New England Patriots: Bill Belichick’s legacy is on the line in 2021

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 03: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during a game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 03: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during a game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Bill Belichick spent a fortune this offseason; now it is time to see whether the New England Patriots were a product of Belichick or Brady.

There has never been a coach like the New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before. The stoic demeanor, the growling answers to the media, the way he knows the moves of the other team before they do, and the winning — so much winning.

Belichick established himself as the mastermind of the NFL. A haunting presence in some small city in Massachusetts where opponents dreaded going. A mythical energy hung over the stadium. Foxborough is not Los Angeles; it is not New York; it is not Miami. But that only adds to the aura that Belichick has.

Year after year, season after season, there he is, hoodie on, sleeves cut off, and gameplan ready.  He causes coaches to overthink their game plans, make mistakes, and opponents flounder under the all-seeing eye of Belichick.

At least, they used to.

Last year, the New England Patriots looked, in a word, different. They looked vulnerable and they were. They looked outmatched and they were. They looked bad and they were. Something was wrong and it was painfully and glaringly obvious: Their mythos was missing.

For two decades NFL fans heard of the “Patriot Way”, a system implemented by a mad genius coach that prioritized the system over the player. No one was bigger than the system and Belichick took a better a year early than a year late approach to letting veteran players go. He hardly ever paid high market value, instead opting for bargain players who fit the system. This system was the gold standard. Was.

Last year, the system changed. Something was wrong. The bargain bin didn’t deliver the goods. The wide receivers couldn’t separate from coverage, the running backs were spotty and inconsistent, and the defense looked mediocre, if not awful, at times. And the quarterback — well, the quarterback wasn’t Tom Brady.

Bill Belichick’s legacy is on the line this season with the New England Patriots and it’s Tom Brady’s fault.

Listen, I am willing to give last year a pass of sorts (full disclosure, that does come from a Patriots fan). Last year, the Patriots lost Tom Brady. They’ve had big names leave before: Richard Seymore, Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, etc. It never mattered because it was simply a next-man-up approach. Nothing and no one was bigger than the system.

Except for last year. For a few years, there had been rumblings that Brady and Belichick were butting heads behind the scenes. It’s not surprising; they were the best of the best at what they did. Egos are going to exist in a game so full of testosterone and aggression and, sometimes, that leads to something unthinkable.

“Brady was lucky to have Bill, Bill was lucky to have Brady.” “They need each other.”

Here is the reality of the debate, Bill Belichick decided to start Brady over Drew Bledsoe, who had led the team to the Super Bowl. The rest is history as TB12 became the GOAT and the Patriots became a dynasty. Belichick made the NFL look foolish in a time where the salary cap was supposed to create parity as the Patriots stormed the playoffs and Super Bowl time and again.

The two were linked with each other, a perfect storm of greatness created something unstoppable. But then it stopped. Because Tom Brady finally had enough. The debate raged on, the Patriot Way continued to irk the 41-year-old Brady and, finally, after years of rumblings and rumors, it happened. Brady left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now the debate was going to finally be settled. Who needed who more? In year one of the divorce, Brady put an end to the thought of whether he was a “system quarterback”. He won the Super Bowl and, once again, held off Patrick Mahomes.

The New England Patriots, meanwhile, sputtered, finishing 7-9 while having the worst offense in the NFL. But that was not a nail in Belichick’s coffin. Players opted out, Brady was gone and replaced with a broken Cam Newton, and the team had no cap space to get the help they needed.

This year, those excuses are gone. If the Patriots — more specifically, Bill Belichick — don’t deliver the goods in the 2021 season and at least make a run in the playoffs, the debate is over and the legend of Belichick is tarnished. Because if they do not make noise, it will be glaringly obvious that the “Patriot Way” was and always had been Tom Brady.

Danny Amendola spoke about this in an interview on FS1’s First Things First, saying (via NBC Sports Boston):

"“When you see ‘Patriot Way’ in the dictionary, it’s gonna have Tom Brady’s name next to it,[…] None of those coaches threw any passes. None of those coaches caught any passes. None of those coaches made any tackles. They got guys in the right position because they watch a lot of film and spend all their time at the facility. But Tom Brady is the Patriot Way, and that’s the reason why Tom Brady’s in the Super Bowl right now and the Patriots aren’t.”"

Bill Belichick would never admit it, but he has an ego and he knows that people are looking at him right now in a way he’s not used to. For the first time since 2001, the mad scientist is being doubted.

So this offseason we saw him do something he never does. Belichick spent and he spent big.  He opened the checkbook and paid guys a ton of money. In the first 24 hours of free agency, the Patriots spent a whopping $137 million signing guys like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Matt Judon, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jalen Mills.

This is the act of a man who knows what’s at stake: legacy. The problem is that he has now made 2021 his do or die season. He spent, he made moves, and he’s run out of excuses. He got the players he wanted, he drafted Mac Jones and brought back Cam Newton, he added pieces to the defense and has guys returning from the COVID opt-outs. The time for excuses is over and Patriots fans — and NFL fans, as well — are going to demand results.

If this season fails, it’s worth questioning whether Bill Belichick can ever get it right again. His record BTB (Before Tom Brady) is 41-55, or a win percentage of 42. His record ATB (After Tom Brady) is 7-9, or 43 percent.

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Maybe this is the reality: That Bill Belichick is simply a great defensive coordinator, but a low 40s winning percentage head coach who lucked into the greatest football player of all time. Belichick is starting to look human. Belichick is starting to feel his seat getting hot. Belichick’s legacy is on the line.

And it is all Tom Brady’s fault.