Whether they expected their relationship to end this offseason or not, both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are almost certainly looking forward to the opportunity to prove that they can win without the other. But can they? That will be one of the best storylines to track throughout the 2020 NFL season.
When Belichick retires, he will go down as arguably the greatest head coach in NFL history. When Brady retires, he will be remembered as arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. That will remain true no matter what happens this year and beyond, but one of the two stands more to gain — and perhaps more to lose — by trudging on without the other. That someone is Brady.
Belichick and Brady both have Hall of Fame resumes. What they accomplished together will probably never be topped. Form a legacy standpoint, the big difference between the two is that there was a Belichick before Brady. There was no Brady before Belichick.
You can say he got lucky, but Belichick made the decision to draft Brady with the 199th of the 2000 NFL Draft. Everything Brady accomplished — six Super Bowl titles, four Super Bowl MVPs, three NFL MVPs, 14 Pro Bowl selections, an NFL record 30 playoff wins and so much more — came with Belichick as his coach. While Belichick’s most noteworthy accomplishments have come while Brady was under center with the New England Patriots, the 68-year-old coach had success in the NFL before he and Brady won their first Super Bowl together in 2002.
Before the Patriots hired him to be their head coach in 2000, Belichick won two Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants under Bill Parcells. He went to another Super Bowl as an assistant under Parcells with the Patriots in 1996, and he helped lead the New York Jets to the AFC Championship in the same role in 1998. You can credit a lot of that success to Parcells, but Belichick was considered a defensive mastermind before Robert Kraft offered him a head coaching job.
There was also 2008, when Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season. Belichick still led the Patriots to an 11-5 record with Matt Cassel as New England's quarterback. That record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs that year, but it is often pointed to as proof that Belichick can win without Brady.
Of course, there was also Belichick’s stint with the Browns. He went just 36-44 as Cleveland's head coach from 1991-1995. His best year in Cleveland was in 1994, when the Browns went 11-5 and won a playoff game.
The bottom line is — no matter how you want to spin it — Belichick has been a key part of championship teams at the NFL level without Brady. Even if the Patriots become a 6-10 team without Brady, the argument can always be made that Belichick went 11-5 one season in New England without No. 12 and helped a team win two Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator.
Brady has done nothing without Belichick. That isn’t a knock on TB12, since he has never had the opportunity. He’ll have that chance with the Buccaneers, but what if Tampa Bay misses the playoffs? What if Brady and Bruce Arians simply aren’t a fit, and the Bucs turn out to be a major disappointment? It will certainly be reasonable to point to Brady’s age, but, should that happen, it still won’t change the fact that Brady never accomplished anything at the NFL level without Belichick as his head coach. And that's simply because Brady has more to gain — and lose — by beginning a chapter of his legendary career without one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history.