With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, divorced from the Patriots after 20 seasons, the weekly Brady vs. Bill Belichick scoreboard watching has been the most entertaining subplot of the 2020 NFL season.
Belichick took the lead in Week 1. Brady then left Belichick in his dust with six wins in seven weeks while the Patriots dropped four in a row. Belichick clawed back with a couple of wins.
But now both teams are struggling. The Patriots are 4-6 with their playoff chances slim after a loss to the lowly Houston Texans. The Buccaneers have been embarrassed twice on national TV in three weeks, getting blown out by the Saints and losing to the Rams Monday night thanks to two second-half interceptions by Brady. The Bucs are 7-4, but are clinging to the No. 6 NFC playoff seed instead of fighting for No. 1.
The downward fortunes of both teams give us a definitive answer on the Brady vs. Belichick debate, but it’s not going to be a satisfying one:
It’s a tie.
Brady needs Belichick, and Belichick needs Brady.
It was true for 20 years in New England, and even more apparent now that they are apart. Belichick misses Brady’s precision and poise in the two-minute situations. Brady misses Belichick’s strategy, attention to detail, and discipline.
Belichick would probably have won a few Super Bowls without Brady, and the same for Brady without Belichick. But it is increasingly clear that the two were the perfect match for each other.
The Patriots don’t win Super Bowl XXXVI over the Rams without Belichick’s brilliant defensive game plan or Brady’s incredible composure in the final minutes.
They don’t win Super Bowl XLIX over the Seahawks without Brady’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns, or Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception and all of the practice that went into defending that play the previous week.
Brady threw for 505 yards against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII but lost because Belichick’s defense didn’t show up. Brady led the Patriots to just 13 points against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII but won because Belichick’s defense did.
And in 2020, Brady and Belichick look adrift without each other.
Brady has everything he ever wanted in Tampa — the power to bring in his own guys, control over the playbook, a relaxed atmosphere, and the best collection of weapons in the NFL in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski.
Yet the Bucs offense is a jumbled mess right now as Brady works for the first time with head coach Bruce Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, and QB coach Clyde Christensen. Brady has thrown five interceptions in his last three games, and Monday night against the Rams he threw for just 216 yards on 48 pass attempts. Instead of driving down the field for the game-winning score, Brady threw a game-sealing interception.
Brady hasn’t clicked with Evans, whose stats besides touchdowns are down significantly across the board. Brady hasn’t been able to get Brown the ball in open space to take advantage of his speed in their three games together. And Brady hasn’t been able to connect with Gronk on more than one or two jump balls per game.
During Monday’s game, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, an 11-year NFL quarterback, tweeted, “Whatever happens for the rest of this game, the Buccaneers offensive scheme is trash. Stale. Predictable. Stagnant.”
Brady left New England in part because he was tired of Belichick’s ruthless coaching after 20 years. But Brady surely appreciates it more now that he is experiencing life under a less-demanding coach. The Bucs have 25 pre-snap penalties this year, tied for fifth-most. The Patriots have nine, fewest in the league.
But Belichick is also learning that life without Brady isn’t so peachy. No team made fewer mistakes or executed better in crucial moments than the Patriots from 2001-19 with Brady as the point man. In Brady’s era, the Patriots threw 42 fewer interceptions than any other team, and 89 fewer than the league average. Brady also had an NFL-record 45 fourth-quarter comebacks and 58 game-winning drives with the Patriots (including postseason).
But this year, Belichick and the Patriots have come up short time and again in crunch time. Belichick has mismanaged a few end-of-half or end-of-game situations, and has looked out of sorts with Cam Newton, not Brady, leading the offense.
Against Seattle, the Patriots let the clock burn, cost themselves at least one extra play, then got stuffed on the 1-yard line to lose. In the loss to Kansas City, Belichick called his timeouts too quickly at the end of the first half, and was helpless to stop the clock when Brian Hoyer took a last-second sack.
Against Denver, Newton drove the Patriots to the 24-yard line late in the game but stalled there in an 18-12 loss. Against Buffalo, Newton fumbled on the 14-yard line with 31 seconds left in a 24-21 loss. Last Sunday against Houston, Newton again drove to the 24-yard line but stalled in a 27-20 loss.
Brady, the greatest fourth-quarter quarterback in NFL history, would have won most if not all of those games. He would have the Patriots in playoff position instead of floundering at 4-6, even with their deficiencies at receiver and tight end.
But Brady also misses Belichick’s discipline and attention to detail. The Bucs won’t last long in the playoffs if they don’t make drastic improvements, and quickly.
It’s not a satisfying conclusion to the debate. Some may consider it a cop-out. But the scoreboard is definitive after 10 games apart and each team struggling.
It’s a tie. Brady and Belichick need each other.