FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The leaves are mostly off the trees here. It's that time of year again in New England.
A weakening sun and crisp autumn air wash over Gillette Stadium for another practice, another November week of preparation nearly complete. There's another big game against rival Indianapolis coming, another drive through the holidays toward a division crown and perhaps, a push into the playoff cold of January and beyond for the Patriots.
The NFL, they say, often stands for "Not For Long," a league in constant flux. This scene Friday morning, however, remains one of the constants.
There's Bill Belichick walking about, hands stuffed in the pocket of his gray hoodie. There's Tom Brady, loosening up in his No. 12 jersey.
There are the two Patriots icons engaged in their well-worn routine of seeking small improvements and slight advantages; a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a future Hall of Fame coach, 13 seasons together and counting. Both are slugging it out with the same single-minded focus that's generated so much success here.
Same as it ever was.
"It's been great," Belichick said of getting all those seasons with Brady. He was talking as he was walking out to practice. While he isn't a man quickly prone to public sentiment, he understands how special it is to get to work with not just a great player, but perhaps his equal as a competitor.
"It's been awesome," he said. "I've been very lucky."
Sometimes it's happenstance, sometimes it's fate. Sometimes, shared greatness in lifting both parties up and occasionally through the history of the NFL, there is a near perfect marriage of coach and QB.
Lombardi and Starr. Landry and Staubach. Griese and Shula. Noll and Bradshaw. Walsh and Montana. Careers and legacies become so intertwined, it's a challenge to think of one without the other as they won championships and defined eras.
Sunday will be Brady and Belichick's 171st regular-season game together, more than any of the above coaching-quarterback tandems. It appears only Dan Marino and Don Shula (186 together) have combined for more games, a number that should fall next year. Brady and Belichick's 130 victories together are the most since at least the 1970 merger [Shula-Marino had 116 wins].
There are scores of great coaches and great quarterbacks who either never paired up or only did so for a few fleeting seasons.
Sunday's visit from the Colts, the long-standing conference rival of these Patriots, presents a matchup of 6-3 teams. Yet it's a new deal in Indy, with a new star quarterback, another new coach – interim this time. The uniforms and competition remain the same, but everything is different. Even when Peyton Manning was coming all those years, he arrived with three different head coaches.
In New England it's the same two main figures: Belichick and Brady. No other players and only three assistant coaches have been with the team all that time. This, along with owner Bob Kraft, is the dynasty.
It's something young players who grew up watching them win together realize the moment they arrive here in Foxborough.
"Walking into an organization like this, being a rookie, you definitely don't want to make any mistakes [because] you don't want to piss those guys off," New England defensive end Chandler Jones said of Belichick and Brady.
It's the dual commitment to chasing perfection that's dominated the culture of this franchise. They are completely different people: one a coaching lifer, the other the definition of California cool. One forever fashion conscious, the other most comfortable in old sweatshirts. One often gruff, the other unfailingly polite.
"There are similarities," Jones said. "They are both leaders, they lead by example."
"They work so well together," said Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett.
As the seasons have gone on, as success and failure have been experienced, Belichick said he still marvels at Brady's drive. The QB has never stopped acting like that sixth-round pick who few thought would last in the NFL. It's about everything Belichick ever wanted in a player, and everything any great teacher wants out of a talented student. He's had other great ones, including 10 years with Lawrence Taylor when Belichick was a New York Giants assistant. None are quite like Brady, though.
"I can't imagine anybody being any better than Tom in terms of wanting to learn and understand more about the game, his position or anything that relates to his position, decision making, game management, time management," Belichick said. "He's exceptional at learning those things and applying them in game conditions. And taking them to another level of building on whatever you are teaching.
"Every year he has the same quest for knowledge and tries to build upon an already expanded base of knowledge," Belichick said. "Which is really impressive [because] it's not like he has all the answers, he just never stops working."
They meet two or three times a week formally, and maybe a few other times informally, Belichick said. Anytime anything needs to be discussed, Brady knows he can go find his coach.
"If Tom wants to talk to me about something, we talk about it," Belichick said.
Belichick didn't really answer though when asked, if after all these meetings and all these seasons they had developed something of a friendship. Brady didn't even want to be interviewed on this subject.
It's obviously still about boss and employee at this point.
"It's a player-coach relationship," Mallett said. "Bill corrects him like he corrects everybody else."
Maybe that's why the marriage works like few others ever have. Through all the battles each knows his role.
As time passes and these autumns come and go, there is the obvious realization that nothing lasts forever, that careers end and windows close, sometimes quicker than anyone ever imagined. Brady is 35, Belichick is 60.
So here on another perfect New England day of preparing for another highly-anticipated game against an old rival, with another run at what's proven to be an elusive fourth Super Bowl, it's worth taking a moment to marvel at something that's become extraordinary because it's so ordinary.
There's Bill Belichick. And there's Tom Brady. Always.
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