Tom Brady versus Bill Belichick

Even in the churning vortex of the NFL, Rodney Harrison was always a fearless operator. He played safety with unusual ferocity for 15 seasons, the last six with the New England Patriots (2003-08). There wasn't a tight end sprinting across the middle or a running back blowing through the line he wouldn't try to tackle.

But tackling this gnawing question, well, this one has him seriously flummoxed.

"Oh," he said recently, pausing. "That's -- that's tough."

Harrison, in his sixth season with NBC's "Football Night in America," is part of the broadcast crew for Super Bowl XLIX. In the coming days, you'll probably see the two-time Super Bowl champion discussing the unprecedented success of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, his former head coach and quarterback, but there is one thing you won't hear.

He refuses to place one above the other.

"Obviously, Bill Belichick jump-started Tom Brady's career," Harrison said. "Yeah, we'll put Drew Bledsoe and his $100 million contract on the bench and keep this sixth-round draft choice as the quarterback. It shows you the type of balls this guy has. To be honest, [I was told] it was split in the locker room.

"But to me, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are tied at the top. I believe that one guy wouldn't have had all that success without the other. I would never pick one. Never."

Still, it's a tantalizing debate: Who is more responsible for the Patriots' parity-bending, bottom-line achievements in Belichick and Brady's 15 years together?

Belichick has more playoff victories 21 (20 with the Pats and one in Cleveland) than any coach in NFL history. Brady has won more playoff games (20) than any quarterback. Sunday's game in Glendale, Arizona, will be their record sixth Super Bowl together. How do you separate the inseparable? Who's better at his job? Bill Bradichick or Tom Belady?

In a sense, it's an unknowable, unquantifiable question, a task like trying to split the atom or discover the culture that created those statues on Easter Island. The chicken or the egg -- which came first? Which child is your favorite? Ugh.

As a public service -- and a freakishly fun forensic exercise -- we checked in with more than two dozen knowledgeable sources in and around the game of football who've dealt with these two over the years. The results might surprise you.

Brady 0, Belichick 0, Push 1

Conception versus execution

A former assistant who spent considerable time with both men has a definitive opinion. Problem is, he still works in the NFL.

"I think you have to go with Bill there," he said, only after requesting anonymity. "Bill Belichick coaches the team. Bill Belichick runs the draft. Lots of guys have left the staff, and they've kept winning.

"In terms of organizational structure, what's been the same?"

The five most notable former Belichick assistants who went on to become head coaches -- Romeo Crennel, Nick Saban, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels and Bill O'Brien -- have won 96 regular-season games in seven head-coaching assignments -- and lost 143. That works out to a .402 winning percentage.

"If you take notes and pay attention," the former assistant said, "you're going to learn a lot. I'm not going to lie, he's very demanding to work for but also fair, smart, decisive. He knows more about football than anyone, knows more about people and their motivations. He knows more about everything than almost everyone.

"Nobody coaches a team in every facet of the game in a more complete, better way than Bill Belichick. Tom has a lot to do with it, but at the end of the day, he's one player."

Over the years, Belichick has employed a linebacker as a touchdown-catching tight end (Mike Vrabel), a wide receiver as a cornerback (Troy Brown), a defensive tackle as a lead blocker (Richard Seymour), a wide receiver as a touchdown-throwing quarterback (Julian Edelman) and, most recently, an offensive tackle (Nate Solder) as a touchdown-catching tight end.

Those were creative solutions to technical problems, but the videotaping scandal known as Spygate revealed what some insist is a faulty moral compass. At the very least, you can call it gamesmanship and an innate ability to seek and find loopholes. In the divisional playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens, Belichick created an advantage by surprisingly lining up ineligible receivers, which infuriated Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh but was ruled as legal by the league.

In the victory against the Indianapolis Colts that delivered them to Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots' footballs were found to be underinflated, which would have made them easier to handle in adverse conditions; the league is still investigating the cause. On the field, they made offensive lineman Cameron Fleming an eligible receiver for multiple plays but didn't throw to him. On the one play Solder checked in as an eligible receiver, he caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Brady. Who gets more credit for that strategy? Belichick, whose staff was behind the design, or Brady, who actually threw the football?

"Coaching is conception and playing is execution," longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian and ESPN analyst said, "and they're equally important."

Polian talked about Brady's ability to produce in critical situations, but he also lauded the preparation of the Patriots' special teams, one of Belichick's most celebrated specialties.

"I've worked six games they've played the last couple of years," Polian said of his Sirius XM NFL radio analysis. "In each one of those games, their special teams did something to change the game which directly led to victory. That's Bill. And when Tom Brady gets in rhythm and is seeing the field well, you're not going to stop him.

"Belichick and Brady? I don't know where one begins and the other ends."

Let's call that another draw.

Belichick 1, Brady 0, Push 2

How many Super Bowls?

A lot of it depends on how you define New England's success. Belichick oversees the Patriots' entire football operation and deserves credit for drafting Brady in 2000 -- albeit waiting until the sixth round to do so. That said, it was Brady who won two Super Bowl MVP awards and single-handedly made receiver Deion Branch the MVP in the Patriots' third Super Bowl victory.

Belichick designed the defenses that carried the team for several years and some highly successful offensive schemes, too. One commonly cited pro-Belichick argument is Matt Cassel, the backup quarterback with whom the Patriots won 11 games in 2008 after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury. Of course, New England didn't make the playoffs that season. Brady, for the record, has reached the postseason in 12 of 13 seasons as a starter.

There are only three players left from the Patriots team that reached the last Super Bowl played at University of Phoenix Stadium (XLII in 2008): Vince Wilfork, Stephen Gostkowski and Brady. Is their return to Arizona more a tribute to Belichick or to Brady?

How about Brady without Belichick? What if his coach had been Pete Carroll, who spent three seasons in that job before Belichick arrived? Or, say, one of Bill Parcells' other disciples, like Charlie Weis or Crennel? How many Super Bowls would Brady have won?

What if Brady had never been drafted? Would Belichick have won a Super Bowl with Bledsoe? Two? Three? Would he have gotten there again at the end of the 2007 and 2011 seasons?

"Put another coach in there [in 2001], and we're still going to win everything," said Ty Law, a Patriots cornerback from 1995 to 2004. "Maybe we don't win three out of four Super Bowls, but I bet we get one or two.

"Bill Belichick can't throw the ball. Bill Belichick can't tackle anybody. If he didn't have the players, what would happen? What happened in Cleveland? Did he win there?"

Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1995 and produced only one winning season. He was 5-13 in New England when Brady was elevated to starter after Bledsoe was injured. Together, they've now won more games than any coach/quarterback duo in NFL history -- by a staggering 46 games, or nearly three seasons of going undefeated.

"I guess I'm always a proponent of the player," Law said. "Would Tom Brady have Hall of Fame numbers somewhere else? Hell, yes."

Belichick 1, Brady 1, Abstentions 2

Meeting of the minds

Patriots owner Robert Kraft considers Brady family.

"Some of my boys are concerned that he's the fifth son and in for the inheritance," Kraft said, laughing. "That's a pretty good fifth son."

Kraft acknowledges that Brady's arrival in Foxborough, on some level, was a gift of fate.

"We were very lucky to have Tom Brady when Drew Bledsoe got hit by our friends the Jets," he noted. "I compliment our scouting department. [Quarterbacks coach] Dick Rehbein made the call. One of Tom's greatest strengths is to stand at the line of scrimmage and process the information like a computer.

"Bill's like that when he's watching film."

Law remembers when Belichick was the Patriots' defensive backs coach under Parcells in 1996.

"They used to take him out of our meetings and bring him into the offensive meetings," Law said. "He'd tell them how to attack that particular defense, even though it wasn't his job. That's how good he is."

When Carroll was banished after a modest three-season run (28-23, including the postseason) following the 1999 season, Kraft went after Belichick.

"A lot of people thought I overpaid when I hired him, giving the Jets a first-round draft choice," Kraft said. "They sent me tapes of his press conferences in Cleveland. We were trying to sell a new stadium -- 'Is this the guy you want out front?' And then we go 5-11 his first year. You better believe I was hearing it.

"Why is he so effective? The defensive backs told me early on, 'He has a way of making complicated things simple. When we do what he says, we succeed. When we freelance, we get in trouble.' The coach has 60-odd guys he needs to get through to, with all kinds of different learning curves and attention spans. He's just brilliant, and I couldn't be more proud of the success he's had."

No, Kraft is not about to choose. Neither is NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, the man who coached Lewis and the Ravens to their first Super Bowl victory the year before New England won its first.

"Bill gets this shoved up his a--: 'Well, you wouldn't do it without Brady,'" Billick said. "That's not showing Bill the respect he's due. And clearly, Brady didn't deserve to be the sixth-round draft choice they said couldn't throw the ball out of the backyard.

"Brady certainly would have won a Super Bowl without Bill, sure. Belichick, yeah. Would they have three of them without each other? History would say no. That's such a symbiotic relationship [that] it would be disrespectful to choose one."

Belichick 1, Brady 1, Push 4

The reporters

During the football season, there's a constant debate between ESPN's two leading NFL information gatherers, Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter. Naturally, they see this particular puzzle differently.

Here's Mortensen making the case for Belichick in an email: "For one, he had the courage to make the call to Brady over Bledsoe. Not many coaches would have done that. The Patriots' defense and running game were more responsible for the first two Super Bowls. Belichick's transformation from 'defensive coach' to 'all things' coach allowed Brady to blossom; with that, Belichick also controlled personnel moves.

"The Patriots' and Brady's 'best' season was 2007 and was the collaborative exclamation point to the previous statement. Brady's best season. They still didn't win the Super Bowl. If Peyton Manning were the quarterback, they play and win the same amount of Super Bowls (five appearances and three wins).

"I am persuaded that Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. I am persuaded that Brady is one of the seven greatest quarterbacks of all time. Does Vince Lombardi win his Super Bowls without Bart Starr? I think so, but would hate to disparage Bart's work. What is Joe Montana without Bill Walsh? If I had to choose one, I choose Belichick.

"I'd still want both."

Schefter isn't so sure.

"People used to ask the same thing in Denver all the time," Schefter wrote. "Who contributed more to the Broncos' success, John Elway or Mike Shanahan? How about both, which is what I always said. Elway would not have won two Super Bowls without Shanahan, and Shanahan would not have won two Super Bowls without Elway.

"I know it's politically correct, but it also happens to be correct. When men this good are grouped together, they make each other better. And the results are greater. And that is why it is silly to pick one over the other, even though, generally speaking, I always believe a good quarterback is more important than a good coach.

Two of ESPNBoston.com's leading Patriots writers, columnist Jackie MacMullan and NFL Nation reporter Mike Reiss, are similarly at odds.

"Tom Brady should be eternally grateful that coach Bill Belichick plucked him from the bowels of the Patriots depth chart and presented him with an opportunity to change the course of football history in New England," MacMullan wrote in an email. "So kudos to the coach. He took a chance on a lightly regarded sixth-round pick, but as Human League once crooned, 'Even then I knew I'd find a much better place, either with or without you.'

"Brady's tireless work ethic in the weight room, the film room and the locker room enabled him to earn the unwavering respect of both his teammates and his coaches. The first time he stepped into the Patriots huddle, he acted as though it had been his team all along. Brady's attention to detail -- his insistence that his receivers run the same routes hundreds of times throughout the steamy summer months until they are completely in tune with the persnickety quarterback -- is legendary. So is his football acumen and his insatiable competitiveness.

"Belichick made Brady, and Brady made Belichick. They are forever intertwined. But if you force me to choose, give me the guy who carries out the plays, not the one who draws 'em up."

Counters Reiss, via email: "The 2008 season, when Brady was lost for the season and the Patriots still went 11-5 with Matt Cassel, is a strong vote for Belichick. They didn't make the playoffs but that was a real strong reflection on the system and overall program here. But there are quite a few people I speak with around the NFL who point out that Brady saves Belichick's bacon often, and that if it was any other quarterback, not the same success.

"If I had to pick one, I'd go Belichick, though. The fact Brady has been in the same offensive system for 15 years is huge and often overlooked. Compare it to Sam Bradford, for example, and it reminds us that players sometimes get put in situations (with coaching changes, system changes) that can greatly affect their development. I could make a case that the 2000 Tom Brady might never even emerge with other teams but they had the vision here to keep him around as the No. 4."

Belichick 3, Brady 2, Push 5

And the winner is ...

OK, full disclosure: This is obviously not a scientific poll. Still, our panel of voters have carved out successful NFL careers. Or eaten, practiced and watched film with Brady and Belichick on a daily basis. Or covered the league as reporters for decades.

A number of other knowledgeable folks we spoke with didn't want to be quoted -- off the record or on -- so their votes weren't tabulated. Players tend to support players and coaches typically back coaches, and, to be fair, there are more of the former represented here.

As Super XLIX approaches, the elite statistical company Belichick and Brady keep is rapidly diminishing.

The quarterback just won his sixth conference championship, breaking a tie with Elway, and will be the first player to start six Super Bowls and only the second to play in six, joining Mike Lodish. Brady is one win from tying Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four Super Bowl wins.

The win over the Colts broke Belichick's tie with Tom Landry for the most playoff victories by a coach in NFL history. Belichick is now tied with Don Shula for most Super Bowl appearances.

"But," said former safety (1996-2002) Lawyer Milloy from his Seattle home, "without Brady, things would be drastically different. He was the piece that came to the team that had been missing. The same process happened in Seattle. They were already building toward something and they found Russell Wilson in the draft.

"As to the question, they are both truly great ones and certainly better together. If I had to pick one, I would definitely go with Brady. Belichick's first year in New England, he prepared us the same way and all that but it didn't result in a championship. Put in a young guy, hungry, with something to prove, and now the magic happens. I don't want to say one is better than the other, but most important to the Patriots' success? Tom Brady turns the lights on. He's going to go down as the best quarterback in the history of football."

Brady has won consistently with a vast and varied cast of players. When the Patriots gave him an elite wide receiver in Randy Moss, Brady threw for a then-NFL record 50 touchdowns in 2007 and the Patriots won their first 18 games. Mike Wilson of ESPN's Stats & Information, attempting to quantify Brady's ability to win games despite a high level of roster churn, broke down the passing touchdowns of the top quarterbacks. The receivers for Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino and Drew Brees all averaged significantly more touchdowns per man than Brady's did.

"Brady wins Super Bowls," said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who won one himself as the St. Louis Rams' quarterback in Super Bowl XXXIV. "Belichick alone wouldn't have won that one [XXXVI] against us. In this business, you don't win without a great quarterback. I'm going to [give] you the quarterback every time."

Wide receiver Troy Brown played 15 seasons for the Patriots and was part of five teams that reached the Super Bowl. Belichick made him one of New England's longest-tenured players ever, but Brady threw him the ball.

"They found each other and they're still together," said Brown, an analyst for Comcast SportsNet New England. "Usually, guys that big, one or the other can't stand his ass, but these guys work together well. And then they slip in those first four games this year, and they reinvent themselves.

"They're both really good at making adjustments, but there's no one better at adjusting to different personalities and styles than Tom Brady. In the end, I'm going to have to say Tom Brady."

Brady 5, Belichick 3, Push 5

Looks like another Brady fourth-quarter comeback.