From the Bleachers: Brady Bests Belichick in ‘Tompa Bay’
I tried to drag the NBA season on as long as possible, but now that we’re four weeks removed from LeBron James’ fourth ring, I think it’s time we move on to a new league (and a new superstar athlete). So let’s talk football.
The NFL season has had its share of hiccups, with the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers’ COVID-19 infested matchup on Thursday night as a prime example. However, it’s run smoothly for the most part, and it’s been a refreshing season with new teams finding themselves in prime playoff position.
The Miami Dolphins were the laughing stock of the NFL last season, but they’re 5-3 this season with an exciting new rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t move the ball to save their lives at the end of last season, finishing with a mediocre eight wins. Halfway through the 2020 season, they’ve already hit that mark with a perfect 8-0 record. The Buffalo Bills were a wild card team last year, but statement victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams have cemented them as the team to beat in the Tom Brady-less AFC East.
Speaking of Brady, who could forget his new team, the Tampa (Tompa) Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were arguably the most irrelevant team in the NFL during the past decade. They were not bad enough to be mocked like the Cleveland Browns or Las Vegas (formerly Oakland) Raiders, but never good enough to make the playoffs or even contend for a bid.
After a rocky start in their first game, the Bucs rattled off six wins in seven games, including a dominant 42-10 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers. Brady threw 17 touchdowns and only one interception from weeks 3 to 8, almost as if he weren’t 43 years old. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and now Antonio Brown on offense, everything was going smoothly.
However, Sunday night dramatically altered the course of Tampa Bay’s season. The Bucs were demolished by the New Orleans Saints by a score of 38-3, marking the worst defeat of Brady’s career in arguably the worst game he’s ever played. Brady threw three interceptions and zero touchdowns, finishing the game with a paltry 40.4 passer rating (39.6 is what a quarterback would receive for simply throwing an incomplete pass every play). The Saints are 6-2 while the Bucs are 6-3, and due to New Orleans owning the tiebreaker, it appears unlikely that the Bucs will win the division.
Tampa Bay is still in line for a wild card spot, and it still has a plethora of weapons on offense to complement one of the league’s best defenses. In addition, the NFC is wide open. Despite the Saints’ success against the Bucs, they still have questions of their own, including the health of the aging Drew Brees. Russell Wilson’s Seahawks and Aaron Rodgers’ Packers are contenders, but both teams have significant defensive weaknesses. And don’t even get me started on the NFC East, which may prove to be the worst single-year division in the history of the NFL.
But as a wild card, the path would be difficult for Tampa Bay. Earning the fifth seed would position them nicely to face the NFC East champion (probably the Philadelphia Eagles) in the first round. However, winning two road games against, say, New Orleans and Seattle, is far from an easy task.
You may be wondering why I’m focusing so much on the Buccaneers as opposed to the brilliance of Wilson and Patrick Mahomes, the Steel Curtain defense or the dark horse MVP status of Kyler Murray and Josh Allen. The reason is that the split of Brady and New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick is arguably the most significant natural experiment in the history of football. Many attribute the success of the Patriots dynasty to Brady, arguing that Belichick has a mediocre track record without his star quarterback. Others swear that Brady would be nothing without New England’s system, crediting the likes of Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Dante Scarnecchia for the team’s titles.
Consider another such example: the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson. Jordan and Jackson won six rings in eight years together, but when Jordan came back to play for the Washington Wizards, his new team didn’t even make the playoffs. Jordan was still stellar in his old age, but he didn’t have the supporting cast or coaching staff to support him. Jackson won five more championships as a coach, but he couldn’t have done so without Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.
While it’s obvious that Brady is an incredible quarterback, I’ve always believed that without New England’s system, he would have had nowhere near the amount of success that he’s had with the Patriots. After all, Brady is great at finding open receivers for quick, accurate passes, not making flashy throws on the run like Mahomes, Rodgers or Wilson. If he didn’t have New England’s system to create open receivers, surely he wouldn’t have been able to succeed.
Yet, at the age of 43, Brady found himself as Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked quarterback and the captain of one of the best teams in the NFC. Belichick, on the other hand, is spearheading a 3-5 dumpster fire of a team that has struggled mightily at quarterback in a way I never thought would happen. With the best defense in the league from a year ago, I expected the Patriots to win the division and prove that multiple quarterbacks could thrive in that system. That hasn’t been the case.
Belichick finished his five-year stint in Cleveland with a .500 record, and he went 5-11 in his first season with New England before Brady took over. The Patriots did cruise to an 11-5 record when Brady missed all of 2008 with a torn ACL, but they have struggled without their former leader this year. Maybe they do need Brady after all.
Tampa Bay is in a better position than New England, but if Sunday night was any indication, it might not be fully smooth sailing for the Bucs going forward. If Brady makes a deep playoff run for a new team at the age of 43, it would be an impressive final chapter on a legacy that is already complete as is. But either way, it’s looking like it takes both great coaching and great quarterbacking to truly form a dynasty.