Was it the quarterback drafted 199th overall who turned into a six-time Super Bowl winner? Or was it the coach who was fired in Cleveland only to reemerge as a strategist and game manager without peer — winning with unheard of consistency in the salary cap era?
The proper answer, of course, was “both.”
Together they formed the greatest winning machine of all time, feeding off the other’s genius.
Considering where we are with three-quarters of the 2021 season done, it might now be a subtly different adjective: “each.”
As of Monday, Tom Brady was the betting favorite to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (-150, per BetMGM). At age 44 he’s thrown for 4,134 yards and 36 touchdowns while leading Tampa Bay to a 10-3 record, just a half-game behind Arizona for the top spot in the NFC.
Also as of Monday, Bill Belichick was the betting favorite to be named the NFL’s Coach of the Year (+125) after retooling the Pats post-Brady and riding a vicious defense and a rookie quarterback to a 9-4 record and the top spot in the AFC.
Brady and Belichick are dominating this NFL season. They are doing it apart this time, on their own this time — each, this time.
The ultimate result would be a New England-Tampa Bay Super Bowl matchup, which is certainly possible. The Bucs (+220 at BetMGM) are the favorite to beat out Arizona or Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay win the NFC. The Patriots are +300, trailing only Kansas City to come out of the AFC.
Even if the dream showdown doesn’t emerge, here these two are, an unprecedented two full decades past when they first began winning together, both looking as good as they’ve ever been, playing oversized roles as the season enters its final stretch.
Back in 2001, when Brady, an unknown and unheralded second-year back-up, was thrust into the starting role due to an injury to starter Drew Bledsoe, he was coached by Belichick, who had an uncertain future considering his 5-13 record at the time as head coach of the Pats.
Since that moment there have not been two more significant figures in the league, a fact that just continues on. Consider that just in the last week — six nights apart — they took turns haunting preseason Super Bowl contender Buffalo via brains (Belichick) and skill (Brady).
A year ago Brady answered the question of whether he needed Belichick to be successful when he stepped in and led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl. So it’s not like the quarterback was some mystery.
And anyone with any perspective on the game knew Belichick’s legendary career was far more than just the result of a single player. Watching him construct rosters, game-plan defensively, and exploit inefficiencies with creative offenses (two tight ends, a slew of small receivers, a bruising run game) at various times should have done that.
Still, getting New England past the loss of its franchise quarterback and locker room leader and through a salary cap-hampered season and back into contention this quickly is among his greatest feats.
Whatever chilliness existed in their final days together appears to have thawed after the two teams played in October. That night Brady won on the field, but then Belichick made an unusual trip to the Buccaneers’ postgame locker room. The two had their first real conversation since Brady had decided to leave for Tampa in free agency in March of 2020.
It seems all things were healed.
“It was a nice conversation,” Brady said on his “Let’s Go!” podcast with Jim Gray. “… For 20 years I saw him basically every day. And since I left New England, we’d never seen each other face to face. And it was nice to catch up and exchange just some different thoughts that we had been having.”
Brady is quick to note how fortunate he was to learn so much football from Belichick. Meanwhile, Belichick has praised Brady as an all-time great player and reiterated just last week how lucky he was to coach him (not to mention linebacker Lawrence Taylor during his assistant days with the New York Giants).
“As I’ve said many times, nobody deserves more credit for our success here than Tom does. He’s a great player, great person, great leader,” Belichick said recently on the Greg Hill Show. “… The greatest offensive player with Tom and the greatest defensive player with Taylor. It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me as a coach, and I certainly learned a lot from Tom. He helped me develop as a coach.”
Winning can do that to people. Continuing to win without the other — one the MVP favorite, the other the likely Coach of the Year — even more so.