John Feinstein Blog: Be Appreciative Of The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Era

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(Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

(Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Sunday afternoon in the AFC championship game. The Broncos are playing at home, they NEED to win — or, more accurately Peyton Manning NEEDS to win — and they are probably the better team.

If that happens much of the football world will point out that the Patriots have not won a Super Bowl in nine years and that they are one year closer to the end of The Tom Brady era, which might also mark the end of the Bill Belichick era. The losses will be analyzed and a conclusion, that may very well be accurate, will be reached: the best days of Brady and Belichick are behind them.

All of which will entirely miss the point.

Belichick has many detractors because of his public persona: dour, humorless, unwilling to share very many real insights, paranoid. To be fair, there isn’t an NFL coach who isn’t the latter two. Most — if not all — act as if they are protecting national security secrets when they talk about their team. If there is one circle the NSA probably can’t crack it is the secret society that is the NFL.

Belichick takes it to another level. He is so famous for his lack of humor that The Wall Street Journal actually counted the number of times he smiled during press conferences this season: seven. And that’s with a team that is 13-4.

If Belichick were a hail fellow well met ala Rex Ryan or even John Harbaugh — who smiles frequently while not giving any true insights in his press conference answers — a lot less people would want to find ways to cast aspersions on his coaching record.

What you hear most often about Belichick from detractors is this: how good a coach was he before Tom Brady became his quarterback?

The answer is this: not as good. Then again, how good would Bill Walsh have been without Joe Montana? How good would Don Shula have been without Bob Griese or Dan Marino? (Shula, for the record, never won another Super Bowl after going back-to-back in VII and VIII — seven and eight in English) How about Lombardi without Starr?

Great coaches in any sport, when they’re being honest, will tell you that there are three keys to success in coaching:

1. Great players.
2. Great players
3. Great players

Of course if you’re going to be fair to Belichick — something many people are loathe to do — he went 11-5 in 2008 when Brady was injured in the opening game and Matt Cassel was his quarterback for the rest of the season. You can bet the rest of the AFC breathed a sigh of relief when the Cassel-led Patriots somehow didn’t qualify for the playoffs that season.

Brady was a sixth-round draft pick — the 199th player chosen in the 2000 NFL draft. He was, basically, an afterthought, chosen in case someone got hurt that season. He began training camp No. 4 on the depth chart behind Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz and Michael Bishop. By the end of that season he was Bledsoe’s backup and when Bledsoe was hurt in the second game of the 2001 season, he became the starter. We all know what happened after that.

Like Belichick, Brady is not the most popular guy in the NFL. Part of it — as Joe Namath referenced this week — is because women swoon at the sight of him and he is married to a super-model after having had a child with a different super-model. Simple jealousy.

Also like Belichick, Brady rarely shares his real feelings in public. He is close-to-the-vest and often comes across as arrogant. He DOES show his feelings on the football field and he’s often criticized for THAT, especially when he makes it clear to a teammate that he isn’t happy with a particular play or with a mistake.

Of course Belichick and Brady don’t really care whether they are liked or disliked. If they did, both are bright enough to change their act and they have no interest in doing that. Their only interest is in continuing to win — which they’ve done with remarkable consistency. No doubt both would like to have another crack at The Super Bowl and both would like to have the two losses to the Giants in the ultimate game back.

But when you talk about dynasties in today’s day and age, you can’t not talk about the Patriots and Belichick and Brady. Sunday will be the 9th time in the last 13 seasons that the Patriots have played in a conference title game. It is a sports cliché that all you can hope for in any season is to be in position to win. The Patriots have been in that position almost every year in the Belichick-Brady era, missing the playoffs twice — once in that 11-5 Cassel season — since Brady became the starting quarterback.

Could they have gone to more than five Super Bowls and won more than three? Perhaps. But very few dynasties — with the exceptions of UCLA which won the national title 10 times in 11 Final Four trips and the Celtics who won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons — win all the time. Even Lombardi lost his first championship game. Mike Krzyzewski is 4-4 in national title games and Dean Smith won twice in 11 Final Four trips. The Atlanta Braves went to postseason 14 straight times — and won one World Series.

And, of course, the Buffalo Bills went to four straight Super Bowls and never won.

The Bills became a punch line — which was entirely unfair. When Marv Levy, their coach was asked once about losing four straight Super Bowls he said, “You know how you avoid that? Don’t MAKE four straight Super Bowls.”

His point was well-taken. The Bills were very good but never very lucky. No one thinks of them as a dynasty, but in their own way, they were.

And the Patriots are too — more so of course because they have three Lombardi Trophies sitting in their headquarters.

UCLA and the Celtics were dominant in very different times than what exists today. UCLA and John Wooden never had to leave the west to play in a regional and won one of its titles on its home court at Pauley Pavilion. The Celtics of Auerbach and Russell won in what was a nine-team league for most of their run, a 12-team league in 1969.That’s not to detract from what either did but winning the whole thing was easier then. There are 32 NFL teams now. There is also a salary cap and free agency — a very different world.

Through all that the one certainty in the NFL most years is the Patriots being in the conversation well into January. They may not make it to February this season. People may not like Belichick and Brady very much.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate and enjoy what they have accomplished.

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