With the Bills’ loss to the Colts on Sunday, the AFC East is far more of a coin flip between Buffalo and New England than the runaway it appeared to be at the beginning of the season. According to statistical FiveThirtyEight, the Patriots have a 49% chance of winning the division right now, with two games against the Bills remaining (not to mention games against the Dolphins and a lowly Jaguars team that upset the Bills a few weeks back).
If the Patriots end up stunning the majority of us and winning the division (colleague Jenny Vrentas picked the Patriots to win the division before the season, so not all of us would be blindsided), it’s an interesting exercise to wonder what is more impressive: Bill Belichick, just a year after losing Tom Brady, retooling his roster on the fly via free agency, starting a rookie quarterback drafted fifth among his positional peers and beating a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the divisional crown; or Brady, venturing out on his own, joining a loaded but unfamiliar team during the pandemic and leading the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in his first year with the team?
At first glance it seems obvious, no? Brady’s journey to Tampa Bay cemented his legacy as the greatest football player of all time, not that there was much of an argument beforehand. His association with Belichick complicated the discussion, obviously, because we could never be sure how much of the quarterback’s legendary, thorough preparation and offensive mastery could be credited to Brady alone and how much of it was guided by the hand of Belichick. After the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl win, it felt like we collectively turned on Belichick, labeling him as the beneficiary of a 20-year marriage with Brady and couching his future attempts at success as nothing more than the flailings of an exposed ball coach (in this day and age of no gray area, it was impossible for many of us to accept that both needed each other to function at their peaks).
But if New England wins the division this year with rookie quarterback Mac Jones under center, wouldn’t the argument morph a little? At the very least, should we, as a collective football society, trend back toward the middle on who should receive the most credit for the Patriots’ dynasty? When considering all of the complementary pieces the Patriots are trotting out, wouldn’t an AFC East title in 2021 seem almost as impressive, if not as impressive as a superteam Super Bowl victory?
Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels have not gotten nearly the praise they deserve for their masterly development of Jones. While the rest of the NFL surged up the draft board for tools-first quarterbacks, New England sat at its No. 15 spot and plucked a player who was generously timed in the 4.8 range for his 40-yard dash and would need to operate the classic, Erhardt-Perkins system exclusively from the pocket. Jones, through Sunday’s games, was 12th in EPA+CPOE composite (a stat that combines expected points added per snap and completion percentage above expectation), one of the more efficient ways to judge the totality of a quarterback’s work. He is ahead of Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield. Jones is 19th in total quarterback rating, still putting him ahead of Wilson, Joe Burrow and all of his fellow rookie quarterbacks. He is roughly even money with Ja’Marr Chase for Rookie of the Year honors at the moment.
In addition, the Patriots had to fill about half of their starting spots via free agency or the draft this year. They also dealt Stephon Gilmore, recently believed to be among the best defensive players in the NFL.
Belichick is not deviating from his process, desiring to rebuild a faceless, egalitarian roster from the ground up with little fanfare, all while dealing with the overarching idea that he somehow made a mistake by mistreating or jettisoning Brady, which would have demolished lesser coaches on the free-agent recruiting market. He was still able to piece together a roster, largely of free agents who had options. He signed Cam Newton a year ago, in part, to protect a younger quarterback from enduring the I-replaced-Tom-Brady onslaught, clearing the deck for Jones to operate with a diminished level of that burden. All of this is expert team-building, just a year after the greatest player in franchise history left town.
This is not to take away from what Brady accomplished. While we jokingly label Tampa Bay a superteam, we’ve seen how difficult a time other clubs have had incorporating a smattering of disjointed, big-name stars. Baking in Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette, among others, the way that Brady did, while still efficiently feeding Chris Godwin and Mike Evans with a hefty share of deep balls, could not have been done by any other quarterback in the NFL (Matt Stafford will be an interesting test case in the coming weeks). Brady’s ability to take the best of Bruce Arians’s offense and meld it with what he created in New England was far less noticeably clunky than, say, Peyton Manning’s acclimation to Gary Kubiak’s offense on the Broncos. Brady was a galvanizing force on a Super Bowl team that, while having the benefit of arguably two of the best 10 receivers in the NFL, a top-five offensive line, the best defensive coordinator in the NFL and a generational Super Bowl game plan, required his finesse to tie it all together.
All that said, what if, like last year was our year to realize how incredibly unique and special Brady was, then this is our year to realize the same about Belichick? We understand some of you are scoffing at the idea that either party needed an additional opportunity to have his brilliance recognized. But the Patriots’ loss to the Bucs in October was laughably couched as an answer to our ultimate Brady or Belichick question, and not as it should have been: Wow, this team is getting competitive with the best of the NFL rather quickly.
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Belichick, of all people, would never compare a divisional title to a Super Bowl victory. It is safe to say most Patriots fans, now conditioned for only the finest things in life, wouldn’t care much for that, either. Sometimes, though, it is useful to consider the team’s foundation, how it had broken down and the speed with which it has been repaired as part of the total conversation.
Ideally, we would all accept the middle. We were fortunate to watch two of the best minds in the sport’s history operate within the same orbit for two decades. We could settle, though, for a greater awareness of what the Patriots are accomplishing right now and what it would mean for Belichick to venture out on his own, too.
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