It was the emotion of it, really. Tom Brady trotted off the field toward Bill Belichick. Quarterback and coach. Fifteen years together. Four years of an NFL dynasty followed by all these years of almost. And Spygate. And 18-1. They are going to get one more chance.
New England was in the final minutes of coldly blowing out Indianapolis 45-7 in the AFC championship game, emphatically securing yet another spot in the Super Bowl. Belichick threw his arms in the air and they hugged each other excitedly while Brady patted his coach on the side. The lovefest lasted a good, say, six-tenths of a second. And then they walked off. Both of them. That was about as long as they could make the warm feelings last.
In the NFL, a coach and a QB are intrinsically linked. Belichick and Brady are perhaps the best example of this in league history. They have raised each other. Before Brady came along, Belichick was the idiot who kept losing in Cleveland. Before Belichick, Brady was a sixth-round draft choice relegated to mop-up duty in the pros.
Theirs is a relationship that has endured time and trial; what’s stunning, though, is just how passionless it is. Perhaps that’s the secret to its longevity. You’d think there would be some feeling here, other than respect and accountability – an understanding, a kismet. But no. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brady and Belichick don’t even exchange Christmas cards. And come to think of it, what difference does it make?
Before Sunday’s game, Boomer Esiason said on CBS that he had asked Brady if Belichick had lightened up in recent years. Brady told him that no, he had gotten worse. And Brady’s dad, Tom Sr., told the NFL Network that “If Bill Belichick doesn’t want him anymore, then Bill Belichick will get rid of him.”
And remember when Belichick was asked to compare Brady and Aaron Rodgers? “They both wear No. 12,” he said.
It’s not like. It’s not dislike. It’s six Super Bowls. It’s business as usual.
I guess that works for Belichick. We’ve seen his lack of personality for years, all the way down to his plain hoodie. He was the Darth Vader of the NFL a decade ago, after having won three Super Bowls in four years, all with Brady. In doing so, he also made the Patriots about as unlikeable as possible. Then Belichick got caught spying and the Patriots kept losing Super Bowls. It was actually very satisfying for plenty of people. New England had lost a step.
In college football, the best equivalent to Belichick is Alabama coach Nick Saban, running a dynasty without a personality. This year, Saban, who had finally lost a little, became not-totally-unlikable. Kind of. It was the vulnerability, I guess.
Ten years without a Super Bowl win has not lead to the same transformation in Belichick. Although we now have an amazing picture of him dressed as a pirate on Halloween, the truth is, we have no idea what is going on in his brain. It just seems that at least one lobe is functioning at a higher level and at least one has the lights turned off completely.
On Sunday in the AFC championship, the Patriots looked like their old mechanical selves. They used to beat up on the Colts and Peyton Manning, and here they were doing it again, only to Andrew Luck. They just kept scoring and scoring. It seemed as if Brady completed every third down pass. It was in stark contrast to the thrilling game everyone watched right before, when Seattle rallied to beat Green Bay in overtime. That game was hot. Patriots-Colts was ice cold.
It was exactly how New England liked it. And, after coming up short in the past two AFC championship games, losing several key players and going soft on defense, the Patriots are back where they seemingly belong: In the Super Bowl. It’s hard to know whether to credit Brady or Belichick for this. Both, probably. They function as one.
Most people would probably say that Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were the greatest combo in NFL history. Walsh is considered a genius that revolutionized offense and Montana is generally considered the best quarterback ever. But they built those legacies for each other.
Walsh arrived in San Francisco the same year the 49ers drafted Montana. They lost together briefly before going on to win three Super Bowls. Tom Landry wasn’t winning in Dallas until Roger Staubach arrived, and Chuck Noll lost in Pittsburgh before Terry Bradshaw started to figure things out.
But you don’t really have to look at history. A coach’s reputation is entirely tied to his quarterback. If Colin Kaepernick hadn’t regressed, it’s entirely possible Jim Harbaugh would still be in San Francisco today. In Chicago, the good Jay Cutler turned Marc Trestman into an offensive genius. The bad Jay Cutler cost him his job.
Brady is 37 now, and won’t have many years left. This could be his last chance to win his fourth Super Bowl with Belichick. Brady’s dad is probably right that when the moment comes, Belichick will just discard Brady. It would just be so fitting.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if Brady shakes Belichick’s hand when it’s over. But don’t be surprised if he doesn’t.