’s going to get the full Masshole treatment from all those nutcases. Gillette is one of the hardest stadiums to play in in the entire NFL, and while Tom Brady is mental toughness personified, it could get to him a little bit.

I’m not saying the crowd will make a difference in the game, but it could play a factor.

I think the most likely scenario we’re all imagining is that Psycho Tom goes in there and throws for 430 yards and 6 TDs on like 31-37 passing attempts. That’s what we expect from Tom Brady, who lives for these pressure-packed moments.

But Brady has been known to get emotional sometimes. Remember when that kid at Super Bowl media day asked him who his hero was and he got choked up talking about his dad? Obviously this game is a different situation, but, as Kevin Wildes put it on First Things First this morning, “Brady is a sentimental guy at heart.”

He just is. You see it all the time on the sidelines. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s an extremely passionate guy, and doesn’t just mean he gets fired up in big games or angry when things go wrong. His emotions run the full gamut.

There’s a chance all the memories and emotions could overwhelm Brady and throw him off his game. When Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis as a member of the Broncos, he got a long standing ovation before the game and you could tell he was getting very emotional. The Colts ended up winning the game.

Again, I don’t expect Brady to be overcome with emotion to the point where it affects his play, but you never know. It’s not out of the question here. Brady spent basically half his life in New England. He arrived there as an unathletic, unheralded, largely unknown 22-year-old kid out of Michigan picked #199 in the draft, with chubby cheeks and hair that looked like he just rolled out of bed.

And he left as a 43-year-old grown man with a wife, a family, untold millions of dollars, six Super Bowl rings, and widely regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time. It’s a life story that’s almost unbelievable.

All of that is going to be going through his head on Sunday Night. Of course, Brady is the ultimate competitor, and has a remarkable way of focusing like a laser on the task at hand, and being more prepared than anyone else, I don’t see how he won’t get emotional. I don’t see how he doesn’t lose focus somewhat. He’d have to be inhuman not to get emotional.

As for the guys on the opposite sideline, it’s going to be emotional for them, too.

While Brady managed to win the Super Bowl in his first season with the Bucs, things haven’t gone all that well in Foxboro over the past 18 months. The Patriots have compiled a record of 8-11 in the post-Brady era. As much as Tom Brady will forever be a legend in the Boston area and in that Patriots organization, there’s got to be a little bit of either jealousy or resentment on the New England side over Brady’s success in Tampa compared to the relative mediocrity he left behind.

If you’re a Patriots fan, it’s probably hard not to watch their games these days and think, “Man, if we still had Brady…” You don’t just move on after 20 years of the GOAT.

On Sunday night, it’s about to really hit home for Patriots fans: Tom Brady is gone. Obviously they’ve known it for 18 months, they’ve seen his games on television, they watched him hoist the Lombardi this past February wearing another team’s jersey.

But now they’re about to watch him in Gillette stadium playing for another team. It’s going to be surreal. I mean, if you’re under the age of like 35 and you’re from Boston, you have basically known nothing else in your life, football-wise, but Tom Brady, and being the best. I think for a lot of Patriots fans, even though Brady has been gone since last March, Sunday night will still be somewhat jarring, coming face-to-face with the reality that Brady plays for somebody else.

The drafting of Mac Jones in May helped to provide some closure on the Tom Brady era. Sure, they went to Cam Newton last season and for a while a lot of people in Boston were thinking it was going to work, but it was always a roll of the dice: could Cam get back to his old MVP self? The answer to that is no, and the Patriots really were a team that was doomed from the start last year. They were already severely lacking in offensive talent, and then they had the most opt-outs of any team in the league before the season even began. Cam missed a stretch due to Covid, and when he came back he was never really the same guy he was at the start of the season.

The whole time the Patriots had Cam, there was always kind of the feeling in the back of your mind that Cam wasn’t the future for the Patriots–he was more of a bridge until the Patriots found their actual QB of the future.

And that guy turned out to be Mac Jones. Will Jones be able to fill Brady’s shoes? It’s an almost impossible task, but a win on Sunday night will go a long way toward turning the page on the Brady era and finally moving on.

And so that’s why I actually find myself pulling for the Patriots here. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brady and respect the hell out of him, but I think over the years, I’ve actually become a bigger fan of Bill Belichick. I want to see the Patriots win this game–for Mac Jones and Bill.

Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re going to be fighting a very uphill battle. They’re at a serious talent deficit compared to the Bucs.

I’ve been very critical of Belichick’s drafting when it comes to offensive skill players. He’s brought a lot of this on himself in terms of the roster deficiencies his team is now struggling with.

While yes, Belichick has failed miserably at drafting skill players, and he’s the GM of the team, you could also make the argument that when you’re on a dynasty run, you’re focused on winning now, and that affects every single decision you make in terms of personnel. For one, you consistently have late draft picks. Second, you draft guys based on whether they can help you win now, not down the road. And financially, you make decisions that will cost you down the road but maximize your chances of winning in the moment. Belichick said as much in an interview last year.

It doesn’t look like the Patriots are in a rebuild, because they went 7-9 last year, and prior to this year people were talking about whether or not they could make the playoffs, but they’re 100% in a rebuild. Brady, Gronk and Edelman are all gone. So is LeGarrette Blount. James White is done for the season. Those were the guys they relied on offensively to win three Super Bowls, play in a fourth, and make 8 straight AFC Championship Games between 2011-2018.

It’s really a testament to how great Belichick is as a head coach that a lot of people don’t even realize they’re in a rebuild. Any other coach goes 2-14 with that roster last season.

Honestly, it’s ridiculous that people are already saying Belichick is a fraud and only won because he had Tom Brady. We’re only 2 years removed from Belichick putting on a coaching performance for the ages in the Super Bowl against the Rams. While the Atlanta Super Bowl may have been more attributable to Brady’s greatness, the Rams Super Bowl was Belichick. Nobody talks about it, and most of people have already basically forgotten it because it was such a boring game, but when you think about what Belichick’s defense did–hold one of the best offenses in recent history to 3 points–you start to gain a greater appreciation for it. This video does a great job of breaking down exactly how the Patriots were able to stop the high-powered Rams offense dead in its tracks:

The Patriots’ offense only scored 13 points. Tom Brady wasn’t particularly effective, going 21-35 passing for 262 yards and 1 INT, but it didn’t matter because the Patriots defense was so dominant. Belichick could’ve won that Super Bowl with Teddy Bridgewater as his QB.

The main thing Belichick did in that game was use a 6-1-4 defense, meaning 6 men on the defensive line, 1 linebacker and 4 defensive backs. That’s a very unconventional defense and you do not see it used often. Generally teams use either a 3-4 defense (3 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers) or a 4-3 (4 linemen, 3 linebackers). Nobody could figure out how to stop the Rams until Belichick went to the 6-1 in the Super Bowl. If you watch the video, the commentator points out that the following season, virtually every team the Rams played copied Belichick’s 6-1 strategy. The Rams averaged 32.9 points per game in 2018, but just 24.6 in 2019.

That’s the greatness of Bill Belichick. No one else could figure the Rams out. But he could, and he did. And again, because that Super Bowl was so boring, people have just kind of put it out of their minds, but it really was a defensive masterpiece on Bill’s part. The Rams’ 3 points were tied for the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl in NFL history, and the last time a team only scored 3 points in a Super Bowl was back in 1972.

At any rate, it’s totally ridiculous to call Belichick “washed” or “overrated” even though at this point, Tom Brady has clearly won “the divorce.”

And speaking of that divorce, while the conventional wisdom is that there’s bad blood between Brady and Belichick, I really don’t think there’s any animosity on Belichick’s side. If there is any animosity, it’s pretty much all on Brady’s side.

Belichick doesn’t make decisions based on emotion. With personnel decisions, it’s all business with him. It’s not personal. His policy has always been to get rid of guys a year early. I remember being shocked when Bill Belichick traded Richard Seymour to the Raiders after the 2008 season. But it ended up netting New England a first round pick, and while Seymour did eventually make 2 Pro Bowls with the Raiders, it was the right move. Belichick had gotten his best years, and he let the Raiders take what was left of him. It sounds cruel and cold, but it’s how he operates. And the results speak for themselves.

This is how Belichick has consistently operated. He let Ty Law go in 2004 when he was 30 and still had some gas left in the tank–he played 5 more seasons before retiring. He let Deion Branch go in 2005 at the age of 26. He got rid of Logan Mankins when he was 31. This page has a bunch more examples. Sometimes Belichick gets it wrong, you’re never going to be perfect, but even when he does, he still maximizes his return in any trade. And if he lets a guy go in free agency, it saves the team money.

Belichick always cuts guys loose before their “expiration date.” It’s not personal at all. It’s business. It’s part of the “Patriot Way.” And for the most part, players are fine with it because, A. they know up front what they’re getting into when they join the New England Patriots, and B. it works. You go to the Patriots knowing you’re not going to be able to walk off into the sunset, but that you will probably win a Super Bowl while you’re there. Players will take that trade-off every single time. The System is more important than any one player. If you let any guy be the exception to the rule, it undermines The System. Once your effectiveness begins dipping, you will be sent on your way.

And a lot of people were saying that as crazy as it sounded, it was going to happen to Brady at some point. Some people didn’t believe it, believing Brady was a special situation, but Belichick’s history indicated that even The GOAT would not be exempt from The Patriot Way. Belichick was going to move off of Brady a year early. That was his plan. “Tom, you have done more for this franchise than can even be put into words. You are the undisputed Greatest Patriot Of All Time, and I cannot thank you enough for all you’ve done for this team. But it is now time for us to go our separate ways.”

Belichick’s decision to draft Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 was not because he didn’t like Tom Brady. It was because Tom Brady was 37 in 2014, and history had shown quarterbacks generally don’t play much longer than that. John Elway retired at 38. Dan Marino retired at 38. Joe Montana retired at 38. Peyton Manning retired at 39. Troy Aikman retired at 34. Belichick knew this. He was going off the odds, and the odds were that by 2014, Tom Brady didn’t have much time left in the NFL.

Now, of course he was wildly wrong about that. Tom Brady almost looks like he’s playing the best football of his career at 44. But who could’ve predicted this? Keep in mind that from 2014-2017, when Belichick was preparing to get rid of Tom, we were witnessing Peyton Manning’s decline as well. Belichick probably figured Brady was right behind him.

Without the benefit of hindsight, Bill Belichick was absolutely right to begin preparing for Life After Brady in 2014. Of course with hindsight, Belichick was wrong. But you have to put yourself in his shoes in 2014. It was extremely unlikely that Brady had more than a couple years left. Brady of course defied all the odds and continues to do so today, but smart people like Belichick do not bet on low-probability outcomes. He bases his decisions on history and data. It would have been irresponsible for him not to line up a QB for the future when Brady hit the 36-37 mark.

Robert Kraft was the one to step in and play “good cop” to Belichick’s “bad cop,” at least if the reports are to be believed. Kraft had and will always have a soft spot for Tom. Belichick was getting ready to move on from Tom, and while Kraft had seen Belichick do it to so many other great players, to Kraft, Brady was a special situation.

I’m not exactly sure when Bill truly was going to move off Tom–maybe it was after the Atlanta Super Bowl, maybe it was even before it, but we know it was some time between 2014, when he drafted Garoppolo, and 2017, when, at least according to this report, Belichick tried to trade Brady to the 49ers but was overruled by Kraft.

And Robert Kraft was right to intervene. He was right to say to Bill, “You can do it to any other player, but not Tom.” The Patriots ended up making the Super Bowl in 2017, ultimately losing to the Eagles, and then they won it in 2018 over the Rams.

People think Belichick “threw” that 2017 Super Bowl as a “F U” to Kraft for overruling him on Brady. They point to the mysterious Malcolm Butler benching before the game, and the Patriots’ subsequent surrender of 41 points to Nick Foles as evidence that Belichick threw the game. Now, to me that’s utterly ridiculous given how competitive Bill Belichick is. And the fact that they won the Super Bowl the following season. Seth Wickersham’s new expose on the Patriots “It’s Better to Be Feared” shed some light on the Infamous Butler Benching:

One of the greatest mysteries of the Patriots dynasty may be a mystery no longer.

According to an excerpt of the upcoming book, “It’s Better to Be Feared,” a tell-all on the Pats’ dynasty by ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham, former Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler was benched during the team’s Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles after sharing a heated exchange with then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

From the excerpt: In the lead-up to Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia traded heated words at practice over the former Super Bowl hero’s lack of effort. Butler was demoted. At the team party after New England’s loss, Butler responded to teammates asking why he was benched by saying, “These dudes,” referring to the coaches, according to the book, “these mother f—ers.”

Wait, they had a team party after losing the Super Bowl?

Anyway, it just seems like a ridiculous notion that Belichick would bench his starting cornerback before the Super Bowl for no other reason that to literally purposely lose the game due to a personal beef with the owner. That’s just nonsense. Other players on the team would talk. They would have quit on Belichick en masse if they thought Belichick purposely threw the game. Belichick would have been fired immediately after the game.

Are you kidding me? Everyone would have turned on Belichick if there was even the slightest inkling that Belichick lost the Super Bowl on purpose. Everyone.

Hell, the Eagles fired Doug Pederson last season for throwing a meaningless week 17 game. And Pederson did it for a better draft spot, not to spite the owner.

If anything, the refs rigged that Super Bowl for the Eagles. The Corey Clement TD should not have counted. The Zach Ertz TD maybe should not have counted.

And Brady was the one who dropped the trick play pass from Edelman that might’ve gone for a TD. The Pats botched a snap and missed a field goal in the first quarter. Gostkowski missed an extra point late in the second quarter.

There was no “throwing” of that game by Belichick. There were some questionable rulings by the refs, coupled with a few uncharacteristic errors by the Patriots. That’s why the Patriots lost.

Anyway, while we might never know the full story of what happened in New England over the past 7 years or so, it’s clear that this is going to be an emotional game.

For Belichick’s part, in his public comments, he does not sound like a guy who wanted Brady out the door:

[Brady’s return to New England] was quickly brought back to the surface on Monday morning when Bill Belichick — the coach and co-pillar of the dynasty alongside Brady — was asked about the quarterback’s looming return on WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show.” 

Specifically, Belichick was asked about the numerous comments he’d made over Brady‘s tenure that there was no other quarterback that he’d rather have and when that feeling may have changed for him. 

“It never changed,” Belichick said, via WEEI.com

In a follow-up asking if that meant the Patriots wanted him back after the 2019 season, Belichick said, “Well, I think we’ve been through all of the dynamics of that. There were a lot of things there — he 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.”

Maybe there once was a time when Belichick was preparing to move on from Tom Brady, and maybe Belichick’s plans were foiled by Robert Kraft. It’s possible.

But what it seems like is that yes, Belichick had a plan in place to transition to Jimmy G, but once it became evident that Brady’s play wasn’t dropping off as he aged, Belichick changed his mind and decided to roll with Brady until the wheels fell off.

And the wheels did fall off–just not Brady’s. By the time the 2019 season ended, it was clear that the Patriots were no longer legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Gronk had retired after the 2018 season, and their offense all throughout 2019 was mediocre. They got man-handled in the playoffs by the Titans, and were both unable to stop Derrick Henry and unable to score points consistently.

What if Brady left New England because, as Belichick said, Tampa was a better option, and everybody knew it?

Belichick even went as far as to say, “It wasn’t a question of not wanting him, that’s for sure.”

What if, instead of Belichick cutting Brady lose because he no longer believed he could win a Super Bowl with him, it was Brady that kicked the Patriots to the curb once he concluded they were no longer his best chance at winning a Super Bowl?


As for the game itself, as I said above: the most likely scenario is that the more talented team wins, and that team is Tampa.

But I’ll never count Bill Belichick out. I was listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast and, while it’s gotta be taken with a grain of salt because Simmons is a huge Boston homer, he thinks Bill Belichick is saving a few tricks up his sleeve for this game. Simmons said the Patriots’ defense last week against the Saints was “suspiciously vanilla,” implying that Belichick is keeping his defensive strategy under wraps so Tampa can’t prepare for it.

The Bucs are healthy 7 point favorites in the game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots cover that and make this a game.

Don’t underestimate Bill and how seriously he’s taking this. He’s an insanely competitive guy, and if there’s anyone out there who knows how to defend against Tom Brady, it’s him.

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