Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Refuting False Narratives About the Legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Tom Brady has publicly announced that he plans to leave the New England Patriots via free agency, though he has yet to announce where he is going. Not surprisingly, Brady's statement has unleashed a wave of commentary about his legacy, and Bill Belichick's legacy, as well as a reexamination of previous all-time greats who could have played their entire careers for one team but elected to see if the grass was greener elsewhere--with Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning being perhaps the three most prominent examples.

Both Belichick and Brady have more than secured their individual legacies. Belichick was a key contributor to two Super Bowl champions as an assistant coach before winning six Super Bowls as New England's head coach. Any short list of the greatest football coaches of all-time must include his name, and nothing that happens in the rest of his career will change or diminish that. Belichick is the second oldest head coach in the NFL now, and he is tied with several others as the eighth oldest head coach in NFL history. A career is judged by the overall body of work, with an emphasis on what happened in the prime years; Belichick's career is not going to be defined by what happens in his final seasons. Of course, if he wins Super Bowls as an elder statesman coach that could potentially add to his already established legacy, but no sensible person is going to hold it against Belichick if he does not win another Super Bowl. Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and Tom Landry are three of the greatest coaches of all-time, and their careers ended long after their final Super Bowl victory with no damage done to their legacies.

Brady is a six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who is nearing the end of his career. If he wins another Super Bowl, he can add to his legacy, but few quarterbacks have even played as long as Brady, let alone won championships at his age; if Brady does not win another Super Bowl, it does not hurt his legacy any more than Joe Montana's time as a Kansas City Chief did.

Speaking of which, without looking it up do you even remember how long Montana played in Kansas City, what statistics he posted, and how the team performed? Unless you are an NFL addict with a great memory or you are lying, the honest answer is "No."

Before revisiting the end of Montana's career, it is worth briefly mentioning Joe Namath, whose name is sometimes brought up in this context. While it may have been painful at the time for NFL fans to watch him finish his career as an L.A. Ram, Namath secured his legacy by leading the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III. Nothing that happened after that caused long-term damage to Namath's legacy. He will always be remembered as a triumphant Jet, and no one spends much time thinking about his brief time as a stumbling Ram.

Back to Montana, who spent two years as a Chief, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 (his first season with the team) and compiling a 17-8 regular season record (he missed seven games due to injury) in 1993-94. Montana led the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game, but the Chiefs lost 30-13, and Montana was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter. Montana quarterbacked the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and a loss in the Wild Card round in 1994 before he retired at 38. Those two seasons are a solid postscript to a Hall of Fame career, but they had no impact on the legacy that Montana had already forged by winning four Super Bowls as a San Francisco 49er.

Consider an example from a different sport. Michael Jordan had already retired and come back once as a Chicago Bull before he came out of retirement in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards. Jordan never averaged less than 28 ppg in a full season with the Bulls, and he never averaged more than 23 ppg in his two seasons with the Wizards. Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in six NBA Finals appearances, and he was not able to take the Wizards to the playoffs even once. No, Jordan the Wizard did not accomplish as much as Jordan the Bull, but Jordan the Wizard added some clips to his career highlight reel, and did not harm Jordan's legacy at all.

Brady and Manning spent much of their careers battling for individual honors and Super Bowl titles. Manning won one Super Bowl in 13 seasons as a Colt before finishing his career as a Denver Bronco. Manning earned three Pro Bowl selections as a Bronco while also making the All-Pro First Team twice, and winning another Super Bowl title. Interestingly, his two playoff runs that ended in Super Bowl wins are two of his four worst postseasons statistically (based on the NFL's passer rating system). Winning a second Super Bowl--albeit while no longer a star player (he had nine passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his final regular season before the Broncos won the Super Bowl)--perhaps added a bit to Manning's legacy, but certainly no one dwells on how limited a player Manning was by that time, nor would any rational commentator have held it against Manning if his Bronco years had not been capped off with a championship.

Supposedly, next season is going to represent some kind of referendum in a made up Belichick versus Brady competition: Can Brady win without Belichick? Can Belichick win without Brady? Will neither one win?

This is nonsense. If there were to be a genuine, meaningful Belichick versus Brady competition then we would need to pit them against each other when both were in their primes, and we would need to supply them with comparable supporting casts. Give prime Brady a different coach and a solid supporting cast, and how much would he win? How much Brady wins as a past his prime quarterback can only tell us so much.

The other side of the question is how much would prime Belichick win with a different quarterback and a solid supporting cast? 

Actually, we did get a glimpse of that during the 2008 season that Brady missed with an ACL injury, and we saw the Patriots go 11-5 with Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback. Cassel left the Patriots after that season, and went 26-40 as a starter during the rest of his career. During his first head coaching job, Belichick inherited a 3-13 Cleveland team and in four years he turned them into an 11-5 squad that won a playoff game (which is the last playoff game that the Browns have won). So, we do have some evidence about what Belichick can do as a coach without Brady.

All that we know for sure is that the Belichick-Brady tandem is the greatest coach-quarterback duo in NFL history (throw in the AAFC years, and you could make an argument for Paul Brown-Otto Graham, who won seven championships and made 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons together). Whether or not either of them win any more Super Bowls in the final years of their respective careers does not change the significance of what they accomplished together, nor "prove" that one was more integral to their shared success than the other.

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