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Tom Brady took the Patriot Way to Tampa — then put an asterisk on Bill Belichick’s legacy

·NFL columnist
·8 min read
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As Tom Brady’s celebratory night in Raymond James Stadium drew to a close after the most definitive Super Bowl win in his career, he perched in front of a camera for his news conference. As he navigated questions, his eyes occasionally wandered beyond the screen and connected with teammates passing by. And in a moment that would ripple across social media, Brady caught tight end Rob Gronkowski in his line of sight and called out to the player who will be inextricably linked to his GOAT resume.

“Robby-G!” Brady called out. “Robby-G!”

Brady gave a double wink into the distance, then grinned and pointed.

“Congrats, baby,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”

Brady punctuated the exchange with a little fist-pump and another double wink, delivering a live-streamed gif of telling satisfaction.

You’ll never convince me that the moment didn’t have something to do with Bill Belichick. Just like you’ll never convince me that Brady and Gronkowski don’t feel some fashion of significant vindication having departed the regimented discipline of the New England Patriots looking for the fun in football again. Both determined to prove that joy and winning are not binary, and that both can be embraced at the same time.

That pursuit brought together Brady and Gronkowski in Tampa Bay, and willed this entire 2020 endeavor into existence. Starting with Brady’s insistence that joy inside a football season can be a journey as well as a destination.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 07: Tom Brady #12 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrate winning Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium on February 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
It was just like old times for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, who teamed up on two touchdowns in Tampa's blowout victory against Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

And as we saw Sunday night, Brady proved he was right — the Patriot Way can be transplanted and augmented. It turns out that an NFL team can be disciplined, confident, hard-working and still wield an ongoing sense of enjoyment during the process, even when the plan isn’t perfectly functioning. For at least one season, the Buccaneers, Brady and Gronkowski proved the concept of having it all isn’t a fool’s pursuit. It’s admirable and achievable. And it apparently doesn’t require Bill Belichick to bring it into fruition.

For those who want to resist the very popular and ongoing tale of the tape between Brady and Belichick, I get it. Not everything in professional football should be about taking sides. Especially when the tandem achievements of the best quarterback and coach in NFL history will likely stand the test of time and turn back all challengers — including even Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. For many people, and maybe even many Patriots fans, it will be enough to look at the totality of the New England dynasty and appreciate it for what it was: An enduring gift of greatness that could never be diminished by anything that came after it.

Of course, not everyone is going to feel that way. Fandom and football history is simply too greedy not to wonder what could have been. Particularly when there are Super Bowl rings involved.

And in that vein, there is suddenly no doubting that Belichick has been unceremoniously entered into a sub-category of the Patriots Way that until 2020 had plagued only the assistant coaches and players who left the womb supported by the GOATs of coaching and quarterbacking. And that sub-category is this: Many achieved championship greatness inside the New England culture, but almost none replicated that greatness without Belichick and Brady. Players and coaches would win, leave, get paid in the process and then languish as they attempted to reach the mountaintop without Bill and Tom.

Wellllllll, here we are at the mountaintop again, and suddenly it’s a party of Tom and nobody else.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

By now, everyone knows the simple math. Brady as an individual has more Super Bowls than any team in NFL history. That includes the Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots franchises, who both have six apiece. And inside that math is the inescapable reality that as a head coach, Belichick has six New England Super Bowl rings, but zero without Brady as his quarterback. That makes him a little like the other guys who left the New England system and couldn’t get it done without a GOAT carrying the load.

Belichick does have two other Super Bowl rings as a defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. If we’re being accurate, his overall ring count of eight titles exceeds Brady. But history will always remember the dividing line of what the two did together as a head coach and quarterback — followed by what they did apart. And right now, Brady is suddenly looking like he carried more of the Patriots’ load than his critics wanted to believe.

We can try to buy that the credit game doesn’t matter to Belichick or Brady. After all, they’ve both been fairly effusive in their praise of each other and tried to dial down the incessant measuring of one against the other. And we can also try to pretend that some Patriots fans aren’t upset right now after watching a treasured relationship dissolve awkwardly, followed by an icon running into blissful happiness somewhere else. But accepting either of those suggestions means ignoring what has happened. Brady and Belichick did split up in the midst of a frostbitten relationship. And social media alone showcased an immense number of Patriots fans who absolutely had a hard time understanding why it was a better scenario rolling the dice with Cam Newton, while Brady took a mediocre 7-9 Buccaneers team to a Super Bowl win. It’s probably worth noting here that Brady’s latest Super Bowl win also took place with higher television ratings in Boston than in Tampa, which says plenty about whether Patriots fans still care about him.

All of which suggests this is going to linger over Belichick — maybe even to the point of impacting how we remember his stature as the greatest coach in NFL history. Because what Brady did on Sunday was add an asterisk to it. A qualifier that will open the door to some pointing out what is real at this moment: Belichick had an immense amount of success with the Patriot Way when Tom Brady was in the building. Then Brady left and took the Patriot Way with him, leaving Belichick behind to accomplish whatever he can in his remaining days. In Year 1 post-Brady, it wasn’t much. Now every successive year is going to bring only more pressure for Bill to show that he’s still the same great coach when he’s running his own single-GOAT show. None of this takes into account what might happen if Brady replicates this 2020 success for another season in Tampa. At that point, we might just have to end the count altogether and officially update The Patriot Way to The Brady Effect.

Not that Brady did all of this alone in 2020. He didn’t. The Buccaneers had a talented roster before he arrived. And the Super Bowl win was hoisted as much by Tampa Bay’s defense and coordinator Todd Bowles as it was Brady. But it would be a mistake not to recognize it was Brady who also made the defining push to import two other former Patriots in Gronkowski and Antonio Brown — who combined to catch all three of Brady’s touchdown passes against the Chiefs. It was also the draw of Brady that landed running back Leonard Fournette, who played a pivotal role against Kansas City. And of course, there were the pandemic workouts and Brady’s impact on the offense and his pre-Super Bowl text messages and his endless expectations for teammates to work as hard as him. All of which is a function of who he became inside the Patriot Way and alongside Belichick.

Now he’s a man apart. Creating his own success away from the womb he and Belichick constructed. And he’s doing it his way, with the blessing of a coaching staff, front office and roster that is happy to go along with him.

As Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians framed it Monday, “This was a very, very talented football team [in 2019]. But we really didn’t know how to win. And when you bring a winner in and he’s running the ship, it makes a total difference — in your locker room [and] every time we stepped out on the field. We came from behind two times by 17 points down. I think the leadership that Tom brings, and his attitude that, ‘Hey, let’s go play. It’s never over until it’s over and we’re going to win this thing some how and some way.’ It permeated through our whole locker room, his belief that we’re going to do this. And knowing that he’s been there and done it, our guys believed it. It changed our entire football team.”

It’s hard to know what to label that. Words like presence and leadership seem too small and ordinary to explain seven Super Bowl wins. But Brady has it. He carries it, wields it, sells it and gets others to believe it’s real where it matters most: On a football field.

Now it’s on Belichick to show he can meet that standard without Brady. Whether that’s through making the right personnel moves, finding another iconic quarterback or putting together a coaching masterpiece in 2021 or beyond, he now has his work cut out for him. Brady definitively answered whether one of the two could survive without his counterpart. All Belichick can do now is respond with another title of his own. If only to show that the consistency of his greatness wasn’t largely driven by the star who ultimately showcased that he could thrive without it.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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