It’s a debate that probably makes New England Patriots fans a little uncomfortable—who wants to be in a position of arguing against either one of these guys? But that’s what makes it all the more fun—in the world of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, which one matters more to the Patriots’ extraordinary run of success?
Those that argue for Brady can point out that Belichick was a mostly unsuccessful head coach in the NFL prior to the Golden Boy’s emergence in 2001. Belichick coached five years in Cleveland (1991-95) and another year in New England (2000) with just one winning season in the pre-Brady years.
Those that argue for Belichick have ammunition of their own—when the Golden Boy was injured early in the 2008 season opener and the team was forced to go with Matt Cassel, the Patriots still went 11-5. And just this season, the Pats managed a 3-1 record with Brady on suspension in September. That’s 14-6, or a 70% win rate for the head coach with quarterbacks other than Brady.
I’m one who believes what appears to now be a consensus view that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time. I was leaning that way prior to this year’s Super Bowl, though I was still sympathetic to the cases of John Elway, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning (I’m not one who believes you measure one player on a 53-man squad by the rings he’s won). Any of those lingering doubts were eliminated when Brady took a team without Rob Gronkowski and still rolled through to a Lombardi Trophy.
Conversely, I don’t share an emerging view that places Belichick atop the list of all-time coaches. I still look at what Joe Gibbs did in the 1980s—winning three Super Bowls with different starting quarterbacks (and winning his 1987 title with a QB controversy) and doing it in an extremely powerful NFC that had Bill Walsh, Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells all riding high.
And speaking of Walsh, he merely changed the game with his West Coast offense and the slew of assistant coaches who would go on to become highly successful head coaches. Walsh is simply the most influential football person of my lifetime.
So if Brady is atop the all-time QB list and Belichick no higher than third on the coaches’ list, doesn’t that settle the issue for Brady? Not so fast.
Football is, at heart, a coach’s game. The wide variety of moving parts are unlike any other sport. The ability of coaching creativity to overcome a talent gap is much greater in football. And in a league like the NFL, that has mastered parity, coaching is absolutely paramount. Not just in the regular Xs and Os of a game, but in identifying players who can fill a role.
For example, I think it safe to say Bill Belichick is the only person in America who saw a Penn State lacrosse player in Chris Hogan and a Wisconsin running back named James White and envisioned players who would be on the receiving end of many of Brady’s passes—not just in the Super Bowl, but through much of the year.
That’s what a coach can do in the NFL. If given the choice between a great head coach and a great quarterback, I’ll always take the coach.