After 20 years, 41 playoff games and six Super Bowl wins, Tom Brady will play football next season for a team other than the New England Patriots. During his Patriots tenure, he won three MVP awards, he was voted to 14 Pro Bowls, and the Patriots went 219-64 in games that he started. His now-former coach, Bill Belichick, called Brady the greatest quarterback of all time. Regardless of what happens when he plays for his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady’s legacy appears to be secure.
But can the same be said for Belichick? On its face, that question seems absurd. After all, Belichick was a pretty important part of those Super Bowl runs. When Brady went down with a knee injury in 2008, Belichick coached a team led by Matt Cassel to a 10-5 record. In 2016, during Brady’s four-game suspension over Deflategate, Belichick was able to conjure three wins out of a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Belichick has the third-most coaching wins in NFL history and is widely considered one of the greatest coaches ever.
Still, there are reasons to think that Belichick has something left to prove. If we look at his record without Brady — including his five-year stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns — Belichick lost more games than he won (54-63). He had one winning season while in Cleveland,1 but he was fired the following year after the Browns flipped an 11-5 record into a 5-11 disaster.
Belichick’s first season in New England with quarterback Drew Bledsoe started in similar fashion. The Patriots finished last in the division in 2000, going 5-11 behind Bledsoe’s 6.2 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Despite Bledsoe’s poor performance, Belichick and the Patriots signed him the following March to what was then the largest contract in NFL history, a 10-year extension worth $103 million. The next season, in 2001, the Patriots opened 0-2, mustering just 20 points in the first two games. It took a hard hit on Bledsoe by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis to open the door for Brady to start his now-iconic Super Bowl run. And the Patriots haven’t had a losing season since. Brady, New England and winning are inextricably linked.
Whether to credit wins and losses to head coaches or quarterbacks has been difficult historically. Bill Walsh is often given a large share of credit for the San Francisco 49ers dynasty in the 1980s, with some analysts going so far as to argue that Joe Montana was a system quarterback. Part of the veneration of Walsh is the success that his coaching tree has found throughout the NFL. Taken together, Walsh’s seven assistants who went on to become NFL head coaches2 have a combined record of 571-510-1. Mike Holmgren led the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks to a total of three Super Bowl appearances, winning one.3 Walsh’s immediate successor, George Seifert, guided the 49ers to two Super Bowl wins during his eight-year tenure with the team, and he never finished a season in San Francisco with fewer than 10 wins. Sam Wyche — a former quarterback coach for the 49ers and a Walsh protege — lost to his mentor 20-16 in what would be Walsh’s final game as an NFL head coach in Super Bowl XXIII.
Bill Belichick’s coaching tree has seen far less success by comparison. Of his nine former assistants with head coaching experience,4 just two have winning records: Al Groh, who coached the Jets for just one season before resigning, and Houston’s Bill O’Brien. The combined win percentage of the Belichick head coaching tree is 41 percent, with 191 wins to 271 losses and one Matt Patricia tie. None of the nine former assistants has won a Super Bowl as a head coach.
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Walsh’s great contribution to the game — the short, rhythm-based passing scheme sometimes called the West Coast offense — was exported throughout the league and was used successfully by many other teams. Belichick hasn’t pioneered a specific system. Instead, he has an intense focus on the details of the game and a pointed slogan: “Do your job.” If there are more exotic secrets housed in 1 Patriot Place, they don’t appear to travel. To date, Belichick’s lieutenants haven’t been able to pack up the Patriot Way and take it with them to their other coaching jobs.
A number of explanations could account for both Belichick’s record without Brady and the subpar results of his coaching tree, but the simplest answers are usually the best. Perhaps Belichick’s understudies didn’t find success on other teams because they were missing a key ingredient, one that helped more than any other to make the Patriot Way successful. Now, despite all that he’s built and achieved, Belichick is also missing Brady. The greatest quarterback ever just shipped himself South, and it will be up to Belichick to prove that Brady didn’t take winning with him.