It sounds so strange: Bill Belichick is on the hot seat.
Not that hot seat. The New England Patriots coach has his job security intact and holds such a genius card that it’s not far-fetched to wonder if he’s the best ever, better than Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. After all, Belichick has won big despite a salary cap and free agency.
And Belichick has also won because his teams for the better part of two decades included the quarterback, Tom Brady, that many will swear is the best ever.
Can Belichick create another championship operation without TB12?
Maybe it takes two, three years. Maybe he can’t or won’t. In the process, Belichick will lead the Patriots next week into their most pivotal draft in nearly 20 years because Brady’s gone. Even if second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham – “Stid,” as Belichick called him during a Monday conference call — turns out to be a Brady-in-the-rough, there is some serious rebuilding to be done.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has plenty of holes to fill in the upcoming NFL draft. (Photo: David Butler II, USA TODAY Sports)
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As Belichick acknowledged, “Over the last two decades, everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning, was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady.”
Now there’s the huge “if” that Brady was when he came off the bench for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and quarterbacked the Patriots to the first of six Super Bowl titles and nine appearances.
That 2001 team didn’t have a single all-pro selection. Brady threw to no-name targets such as David Patten and Jermaine Wiggins. But with a slew of young draft picks and street free agents, plus a strong defense and special teams, Belichick put together a team around his young quarterback that shocked the world. It was fitting that rather than pay homage to the offensive or defensive unit before Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots were introduced as a “team.”
Fast-forward to now. Belichick is pressed to duplicate that formula and prove to the football universe that he can indeed do it again without Brady. As much as Brady is eager to show that he can still sling it for Bruce Arians & Co. in Tampa while harboring hopes of leading the Buccaneers to Super Bowl glory, this challenge for Belichick could ultimately settle any arguments about his rank on the coaching greatness meter.
It’s natural to wonder who’s more valuable with dynamic coach-QB duos. Truth is, it’s a combination. Bill Walsh needed Joe Montana and Montana needed Walsh. I’m wondering whether Brady, the 199th pick of the 2000 draft, would have become TB12 without being groomed by Belichick.
Brady can now attest to the fact, perhaps better than anyone, that there’s a whole lot of stuff for Belichick to fix beyond the QB question. The offensive line. The weapons in the passing game. The impact from the defensive front seven. The Patriots even need a new kicker. And the QB question lingers, obviously, to the point that there’s intrigue about whether Belichick will draft a quarterback, as he did last year in picking Stidham in the fourth round.
Yeah, this could take some time. No, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets are not sad.
At least Belichick, typically one of the most active draft-day traders, has some draft ammo. New England currently holds 12 picks in next week’s draft, a total exceeded only by Miami’s 14 selections. Yet value will be the key for Belichick and his personnel team headed by Nick Caserio. The Patriots, slotted 23rd in the first round, don’t have a second-round pick. They have three third-round picks and four sixth-round picks. And so many needs.
“We know the things we need to do to have a good team,” Belichick said. “We have to be able to protect the quarterback, we have to be able to run the ball, we have to be able to get open and catch the ball with whoever the receivers or tight ends or running backs are. We have to be able to play defense against all the teams we have to play against.”
Brady surely saw at least some of this coming, enough to contractually ensure that he could bolt as a free agent. Belichick has built and competed with so many versions of the Patriots around Brady. But Brady was the constant.
Sure, there was the Matt Cassel season in 2008, when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 and the Patriots finished 11-5 (although they became the only 11-win team to miss the playoffs since the field was expanded to 12 teams in 1990). There was the Deflategate fiasco that left Brady serving a four-game suspension in 2016. With Jimmy Garoppolo, then Jacoby Brissett, the Patriots started 3-1 … then ended with Brady engineering the biggest comeback win in Super Bowl history.
Those situations, as Belichick noted, were in-season adjustments. He tailored the scheme to the specific skill set of the fill-in quarterbacks, which included minimizing certain elements to hide weaknesses.
“I don’t see it being any different, the process, than what it’s ever been,” Belichick said. “It’s just we know the situation we’re in now is different.”
This time, Brady’s not coming back. Which puts Belichick on the clock for some intense post-Brady scrutiny.
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