Everything comes with an expiration date, and not just the obvious things like milk, medicine and Jim Harbaugh. Everything.
Four weeks into this NFL season, New England was crushed by Kansas City and the offensive line was a mess and Bill Belichick had made one crazy, mad-scientist move too many and quarterback Tom Brady had gotten so old and sloppy that people were honestly wondering whether he might be replaced by (remember this name for later) Jimmy Garoppolo.
It wasn’t just one bad game, it was the apocalypse. The Belichick-Brady run was finally reaching its end. It was going sour. And the football world was watching it all crumble, not-so-secretly delighting in New England’s downfall.
Obviously things turned for the Patriots, who won Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday thanks to Garoppolo’s late drive. Kidding. The Patriots rallied to beat Seattle 28-24, and in typical Belichick style, it was sealed on a last-minute interception at the goal line (why was Seattle passing?) by a man named Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie cornerback who played at Hinds Community College and then the University of West Alabama.
Because it’s always someone like this from Belichick.
No matter what star or fan-favorite he gets rid of, there’s always a Malcolm Butler to replace them. Earlier this year, there was some guy named Jonas Gray running for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns against Indianapolis and getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 2001, there was a skinny kid named Tom Brady stepping into Drew Bledsoe’s shoes.
And in that regard, this Patriots season was supposed to be about the end of an era. Instead, it was about Belichick once again putting together the pieces and Brady, who is 37, deciding that he is never going to get old, telling SI that he won’t put anything in his body that could upset the balance of his metabolic system, keeping an 80/20 equilibrium of alkaline vs. acidic – whatever that means – but feeling free to splurge on avocado-based ice cream.
Does he think he can eliminate his expiration date entirely?
You know how older athletes, at times, will put things together for one last run, and even the fans who didn’t like them will suddenly feel a twinge of nostalgia and respect? Well, absolutely none of that is happening in regards to the Patriots or Belichick. During the national anthem before the Super Bowl, his picture went up on the scoreboard and the crowd booed. Yes, booed during the national anthem.
Less than five hours later, Belichick was holding the Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time as New England’s head coach. In some ways, this was the Patriots’ most impressive season. No, it wasn’t the best Patriots team. But that’s what made their run to the Super Bowl so special. And they don’t look like a team left patching the inevitable holes of a long run that’s coming to an end.
Instead, it looks like the Patriots once again broke the laws of NFL nature. This season will go down as a renaissance year for Belichick and Brady, despite the Week 4 pratfall in Kansas City and all the “Deflategate” stuff, another mark on the mercurial coach’s reputation, alongside Spygate and the flip-flops he wore all week before the Big Game.
I guess it’s only right that those things make up part of Belichick’s legacy. But it’s a small part. What he should be remembered for mostly is his ability to rewrite the script mid-act.
Every story is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning of this Patriots run, Belichick decided to stick with Brady, the sixth-round draft pick, even though franchise QB Bledsoe was healthy and ready to come back. The Patriots won the Super Bowl behind a great defense with Brady simply managing the offense. In the middle, the dynasty years, Brady became the star.
And now, as we reach the end – uh, no. Never mind. Not yet.
That would make me sound nostalgic, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned watching Belichick operate all these years is that he doesn’t get nostalgic. Even Brady knows that if he stops eating kale and gets older, Belichick will dump him. Like Nick Nolte said in North Dallas Forty, the players aren’t the team. They’re the equipment.
It is cold, it is callous, but it is also calculated. Belichick seems to have figured out the math of the salary cap, keeping only a core group of big-dollar players, trading off others for draft picks and rebuilding on the fly.
And somehow developing people out of nowhere. He has a special knack for finding the Malcolm Butlers of the world. Danny Amendola, brought in to replace Wes Welker, caught a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. Another wideout, former college quarterback Julian Edelman, hauled in 9 balls for 109 yards and TD, too.
Belichick doesn’t always hit. But he hits enough. And he also is the king of reclamation projects. This year, he brought back LeGarrette Blount, who managed to screw up enough in Pittsburgh to get cut. A few days later, the Patriots picked him up – maybe it was already all arranged? – and he not only became a stabilizing force in New England’s backfield, but apparently checked his attitude at the door. Just like Corey Dillon or Randy Moss before him.
Belichick really is a mad scientist, able to adapt on the fly like no coach before him. He’s not about overcoming weakness temporarily, but rebuilding around new strengths, looking to grow rather than to survive. Either that, or there’s the deflated-football thing.
I’d get into the future here, but the future seems pretty clear: Belichick will improve his offensive and defensive lines with people we’ve never heard of, and Brady will still be eating rabbit food, and both men will continue to prolong their careers – much to the consternation of critics everywhere. And if something does go wrong, and Brady can’t beat Mother Nature?
Well, the guy backing him up will probably turn out to be the next Aaron Rodgers or Joe Montana or Tom Brady. You remember his name, right?