If then-39-year-old Tom Brady had retired last season after winning a fifth Super Bowl or saw his play fall off a cliff early in this one, or got injured at any point, Bill Belichick was set up for the ultimate mic drop – seamlessly trotting out Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback he plucked out of Eastern Illinois to deliver New England another championship or three. The Patriots’ reign, which began in 2001, would extend into the 2020s.
This was the master plan. Belichick knew Garoppolo was great, and assuming Brady was mortal as he approached 40, knew that the Pats were set up with another precious franchise quarterback … like Joe Montana to Steve Young in San Francisco or Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
Only Tom Brady, stubborn as ever, did what he has done to everyone else in the NFL and blew it up. He did it by staying healthy longer than anyone could have predicted, by playing at an MVP level longer than anyone could have imagined, by being the GOAT. This is a fortuitous way to have long-term strategy rendered moot, but at least Belichick can appreciate what the rest of the NFL feels like when they game plan for Brady. Namely, don’t ever count him out.
ESPN delivered a report Friday about small fissures of discontent inside the Patriots battleship, with speculation that this may be the final season of the Belichick-Brady-Robert Kraft triumvirate that has dominated the league. Palace intrigue is always fun. So are declarations of pending doom. The idea that New England’s dynasty may one day be over (even if it requires a sixth Super Bowl to Foxborough) is like a beacon of hope for non-Pats fans.
No one really knows though.
Maybe the most interesting part was how much hand-wringing and discussion went into the mid-season trade of Garoppolo to San Francisco, where in winning all five of his starts, he proved to be everything Belichick believed he could be. This isn’t a revelation, although the details were. Belichick clearly didn’t want to trade Garoppolo until there was no other choice. Garoppolo was a free agent after this season. There was no way New England could afford to pay both he and Brady and still field a competitive team. One of them had to go.
It wasn’t going to be Brady, and not merely because of his sentimental value or the idea that Kraft wouldn’t allow it. Brady simply wouldn’t allow it.
Back at the University of Michigan, Brady struggled to secure the full-time starting job from a local high school star named Drew Henson. The fact that Henson was both a fan favorite and a highly paid New York Yankees prospect who could bail at any moment held unusual power over the program.
During Brady’s senior season, Michigan employed an unorthodox system. Brady played the first quarter of games, Henson the second and then at halftime the coaching staff decided who should finish. It made no sense. By late October, Brady had so outplayed Henson, the platoon system ended. The Wolverines won their final five games. One of the lessons Brady learned during his second quarters on the bench was simple.
“You never want to see someone else do your job,” Brady said.
In 2001, when Brady became the (temporary) starter due to an injury to Drew Bledsoe, Brady was determined to convince Belichick he should never come off the field. A few months later, he won the Super Bowl. Other than injury or suspension, he’s been the man since.
Nearly every other quarterback has either retired or seen his play regress in his late 30s, let alone Brady’s current 40 years of age. Not Brady though. He’s talking about playing until he’s 44 or 45. Belichick is a bit skeptical. Maybe Brady isn’t as good as he has ever been, as the ESPN story suggests the Patriots internally think, but he’s the favorite to be named the MVP this year and the team is the AFC No. 1 seed after going 13-3. So, yeah.
It’s more than just throwing the ball, too. Just last February, Brady led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, one that required unsurpassed leadership as much as poise and accuracy. Trailing 28-3 to Atlanta, Brady stalked the sideline telling his far younger teammates they could still win if they just believed. The guys did because, well, this was Tom Brady and they had grown up watching him win games just like this.
“When Tom Brady says it, you listen,” said receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who was 8 years old when he watched on television as Brady led a game-winning drive to capture that first Super Bowl.
It was like if an intergalactic war broke out and Luke Skywalker showed up and told you to follow him. They’d seen this movie before.
How do you trade that unique skill? Belichick has always coached via a simple, if heartless axiom – best man plays because yesterday means nothing. As long as Brady was better, then he was better. You might rather have Garoppolo over the next decade of Sundays, but not this Sunday.
So Belichick waited to see if Brady would slip or get injured. Neither happened. Eight weeks into the season, with the trade deadline at hand, ESPN says Belichick and Kraft had a lengthy meeting about what to do. Kraft ordered Garoppolo traded, ESPN said.
The fact Belichick didn’t bother shopping the QB around and got just a second-round pick out of San Francisco showed his heart wasn’t in it. If anything, he wanted to place Garoppolo in the best possible spot, thus increasing the likelihood that he was right all along about the young QB. That would be classic passive-aggressive Belichick.
It would be understandable if, on some level, this was frustrating to Belichick. But that’s just some level. Brady’s health and play are blessings. Belichick is no fool. He appreciates that.
While no one knows what happens after this season, if history offers anything, it’s that there has never been two men in the NFL who wanted to win more than Belichick and Brady. It’s the bond that has created this improbable dynasty.
New England is staring at a playoff field that is light on teams that can reasonably defeat them. They are three victories from a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy – nothing certain, nothing easy, but it’s there for the taking.
The egos and hurt feelings and private frustrations inside the building could all be true. Here’s guessing winning will, once again, remain their sole focus though.