A veteran New England Patriots player was once quoted as saying that head coach Bill Belichick could take any 53 players and, as long as they bought into the program, win at least 10 football games in a season. That legend has now been put to the test. Belichick's team went 7-9 last year in its first season without Tom Brady as the starting quarterback — their first losing record since 2000, a 5-11 campaign the year before Brady took the top job. (Belichick did go 11-5 in 2008 with Matt Cassel as quarterback when Brady was injured.)
Brady returns to New England this Sunday as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the defending Super Bowl champions. He's all but certain to become the all-time leader in passing yards in this game, and he could make progress toward the dozen scores he needs to have thrown more touchdown passes in his 40s than he did in his 20s. If the Buccaneers win, Brady will be the fourth quarterback ever to beat all 32 teams in the NFL.
Those numbers and the past year have changed the narrative about Brady, long thought to be a creation of Belichick, the evil genius. Now some think the quarterback, who has retained his fashion model looks as well as his rocket arm into early middle age, was the real brains behind the operation.
The reality is more complicated, like the emotions Sunday night's game will arouse in the Boston area: Brady can take 20 years of Belichick's coaching with him to sunny Florida, but all of the advantages Belichick gained from Brady's quarterbacking went south to Tampa upon his departure.
Brady's new team is also using his two decades of growth in a way Belichick refused to do. Brady's desire for more say in his team's personnel and offense bumped up against Belichick's "Patriots Way" of treating his star player much the same as everyone else. But Brady wasn't putting the individual above the team; he'd simply acquired some knowledge of how to put together a team over the years and wanted to put it to use.
Late-period Belichick appears to have succumbed to belief in his own legend, to thinking that obscure trivia about long snappers could trump strength and speed. Whether taking pay cuts or his talents to Tampa, Brady never forgot football was a team sport. We'll see which approach prevails Sunday night.