Tom Brady or Bill Belichick? We finally get to find out who needed the other more

For so many seasons and titles and two dynastic decades, it stood as the great water cooler debate that we’d never really be able to resolve.

Tom vs. Bill.

Brady vs. Belichick.

In the grand scheme of lasting success, did the head coach or the quarterback deserve the most credit? Who needed who the most? And if you ever split Tom Brady and Bill Belichick apart for a sustained period, would one tank while the other thrived?

It has been a lively debate for a long, long time, with the answer about as easy as figuring out where a perfect circle begins and ends. Maybe the only simple part of the argument was the ability to come to one fundamental agreement: It was an exercise in futility, because surely there was no way we’d ever see the two Patriots greats diverge and still remain in the NFL. There was no way Brady was ever leaving New England and Belichick, so what was the point of arguing about measuring the two against each other?

And yet, here we are. About to get a small window into the seemingly impossible scenario: If Tom Brady and Bill Belichick ever split after so many years of success, which one would be left more exposed without the other?

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are leaving each other, and soon we'll see who needed the other more. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are leaving each other, and soon we'll see who needed the other more. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Relishing the Brady vs. Belichick debate

In a still-incomprehensible split, we’re about to find out. Brady is going to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Belichick is going to retool in New England. And for the next season or two, the NFL world will watch in fascination to see if two cornerstones of a dynasty can both hold up when they’re separated from each other.

Brady will be coached by a swaggering Bruce Arians and be about as far removed from the steel curtain of the Patriots system as you can get. On the flip side, Belichick is going to head back into an abyss without the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Nothing like his Cleveland Browns days, of course, but a little closer to that era than he was just a week ago.

For Brady, the measure may be only one or two seasons. For Belichick, it’s bound to extend a little longer. Nothing like the impressive 2008 foray, when the Patriots lost Brady for the season in Week 1, but still had two elite level receivers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker to help Matt Cassel thrive. Belichick will be working with considerably less offensive talent this time around. And Brady won’t be on his bench or in his meeting rooms. Instead, he’ll be down in Florida engineering the final years of his Hall of Fame career his way.

And don’t kid yourself. We won’t be able to resist going to the scoreboard between Brady and Belichick each week — looking at them like two exes who are trying to move on and live their best lives without each other. It’s going to be a soap opera storyline that the NFL lives for. Lest anyone have doubts about that, it took the social media peanut gallery about 10 seconds to point to the 2021 NFL schedule, which includes the Buccaneers being slated to play a game in New England. That’s how crazy this is going to be. People are already drooling about a game two seasons away.

If that’s not enough, you only needed to hit the phones of coaches or personnel men across the league on Tuesday and pose a question about which Patriots icon would miss the other one more in 2020. Most everyone had an opinion. You could see it in the text messages from guys who have either faced Brady and Belichick or spent some time alongside them in New England, most sliding into opposing trenches that felt very familiar to the debates rippling through the soup of never-ending media content.

The case for Tom Brady

“Brady wins this one hands down,” one longtime NFL coach said. “That [quarterback] position is by far the game-changer. A great coach can take you a long ways, but it’s a great player’s league.”

This was a coach with decades of NFL experience, including low-level assistant jobs, coordinator spots and two head coaching stints. A guy who oversaw all manner of quarterbacks during his career operating on the offensive side of the ball, from journeymen to All-Pros. Someone willing to go against the most accomplished mind in the head coaching fraternity, albeit anonymously, and say that sometimes the engine is the Hall of Fame quarterback and not the Hall of Fame head coach.

One longtime NFL coach thinks Bill Belichick needed Tom Brady more than Brady needed Belichick — "hands down." (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
One longtime NFL coach thinks Bill Belichick needed Tom Brady more than Brady needed Belichick — "hands down." (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

This particular coach wasn’t alone.

A few others pointed to Brady representing the most special quarterback in NFL history — who carved out his place with a sometimes-average array of skill position and offensive line talent. One coach noted that while Brady is most often compared to Joe Montana, that comparison is usually made without factoring in Montana’s luxury of six seasons of Jerry Rice, along with an offensive cast that (thanks to a lack of free agency) turned over only when head coach Bill Walsh commanded it.

But Brady? He dealt with a fairly consistent string of attrition, sometimes because of how Belichick valued offensive skill position players and sometimes because the Patriots’ system was adept at moving parts in and out to change the team’s identity.

The case for Bill Belichick

Of course, Belichick has his pockets of support in this debate, too. His methodical approach to roster building and valuing players for their scheme-specific fits completely reshaped a collapsed Patriots franchise. He also has something Brady doesn’t in the NFL: an impressive Patriots win-loss record without the help of his generational companion.

A handful of personnel men who previously worked on Belichick teams drew a familiar line to the aforementioned 2008 season, when Belichick lost Brady early but managed an absurdly impressive 11-5 finish with Cassel at quarterback. In one of NFL history’s lost opportunities, that Patriots team didn’t qualify for the postseason, leaving us to wonder what could have been.

And there’s also the 2016 season, when Brady was suspended the first four games, leaving Belichick to masterfully guide New England to a 3-0 start with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett splitting time. These are instances that come up often in this “who would be king” debate, because they can be distilled pretty quickly.

Still time to add to legacies and legends

“The easy answer is Bill Belichick because he went 11-5 with Cassel — but I think [it’s] Tom Brady,” said a longtime personnel man who was an evaluator in New England. “If it were the Kentucky Derby, it would be a photo finish. I think they’re both GOATs at what they do.”

That much has been undeniable. Brady and Belichick are both historically great at what they do. Or more accurately, what they did together. Those days are over, and the photo finish won’t be the New England finish.

That’s going to play out separately, with two behemoths trying to leave one more lasting NFL footprint that has nothing to do with the other. And trailing right behind that effort will be the rest of us, calculating the results of one last round in a great debate.

A month ago, the argument of “who needs who more” seemed as unsolvable as Brady and Belichick were inseparable.

Not anymore. Tom vs. Bill is more measurable than ever before. And we can’t get to it fast enough.

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