We've officially closed the book on the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL. The Patriots and coach Bill Belichick parted ways Thursday, ending a tenure that lasted nearly a quarter of a century. In an era in which the league's rules are designed to produce parity and short-term success, Belichick's New England teams went 266-121 and made it to nine Super Bowls, winning six. They had a stretch of 17 division championships in 19 seasons. We might never see another NFL coach put together a two-decade spell like his again.
Of course, you can't tell the story of the league over the past 25 years without a heavy dose of Belichick. He figures into so many of the most dramatic moments and compelling stories in recent NFL history, both as the beloved underdog and the hated favorite. He's one of the few coaches in American sports to transcend many of its players; show someone who isn't a football fan a photo of a dour-looking man wearing a hoodie with cutoff sleeves and they'll probably be able to identify that it's Belichick.
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We've seen the clips of Belichick's most notable moments in New England so many times, but actually considering them from how he impacted things as opposed to from the perspective of his players and using the benefit of a modern perspective reinforces how unique and remarkable Belichick's tenure in New England was, both good and bad. There are a couple of questions about Belichick's future I want to get to at the end, but there's so much to say about the past that needs to be considered as we evaluate one of the landmark coaching tenures of our lifetime. To get a sense of what happened and how we'll look at his time with the Patriots in the decades to come, though, you have to start at the beginning.
The pivotal moments, by year:
1996 | 1997 | 2000 | 2001 | 2003 | 2004
2007 | 2009 | 2014 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019
Was Belichick's success a product of having Brady?
But ... can Belichick still coach?
1996: The pariah
Belichick would never be a head coach again. After spending years as the defensive protégé of Bill Parcells with the Giants in the 1980s, it was inevitable that teams would come calling. The Browns finally did in 1991, hiring him 10 days after his game plan helped slow down the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. At 38, Belichick became the league's youngest head coach by six years.
At best, Belichick's tenure in Cleveland was tempestuous. The Browns had one winning season in his five years. He was at odds with the fans for most of his tenure, most notably for moving on from popular quarterback Bernie Kosar. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle characterized Belichick's relationship with the media during his time with the Browns as "perhaps the worst in NFL history."
"Every day I thought it would change, that he would be more pleasant to people," Modell said at the time. "He never did, and it hurt all of us terribly."
1996-2000: The comeback
Belichick went back to work under Parcells, who was the head coach in New England, joining the Patriots as their assistant head coach. When Parcells left the Pats over a lack of player personnel control in 1997, he joined the Jets and took Belichick with him, calling him a "consultant" to get around the league's coach hiring rules. The Patriots complained and landed four picks in return for the duo, with Belichick named as the contractual heir to Parcells in New York. Belichick took seven interviews for head-coaching opportunities but didn't land any of them.
When Parcells quit as coach of a Jets team that was about to be sold in 2000, Belichick immediately inherited the job. The only problem, famously, is he didn't want it. He resigned during his initial news conference. He filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL for preventing him from taking a position elsewhere, which was quickly dismissed. (His lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, would later be hired to represent Tom Brady in the Deflategate proceedings.) Belichick reportedly offered to take the Jets job if he was given total control of football operations, a move the team declined. The Jets hired Al Groh as their coach instead.
Belichick was then given permission to interview with the Patriots. With the Johnson family having bought the Jets from the Leon Hess estate, Parcells called up his old boss Robert Kraft in New England and carved out a deal. The Patriots sent a first-round pick to the Jets as part of a package to acquire Belichick, who would be the coach and have personnel control. When I wrote about the trade in 2014, I wondered whether it was the greatest deal in NFL history.
2000: The draft
From the greatest trade in NFL history to its greatest draft pick. When Belichick arrived in 2000, the Patriots were coming off an 8-8 season under Pete Carroll. Belichick intended to overhaul the roster. He was aided by several compensatory draft picks, earned by Carroll in 1999 when he let several veterans leave in free agency over cap concerns. The Patriots earned a pair of compensatory sixth-round picks in the 2000 draft, likely for the departures of defenders Mark Wheeler and Todd Collins, both of whom were out of the league by the end of the 2000 season.
Belichick decided to use one of those compensatory sixth-round picks on a quarterback. The Patriots debated between Louisiana Tech's Tim Rattay and Michigan's Tom Brady. Quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein cast the deciding vote in the draft room for Brady. Rattay started 18 games for the 49ers, but Brady eventually would become the most accomplished player in league history.
Was Belichick lucky? Of course. While some have claimed after the fact that they had first-round grades on a player who would go late in the sixth round, there's no way anybody would have let Brady fall if they had any sort of inkling he would turn into a franchise quarterback, let alone the greatest of all time. The Patriots took Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott and Antwan Harris ahead of Brady in that draft.
At the same time, you could make that case for just about every great franchise. The Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. The Chiefs took Patrick Mahomes in the first round, but his two best pass-catchers were drafted in the third (Travis Kelce) and fifth (Tyreek Hill) rounds. Bill Walsh's 49ers drafted Joe Montana in the third round and Charles Haley in the fourth. The 1970s Steelers took Mel Blount, John Stallworth and Mike Webster in the third round or later. You're not going to find many dynasties built entirely on first-round picks.
2001: The upset
The Patriots headed into 2001 with a newly extended Drew Bledsoe as their starting quarterback, only for a September hit by Mo Lewis of the Jets to knock Bledsoe out of the lineup. Enter Brady, who took the job and held it for 19 years. With a team coming off a 5-11 season and down to a second-year pro with no experience at quarterback, Belichick coaxed an 11-5 season and a division title out of the Patriots, whose preseason over-under was 6.5 wins.
Belichick's defense (and a bit of fortuitous refereeing) then ran the Patriots through the AFC bracket. We remember the "Tuck Rule" game against the Raiders for that memorable call on a would-be Brady fumble and Adam Vinatieri's incredible kicks to tie and win the game in the snow. But the work done by Belichick on the other side of the ball helped swing those games. The Patriots held a Raiders offense that ranked fourth in scoring to 13 points on 12 meaningful drives.
The next week, with Brady leaving the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers with an ankle injury, Tedy Bruschi & Co. held the league's seventh-best scoring offense to 17 points on 14 drives, with special teams contributing two return touchdowns in a 24-17 victory.
And then, of course, there's the famous performance as 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI. Facing one of the best offenses in league history, Belichick chose to beat up Marshall Faulk, break all of his defensive tendencies, spend most of the game in nickel and dime looks and rarely blitz. The Patriots forced three turnovers -- one of which resulted in a Ty Law pick-six. They kept the Rams from hitting explosive plays until the final two drives of the game, when a Ricky Proehl touchdown tied it at 17 with 1:37 to go.
Here, Belichick's game management and trust in his players shined through. John Madden, calling the game on TV, instructed Belichick to run down the clock and head to overtime. Most coaches, even nowadays, likely would agree. Belichick and Brady thought otherwise. The second-year quarterback dropped back on eight straight plays, with a 23-yard completion to Troy Brown helping to set up a 48-yard field goal by Vinatieri. Belichick had won Super Bowls as an assistant; now, he had one as a head coach.
2003: The cut
It quickly became clear that nobody was totally safe in New England. Belichick's idea of what was best for the team didn't include extending relationships with his players when he felt they weren't helping the team. Building blocks such as Bledsoe and Terry Glenn quickly were traded away by Belichick, albeit under very different circumstances.
The first big test of Belichick's willingness to move on from his veterans came in 2003, when the Patriots cut seven-year veteran Lawyer Milloy at the end of training camp. Milloy immediately caught on with the Bills, who played the Patriots in the Week 1 opener three days later. Milloy had a sack and a tackle for loss on a day in which Brady threw four interceptions and the Bills won 31-0.
After the game, longtime ESPN analyst Tom Jackson reported the Patriots players "hate their coach." Coming off a 9-7 season in 2002 that had ended without a trip to the postseason, it felt like the team could be unraveling, just a year after its dramatic Super Bowl win.
The Patriots won their next two games, lost to Washington in Week 4 and then won their next 21 games, including a Super Bowl win over the Panthers. While the winning streak came to an end with a midseason loss to the Steelers in 2004, the Pats bounced back and won the Super Bowl again. Belichick's authority in making unexpectedly aggressive decisions with his personnel rarely was questioned again.
It eventually became a hallmark of the Belichick era. The Patriots traded away stalwarts such as Randy Moss, Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins when Belichick thought the draft picks he could get in return were worth more than the player. He let the likes of Wes Welker, Willie McGinest and Vince Wilfork leave in free agency. The biggest free agent departure, of course, was still to come.
2004: The rule emphasis
Brady's first career start was a 44-13 win over Peyton Manning and the Colts, which started a rivalry that was one-sided at first. The Patriots beat the Colts twice in 2003, including a 24-14 win in the AFC Championship Game on a day when Manning threw four interceptions. Law described Belichick's strategy as elegantly as it deserved. "This was probably the most simple game plan we had," Law said. "Just beat them up."
Colts general manager Bill Polian did not like having his receivers beaten up and did not want the beauty and timing of the Manning-led passing attack to be sullied by Belichick's arsenal of defensive backs. By many accounts, Polian was the one who strongly encouraged the league after the season to do something about the physical contact. The NFL didn't add a new rule, but the league's competition committee chose to make a point of emphasis enforcing the illegal contact penalty for contacting a receiver more than 5 yards downfield.
Illegal contact calls more than doubled the following season. Teams adjusted, and it became easier to throw the ball and rely on throwing with anticipation, knowing that a defensive back wouldn't be allowed to hit stick a receiver at the top of his route without incurring a penalty. The penalty began to open up the league toward a heavier dose of passing, changing the sport in the process. From the professional level on down, football in 2023 looks very little like the game that was being played 20 years earlier.
The new call didn't slow down the Patriots, who won the Super Bowl before the rule change at the end of 2003 and then repeated the following season, beating another pass-happy offense in Andy Reid's Eagles. The Colts got their revenge in 2006 by beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and eventually winning the Super Bowl, but Belichick was about to both make a stunning schematic shift and become a household name for the wrong reasons.
2007: Spygate and the nearly perfect season
Let's start with the positive. After running a traditional pro-style offense for Brady's first six years as the starter, Belichick and the Patriots drastically changed their personnel and shifted to the sort of spread principles that had typically been written off as college offenses.
To get the receivers he needed, Belichick signed Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney to modest deals, traded second- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins for backup wideout Wes Welker, and he shipped a fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, who took a pay cut as part of the deal. Overnight, Belichick went from an offense with Reche Caldwell as its top wideout to a group that would run rampant over the NFL. (Patriots fans are wondering why he couldn't simply land two Hall of Famers for midround picks again!)
Brady, cast as the manifestation of quarterback wins in the stats vs. W's debate with Manning, had one of the most dominant seasons in NFL history and won MVP. Combined with the rule changes to make passing more friendly, the Patriots' success changed how the league viewed the passing game. The 2007 offense changed both the Patriots and the rest of the league forever.
All of that was overshadowed by how things started and how they ended. After losing to the Patriots in Week 1, Jets coach Eric Mangini reported to NFL security that the Patriots had been taping signals from the sideline. Several days later, the league fined Belichick $500,000 and stripped the Patriots of their first-round pick. The resulting investigations stretched back to the 2001 season and raised questions about how long (and how thoroughly) the Patriots had been either testing or outright breaking rules. (My colleagues Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta wrote a thorough, absorbing breakdown of the allegations in 2015.)
It changed the way the public viewed both Belichick and the Patriots. Overnight, his image went from the defensive savant to a master manipulator and scam artist. The Pats, once presented as America's Team as they ran onto the field as a unit against the Rams, became the heels of the NFL. It was a stigma that never went away, in part because the Patriots would be penalized for deflating footballs in 2015 and taping the Bengals' sideline during a 2019 game. Outside of New England, Belichick became Patriots dynasty's evil genius. The league would later institute defensive radios in the helmets of the "green dot" defender to mitigate the impact of sign stealing. Thankfully, no prominent coach has come under scrutiny for potentially taping and stealing defensive signals since.
For a team that presumably didn't film anyone else during the 2007 season, the Patriots sure were impressive without the illegal assistance. They went 16-0, ran through the AFC playoffs and were huge favorites in the Super Bowl against the Giants. While Steve Spagnuolo's pass rush slowed down Brady for three quarters, a score in the fourth gave the Pats a 14-10 lead.
With 1:20 to go, a Giants receiver ran the wrong route as Eli Manning let go of a pass. The throw bounced off Asante Samuel's fingertips, costing the Patriots a championship-winning interception that would have sealed the first 19-0 season in league history. You know what happened next: helmet catch, touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. Seven years after pulling the biggest upset in modern Super Bowl history as the underdog, the Patriots fell to the same fate as the favorite. Belichick wouldn't win another Super Bowl for seven more seasons.
2009: The fourth-and-2
Belichick's public comments about analytics mostly have been dismissive. To be polite, I'm skeptical he really feels that way. An economics major in college, he has routinely aligned his draft philosophies with the best practices espoused in public papers by trading down and amassing more picks. The Patriots moved toward a pass-first offense when it was undervalued around the league, then shifted back toward the run as teams got more pass-happy. When he popularized the spread, he drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and went back to multiple tight end sets. Belichick and longtime assistant Ernie Adams ran the Patriots the way economists look for value.
In terms of game management, though, one of Belichick's most famous decisions nearly inspired a national meltdown. In November 2009, a 6-2 Patriots team faced the 8-0 Colts in a much-anticipated Sunday night game. The Patriots went up 24-7 early, only for the Colts to roar back in the second half. A touchdown with 2:23 to go made the score 34-28 New England.
With the Colts down to one timeout and 2:11 to go, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-2 on their own 28. In terms of football in 2023, while I suspect most teams would punt in this situation, there are those that clearly would consider going for it to try to essentially end the game. Succeeding on fourth-and-2 wouldn't outright lead to kneel-downs, but a conversion would have allowed the Patriots to punt with 32 seconds left and the Colts out of timeouts.
Trusting his superstar quarterback over a defense that had been shredded in the second half, Belichick chose to go for it. Brady threw a pass in the flat to Kevin Faulk, who came up short of the first down. The Colts scored four plays later and won the game 35-34. I'm not sure Spygate was any less controversial. Belichick was widely panned for his controversial decision, but while I doubt he made it with a win probability model and an Excel spreadsheet, his choice began to normalize a newfound aggressiveness on fourth down that has spread around much of the NFL since.
2014: The even-more-controversial playoff run
This was really the first time both Brady and Belichick's futures came into question. Nine seasons removed from their last Super Bowl, the Patriots started 2-2 and were blown out on "Monday Night Football" by the Chiefs. I wasn't willing to join the chorus of people criticizing Brady, but I had major concerns about the offensive line and infrastructure around him. Belichick's response after the game, famously, was that the Pats were "on to Cincinnati." They revamped the offensive line, got Gronkowski back in a larger role, beat a good Bengals team by 26 points, and the rest was history.
In the divisional round, the Pats trailed the Ravens 28-14 in the third quarter when Belichick implemented a controversial strategy. The Patriots started to use a four-man offensive line, with a running back or tight end becoming an ineligible receiver, even though they were split out away from the line. Belichick's strategy was legal, but a furious John Harbaugh insisted that the referees weren't giving the Ravens time to substitute or adjust after the players reported to the referee. The tactic of lining up a running back or tight end as an ineligible player was banned after the season, and to my knowledge, there haven't been any controversies about players reporting to the referee since.
While a 45-7 blowout victory over the Colts in the conference title game wasn't dramatic on the field, the story afterward certainly was, with the Colts reporting that a ball intercepted by D'Qwell Jackson was underinflated. The subsequent Deflategate scandal would cost Brady a four-game suspension in 2016 and the Patriots $1 million and first- and fourth-round draft picks. While reporting at the time suggested Belichick wasn't involved with any deflating of footballs, another scandal impacting the organization under the coach's watch only gave conspiracy theorists (or Belichick dislikers) more fuel for the fire.
Damien Woody says it is hard to process that the "greatest coach of all time" is moving on from the New England Patriots.
Super Bowl XLIX was Belichick's ultimate flex of power: Depending on whom you ask, he won the game by doing absolutely nothing. After the Seahawks had driven down the field and Marshawn Lynch had been stopped at the 1-yard line, the Patriots seemed out of luck. With a four-point lead, two timeouts and a yard to go, taking a timeout and letting the Seahawks score seemed like the best strategy.
Instead, Belichick didn't call a timeout. He let the clock wind down, and on the next play, well, you know what happened. Did he know that the Seahawks would call a pass and not check to a run? Was he playing 4D chess and a step ahead of Carroll, the coach he took over for in New England 14 years earlier? I'm skeptical, but if you ask around the league, I'm in the minority. Malcolm Butler produced the biggest swing in terms of championship expectancy in the history of the league with an interception, and 20 seconds later the Patriots were champions again.
2016: The comeback
Avert your eyes, Falcons fans. For 2½ quarters of Super Bowl LI, Kyle Shanahan, Matt Ryan and the league's best offense flummoxed Belichick's defense with plenty of crack toss and man-beating pass concepts. The Falcons scored 21 points on offense and added a pick-six by Robert Alford to take a 28-3 lead. At their lowest point, as I wrote at the time, the Patriots' chances of winning fell to 0.2%. This made the Butler interception look like a casual swing.
Again, you know what happened next. The Patriots scored 25 unanswered points to tie the game up with 57 seconds left. After winning the coin toss in overtime, Brady & Co. marched down the field on an exhausted Falcons defense to score a championship-sealing touchdown.
While the defense didn't have its best game, holding Atlanta to 21 points on 10 drives was an impressive showing. The defense basically had to pitch a shutout over the final quarter-and-a-half and did; though Julio Jones made one of the greatest catches you'll ever see, a Dont'a Hightower strip sack set up the Patriots with a short field for one of their touchdowns, and Patriots pass-rushers forced a pair of holding penalties from Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews.
Belichick's adjustments helped make that happen. The Patriots shut down the run in the second half, limiting the Falcons to nine carries for 18 yards. After attempting to play coverage and getting torched for most of the first half, he sent more pressure after the break, and Ryan's QBR dropped by nearly 30 points against the extra rushers. By this point, the aura of Belichick and Brady had to matter. Other teams might have folded down 25 points in the third quarter. Not the Patriots.
2017: The benching
Belichick's ruthlessness in benching players after they make a mistake became the stuff of lore. In 2014, he benched Jonas Gray (after a 201-yard game against the Colts) for oversleeping and arriving late to practice. Gray had only 256 yards over the remainder of his career. Belichick benched players for fumbling, allowing sacks or throwing interceptions, as we saw with Mac Jones in 2022 and 2023.
His most famous benching, though, wasn't explained for years. Sporting a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA heading into the Super Bowl, Belichick decided to make a stunning, unannounced change to his secondary. After playing Butler at cornerback on virtually every snap for the majority of the regular season and each of the Patriots' first two playoff games, Belichick took the former Super Bowl hero out of the lineup in Super Bowl LII. Butler played just one special teams snap on a day in which the Eagles marched up and down the field. With Butler on the sideline, Nick Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-33 upset.
Neither Belichick nor Butler has ever spoken at length about the benching. Seth Wickersham reported in his book "It's Better to Be Feared" that Butler was benched after he was confronted by Matt Patricia for a lack of effort at practice. I'm not sure the Patriots win if they play Butler given how bad the defense had been all season, but I know fans would have preferred to find out.
2018: The final title
While the defense came up short at the end of the 2017 season, it produced what I called the greatest defensive performance in Super Bowl history one year later. Facing a Rams offense that had scored nearly 33 points per game during the regular season, Belichick's defense held Jared Goff & Co. to three points on 12 drives. The Rams didn't make it to the red zone even once.
Again, another influential Belichick game plan was in the fold. Incorporating a 5-1 front that Matt Patricia and Vic Fangio had run earlier in the season to slow down the Rams and their zone-heavy rush attack, the Patriots limited the Rams to two first downs on the ground. The normally man-happy Patriots shifted toward a zone-heavy approach and moved Patrick Chung into a linebacker role on early downs. As they did against the Rams 17 years earlier in the Super Bowl, the Pats went with more defensive backs than you typically see from an NFL defense. While that was five defensive backs in 2001, the shift toward the pass over the ensuing years means Belichick relied more heavily on six defensive backs in 2018.
The scheme introduced during the regular season and refined by Belichick became part of the meta for slowing down the Rams, who missed the playoffs the following year. Sean McVay was forced to rethink his rushing attack, which is now more of a gap (man) scheme than the zone approach he preferred earlier in his tenure.
2019: The stretch
Belichick's cap management and roster construction was often among the league's best. The Pats rarely signed deals that regretted, kept around many of the players they wanted and trusted their ability to add talent from other teams, via the draft and on the waiver wire. When they made trades for veterans such as Moss and Corey Dillon, Belichick insisted on the stars taking a pay cut as part of the deal to join. (Each earned new deals after excelling in New England.)
In two moves at the end of the summer in 2019, though, Belichick made two mistakes that set the franchise backward. To create cap space, the Patriots handed Brady what was reported to be a two-year, $70 million extension. In reality, the new deal gave the quarterback an $8 million raise while freeing up $5.5 million in cap space for the Pats. The "extension" voided after the end of the 2019 season, so it was almost all money Brady was never going to see. Crucially, the new contract prevented the Patriots from using the franchise tag to retain Brady, which would allow him to hit unrestricted free agency after the season if the Pats didn't sign him to another deal before March 2020.
Then, the Patriots used the savings to sign Antonio Brown to a one-year deal worth $10.5 million. Brady had reportedly urged the Patriots to sign Brown, who had been cut by the Raiders without playing a game for the franchise after a series of off-field incidents. Belichick had taken fliers on players who had been malcontent in other places in years past and often been rewarded for his decisions. This time, though, Belichick was paying Brown a $9 million signing bonus up front as opposed to paying him on a game-by-game basis.
This one didn't work. There already were allegations of sexual assault against Brown when he made his debut in Week 2. When further reporting suggested that Brown had threatened his accusers via text message, the Patriots released the veteran receiver after 11 days, leaving them in a cap bind. The grievance eventually was settled, with the Patriots paying Brown $5 million for one game.
While the Patriots fielded a historically good defense during the first half of 2019, the offense never came together and eventually fell apart. A 20-13 loss to the Titans in the wild-card round ended the season, with Brady's final pass in a Pats uniform a pick-six to former New England cornerback Logan Ryan.
What seemed like an impossibility came true the following March, when Brady left the organization and signed with the Buccaneers in free agency. While Brady was winning a Super Bowl throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Pats were struggling with Cam Newton and a dismal group of receivers. The organization has never really recovered.
Was Belichick's success a product of having Brady?
It's the million-dollar question. In January 2018, I took a look at what they each had contributed to the Patriots dynasty and landed on the side of Brady being the more valuable contributor of the two, although both obviously played significant roles.
Since then, the evidence has gathered on the Brady side of the debate. He left the Patriots and won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay. Belichick, meanwhile, has one playoff appearance over his recent four seasons without Brady. Belichick was 41-55 with one playoff appearance in his six seasons as a head coach before Brady took over for Bledsoe. He has gone 29-37 with one more playoff appearance in the four seasons after Brady left for the Bucs.
The question of who contributed more has given way to a more explosive possibility. Was Belichick propped up for nearly two decades by a quarterback he was lucky to land on in the sixth round of his first draft? Would Belichick just be regarded as a defensive guru who was overmatched as a head coach if he hadn't had Brady in the mix for the majority of his career?
The answer, pretty clearly, is no. Unless you're so myopic as to ignore everything Belichick did on the defensive side of the ball or willing to chalk up so many of the personnel moves he made on both sides of the ball to Brady's impact in making those players better, you would have to acknowledge Belichick played a significant role in making both Brady and the Patriots champions over the past 2½ decades.
To start, Brady wasn't always Brady. In 2001, he was a limited rookie whose job was mostly to hand off the football and avoid turning it over. He averaged 27.5 pass attempts per game, with the Patriots approaching something close to a 50-50 run-pass split. We don't have air yards data going back that far, but he had four passes of more than 40 yards all season. The defense played a bigger role in the early days of the Brady era, where its identity was as much about Law and Bruschi as it was Brady and Troy Brown.
And what about the Super Bowls? Nobody doubts Brady's ability to come through in the clutch, nor should they, but the Patriots needed great games from their defense to win several titles. In the 2001 victory over the Rams, the Pats scored 13 points on offense, with the defense chipping in a pick-six while holding the Greatest Show on Turf to 17 points. In 2004, the Pats forced four Eagles turnovers and held a great offense to 14 points before a late score with 1:55 to go.
The defense held the Giants to 17 points in 2007 and 19 in 2011. While it got off to a ugly start against the Falcons, Belichick's defense limited an Atlanta offense that had averaged nearly 34 points per game to 21 points on 10 drives. And then, of course, the defense dominated in the victory over the Rams.
Brady more than held his own in the wins over the Falcons and Panthers, but the Patriots simply don't win as many as Super Bowls unless Belichick's defense plays as well as it did in those games. And that doesn't even consider games along the way, like the defense stifling the Colts in the 2003, 2004 and 2014 playoffs, or holding the Chargers to 311 yards and 12 points in the AFC Championship Game during the 2007 postseason.
Furthermore, when Belichick was without Brady during that stretch, the Patriots still were productive. When Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2008 and missed virtually the entire season, the Pats still went 11-5, albeit without making it to the postseason. In 2016, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, the team's second- and third-string quarterbacks, went 3-1 while Brady was suspended to start the season. The Pats also won the AFC Championship Game with Bledsoe during the 2001 playoffs when Brady went down injured in the first half against the Steelers.
Going 15-6 in the games in which Brady either wasn't available or went down injured for a significant portion of the contest suggests Belichick was doing just fine; his struggles with the Browns and after Brady's departure suggest he had more talent during the Brady era than he did otherwise, both at quarterback and in the positions around the player under center. Belichick was better with Brady, of course, but that's just the reality of having a great quarterback on the roster.
Did other great coaches thrive without the quarterback or quarterbacks with whom we most closely associate their success? Usually, yeah. Don Shula had a pair of Hall of Famers for most of his tenure in Bob Griese and Dan Marino, but he also made it to a Super Bowl in between with David Woodley under center. Tom Landry started his career with six consecutive losing seasons before Don Meredith broke through. Roger Staubach took over from there, but after Staubach retired, Landry had a few 12-win seasons with Danny White before eventually falling off. Bill Walsh had Joe Montana for his tenure, but George Seifert took over and successfully transitioned from Montana to Steve Young. Joe Gibbs won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks in Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.
On the other hand, Chuck Noll didn't have a single 10-win season and made two trips to the playoffs in eight seasons after Terry Bradshaw retired. Bill Parcells had success after leaving Phil Simms and the Giants, but he won a total of three playoff games over his ensuing 11 seasons as a coach. Mike Shanahan had a 13-win season with Jake Plummer, but he went 7-1 in the playoffs with John Elway and 1-6 with everybody else.
I'd argue Belichick and Brady are a unique case because of how long their relationship lasted. You don't get 20 years with the same coach and quarterback in modern football, especially with both functioning at a high level throughout that tenure. I still think Brady was the more essential or more difficult to find member of the partnership, but when we look back on this dynasty in 25 years, we'll see them both as essential.
Can Belichick still coach?
The other question is whether Belichick, 71, might still add to his résumé by coaching somewhere else after leaving the Patriots. Teams are expected to have interest if he intends to keep coaching.
Should they be interested? Yes. There are reasonable concerns about Belichick's aptitude for drafting skill position talent and handling the dual roles of coaching and running player personnel at this point of his career, but I can say one thing for sure: This man can still coach defenses. For whatever people say about him not being able to relate to younger players or being out of touch with the modern game, none of that applies to what he does on a week-to-week basis as a game-planner and defensive coach.
Even after Brady, Belichick has produced a series of excellent defenses. The defense wasn't great in 2020, but he added Matthew Judon and others in a 2021 offseason spending spree. Despite trading away 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots ranked second in points allowed per drive and third in EPA per play on defense.
In 2022, Belichick lost star corner J.C. Jackson to free agency, Dont'a Hightower to retirement and had a barely functioning offense for most of the season. The Pats still dominated on defense, ranking second in EPA per play and third in points allowed per drive.
Dan Orlovsky breaks down Bill Belichick's future as he parts ways with the New England Patriots after 24 seasons.
This season was tougher. Belichick lost Judon and promising rookie corner Christian Gonzalez to season-ending injuries in Week 4. Devin McCourty followed Hightower into retirement. The offense was so bad it contaminated and compromised the defense. The Patriots allowed more than 30 points in consecutive games against the Cowboys and Saints, albeit with three defensive touchdowns by the opposing team in the mix. Through the first half of the season, the Patriots ranked 17th in points allowed per drive and 19th in EPA per snap on defense.
Unsurprisingly, Belichick figured things out and righted the ship. From Week 10 onward, the Patriots have ranked second in EPA per snap and have allowed a league-best 1.3 points per possession. They've done that without their best pass-rusher (Judon) and best cornerback (Gonzalez), while inheriting the worst average starting field position of any team and facing the third-most drives per game of any team in football over that stretch. For two months now, the Patriots have been better than the Browns, Jets, Ravens or any other great defense you want to mention.
Belichick has done that with a roster that would charitably be described as anonymous on that side of the ball. Christian Barmore is back to looking like a star and Kyle Dugger is a standout at safety, but the Pats have had to rely on Anfernee Jennings, Shaun Wade and Jahlani Tavai to play meaningful roles week after week. They've thrived under their coach's tutelage. He has more than two decades of either developing young players into standout defenders or acquiring players unwanted by other teams and molding them into starters. He's doing that again in New England.
In the simplest universe, a team might hire Belichick as its head coach, give him control of the defense, let someone else run the offense and have a traditional general manager run the personnel department. For Belichick, that might be a nonstarter. Remember: He learned under Parcells, who left the Patriots because he wasn't allowed to shop for the groceries. Belichick turned down the Jets job, in part, because Parcells was still going to be involved with personnel. He left for the Patriots because they gave him that power. Giving up those responsibilities might not be something he is willing to do at this point of his career.
Frankly, given how poorly most head coach and general manager hires work out, I wouldn't dissuade a team from offering Belichick full control of the roster if he takes over as its coach. Think about the Raiders, who reportedly are interested in Belichick. They offered Jon Gruden that opportunity, and Gruden drafted worse than you would have by just taking the best player off a consensus mock draft. The Raiders hired Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Dennis Allen and Josh McDaniels with disastrous results. Compared to his peak, Belichick might not be the coach he once was. Compared to the other coaches available, Belichick would be one of the best candidates to hit the market in years.
For Belichick, now, there might be one final thing to prove. When Brady joined the Buccaneers, he was afforded an opportunity to prove he could succeed outside of the program in New England. He won immediately. Belichick won Super Bowls as an assistant with the Giants, but this might be his chance to prove that anybody who doubts him or regards him as a product of being surrounded by greatness in Parcells and Brady is a fool. The only way to do that is to win somewhere else as the head coach. Belichick doesn't need to coach another game or add anything else to his résumé, but when you've spent so much time on the mountaintop, you might want to climb back up, if only to prove to yourself that you can.