A coach is only as good as his players. We hear that all the time, even from coaches with sincerity issues, those who, deep down, are pretty sure it’s the other way around.
If there’s one man whose career has challenged the idea that players make the coach, it’s Bill Belichick. He has made lots of athletes better than they had any right to be. He has tilted his head and seen things in them that other coaches couldn’t. If the impassive one is capable of delight, he has delighted in championing underdogs, then taking them to a championship.
But the person he has traveled the farthest with brings us to the question of who makes whom, the coach or the player. Did Belichick make Tom Brady great? Or is Belichick what he is today because of Brady?
I’ll take Brady for six Super Bowl titles, Alex.
When Belichick and the Patriots took Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, it turned out to be a massive steal, one of the greatest moves in NFL history. Belichick surprised some people when starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe returned from injury late in the 2001 season and couldn’t get his job back from Brady. Over the years, though, the student eventually passed the coach in terms of significance.
With Brady as a starter, Belichick’s record in New England was 224-77 (74.4 percent). Without him, his record was 13-6 (68.4 percent). With Brady, Belichick won those six Super Bowls. Without him, including his five seasons as the Browns’ head coach, he won zero.
That’s why the 2020 season (if it happens) will be so intriguing. With Brady signing with Tampa Bay last week, ending his 20-year association with the Patriots, we might get a better insight of who helped whom more. There will have to be some context involved. Belichick will start a quarterback, still undecided, who will be decidedly less talented than Brady. Brady, at 42, isn’t the same quarterback he was even five years ago, and he’ll be playing in another system for the first time in his career. Both men figure to have their share of awkward moments this season.
But we should get some answers.
Most of the time, we already know the answer — it’s the player, stupid. Former Bulls coach Phil Jackson became legendary because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Yes, Phil certainly was good at melding personalities and getting players to see the larger goal, but when two of the personalities and players are Jordan and Bryant, life is so much easier. He might not tell you that, but it’s true.
Mike Ditka had it good with the 1985 Bears. When you have three future Hall of Famers (Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent) on defense, you’re going to win a lot of games.
The Brady-Belichick debate isn’t nearly as one-sided in favor of Brady as Jordan-Jackson is in favor of MJ. It’s true that Belichick hasn’t won a Super Bowl without Brady. But when the Patriots beat the heavily favored Rams for the title in 2001, Brady was in his second season in the league. He wasn’t Tom Brady yet. New England’s defense, designed by Belichick, brought the Rams’ offense, “The Greatest Show on Turf,’’ to a halt. It was a spectacular piece of coaching by the man with the eternally pained expression on his face, the one that suggests, “I’ve been blocked up for days.”
And when Brady was injured in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, the Patriots ended up winning 11 games. To be specific, Belichick won 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback. That’s kind of like winning the Super Bowl.
So it’s not an obvious touchdown celebration for Brady in this debate.
But the clincher is the dearth of stars Brady has had at his disposal. There was tight end Rob Gronkowski for nine years and wide receiver Randy Moss for three-plus seasons and . . . efforting here . . . somebody help me out . . . hardly anyone else heading for the Hall of Fame. Brady lifted up everyone around him, even players who weighed a ton. That says more about him than any of his numbers, which are incredible.
Belichick has done the same on the defensive side with his brilliant scheming. You get the feeling he could turn an Uber driver into an excellent strong safety.
Other than one exception, it feels as if Belichick has made all his players better instead of the other way around.
Ah, but that one exception.