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Turns out, not even Bill Belichick can beat Tom Brady

John Romano | With six Super Bowl titles together, there’s enough credit to go around. But Brady’s success in Tampa Bay gives him history’s upper hand against his old coach.
No owner, player and coach combo have had as much success in the modern NFL than Bob Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Sadly, for New England, it could not last forever.
No owner, player and coach combo have had as much success in the modern NFL than Bob Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Sadly, for New England, it could not last forever. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | Associated Press (2017) ]
Published Jan. 29, 2021
Updated Jan. 29, 2021

TAMPA — In case you haven’t noticed, this is no mere Super Bowl we are about to embark on. It’s more like an opera with referees. There’s a leading man, a shadowy villain, a spurned populace and enough intrigue to choke a baritone.

You have Tom Brady seeking vindication and Bill Belichick hoping for a historical rewrite. You have New England fans feigning vicarious joy but leaning toward spite. You have fans in Tampa Bay hoping the whims of karma are finally blowing in their direction.

Every Super Bowl has its share of story lines, but rarely do they delve so deeply into questions of loyalty, legacy and comeuppance. This is Brady’s 10th trip to the big game and, in some ways, his most significant.

After all these years, did you think he was a product of Belichick’s evil genius routine in New England?

Think again.

The Patriots were 7-9 this season and Brady is in the Super Bowl with a team that had been a punchline for 12 years running. Whether the Bucs beat the Chiefs or not, Brady has already won. He didn’t just succeed in his prime in New England, he’s switched teams during a pandemic and reached the Super Bowl at an age when 99.9 percent of quarterbacks are holding microphones or riding in golf carts.

Related: Giant defeats to giant rallies: ranking Tom Brady’s Super Bowl performances

He didn’t just prove that he could still play at an elite level at 43, he proved that his magic transcended any one coach, huddle or locker room. It’s not just the number of rings, but the total package.

And where does all of that leave Belichick?

Probably wishing he had done things differently. Belichick has had worse records, but never a worse season. His team was crappy, his quarterback was worse and his legacy just got sideswiped. Belichick is still a legend and a future Hall of Famer, but there is no way his story is written without a snarky chapter about the Brady divorce.

It’s true, the Patriots did not have as much talent as the Bucs in 2020 and it’s hard to imagine Brady would have made a huge difference if he had stuck around, but his departure only intensified the debate over who was more responsible for the New England dynasty.

It's safe to say this wasn't the greatest of seasons for New England and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
It's safe to say this wasn't the greatest of seasons for New England and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. [ CHARLES KRUPA | Associated Press ]

The 49ers won a Super Bowl two years after Joe Montana left. Bill Parcells won Super Bowls with both Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler running the offense. Joe Gibbs won with three different quarterbacks.

But Belichick? At this point, his resume is tied to a certain dimple-chinned quarterback. And Brady has to be savoring every blessed moment because, evidence suggests, it was Belichick who put it all in motion.

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The coach had been preparing for Brady’s retirement as far back as 2014 when New England drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round. By 2017, Brady was 40 and Garoppolo’s rookie contract was nearing its end. Keeping both quarterbacks going forward was going to be tricky with the salary cap, and perhaps messy in the locker room.

Related: Five matchups that will decide Super Bowl 55

In their book 12 Tom Brady and His Battle for Redemption, investigative reporters Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge wrote that when 49ers general manager John Lynch inquired about trading for Garoppolo, Belichick offered Brady instead. According to the book, Patriots owner Bob Kraft nixed the deal and a chastened Belichick essentially gave Garoppolo away for a second-round draft pick.

It didn’t take long for word to get back to Brady and, even after winning another Super Bowl with Belichick, he had no qualms about leaving New England when he became a free agent in 2020. By that time, Belichick must have assumed he was in the clear. What are the odds that a 43-year-old quarterback — even one of the all-time greats — could play into February and haunt your world?

Turns out, Belichick failed to learn what other coaches have known for years:

The fourth quarter belongs to Brady.

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with offensive tackle Donovan Smith during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with offensive tackle Donovan Smith during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Teams do not often toss Super Bowl-quality quarterbacks aside. At least not smart teams. Of the 54 previous Super Bowls, the winning team had drafted its quarterback nearly 76 percent of the time. So while you might occasionally find a Len Dawson, Johnny Unitas or Brad Johnson on the open market, the odds are pretty extreme.

The Bucs know this as well as anyone. If there was one factoid that defined the first 25 years of the franchise it was that Tampa Bay had drafted three quarterbacks (Doug Williams, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer) who had gone on to win Super Bowls elsewhere. No other team has given away so many potential Lombardi trophies.

In a way, that makes this game a chance for spiritual payback in Tampa Bay, while at the same time it must feel like the final cost of 20 years of overindulgence in New England.

Related: If he loses Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes can’t catch Tom Brady, Tony Romo says

As a kid who grew up near San Francisco watching Montana win Super Bowls with the 49ers before leaving for Kansas City, I asked Brady if he would be happy or sad to see Tom Brady in the Super Bowl if he was a Patriots fan.

“I had an incredible 20 years,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything over the course of 20 years that were magical, and all the relationships I developed. Those shaped me into who I am as a person, as a player. My kids were born in Boston. I have great affection for the city and everything that Boston has meant to me and my family.”

This was Brady avoiding a question and taking the high road, while seemingly offering a winking clue.

This isn’t a Super Bowl, it is a morality play.

And Tom Brady always wins.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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