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SEPARATION ANXIETY: Spoiled NFL fans might finally get an answer to the Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick ‘legacy’ debate

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During their 20 years together with New England, head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady combined for six Lombardi trophies, nine AFC championships and 17 division titles.

For the sake of NFL history, it’s not super-relevant that quarterback Tom Brady ultimately chose the Buccaneers during his once-in-a-lifetime flirtation with unrestricted free agency — apparently leaving the Chargers (and possibly the Raiders, and Colts) at the proverbial altar.

Regardless of his franchise decision, Brady would have been subjected to the mixed blessing of joining a new core of strong offensive playmakers … but also siding with a team that had fallen woefully short of expectations in recent years.

Cold-weather home games during the blustery months of November, December and January also wouldn’t have been a problem for Brady, who turns 43 in August, since Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Indy have climate-controlled stadiums and Tampa has an average temperature of 73 degrees around the holiday season.

No, the real drama surrounding Brady’s departure from the Patriots — his only pro franchise of 20 years (and six Lombardi Trophy rings) — now centers around one of this century’s most inane arguments for sports-talk-radio consumption:

Which Hall of Famer will have the longer-lasting impact, legacy-wise … Brady or Patriots head coach Bill Belichick?

THE HOODIE STANDS ALONE

If the 67-year-old Belichick (273 career wins) committed to coaching six or more seven seasons, he’d have a decent shot of eclipsing Hall of Famer Don Shula for the NFL’s all-time mark of coaching victories (328).

But can you really picture Belichick standing on the sidelines in the year 2026, donning his trademarked sleeveless-sweatshirt with hoodie and consulting a starting quarterback who might be in high school at this very second?

Belichick already owns more Super Bowl rings (six) than any other coach in league history; and his Hall of Fame bust has likely already been sketched out, in anticipation of capping an amazing career that featured eight total Lombardi trophies (six with the Patriots, two as a Giants assistant) and 18 double-digit-victory campaigns (including an existing run of 16 straight).

Along those lines, it’s also difficult to imagine Belichick coaching for another franchise, in the wake of Brady leaving for a warmer climate.

In the modern-day history of the NFL (excluding Paul Brown and George Halas from this boast), no head coach has exerted more power (or influence) over an organization, from college scouting, player acquisitions, game-planning, managing egos and establishing a (sometimes cold-hearted) winning culture that’s second to none in league circles.

Put it all together, and it’s bound to go one of two ways in the next year or so:

a) Belichick becomes invigorated by the challenge of competing for championships in the post-Brady era, and immerses himself into this process, without any short-range dreams of retirement.

b) Belichick activates a long-range plan which includes coaching for another year or two, before passing the proverbial torch to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Belichick would then assume full-time duties as the de facto general manager.

GOOD LUCK FINDING A TRUE COMP

There are only four neighborhood comparisons within NFL lore, in terms of competing with the Belichick-Brady dynamic:

Paul Brown/Otto Graham: This Hall of Fame duo was grouped together for 10 seasons; and the Browns reached the championship game 10 times (seven titles from 1946-55 — four with the All-American Football Conference … three with the NFL).

Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw: The Steelers had Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and future Hall of Famers at nearly every position during the 1970s, easing the pressure on Bradshaw to carry the offense.

That said, Bradshaw averaged 3,326 yards passing and 27 touchdowns from 1978-80 — after the league overhauled passing rules with downfield defenders — impressive numbers for that era.

Plus, the Steelers are the only team in league history to capture four Super Bowl rings in a six-year period, all with Bradshaw piloting the offense.

Bill Walsh/Joe Montana: If Walsh hadn’t retired from pro coaching after the 1988 season — the result of leading the 49ers to an unlikely Lombardi Trophy (10-6 record … 6-5 after 11 weeks) — this Hall of Fame duo (three Super Bowl rings as a tandem) might have given Brady/Belichick some major competition.

Vince Lombardi/Bart Starr: Starr (57.4 career completion rate, zero seasons of 2,500 yards passing) didn’t come close to matching Brady’s prodigious passing numbers, given the philosophical differences between each playing era (1960s vs. 2000s isn’t a fair fight) and the fewer number of regular-season games back then.

However, the Starr-Lombardi tandem collected five world championships (and two Super Bowl victories) during the early-to-mid 60s (1961-62, 1965-67); and since 1960, the Packers are the only franchise in history to claim back-to-back-to-back world titles.

From a legacy standpoint, the Starr-Lombardi combo might be the closest thing we have in NFL debate circles. Their prime years of team dominance perfectly coincided as individual performers/leaders.

Of the four groups listed above, Starr and Lombardi were also the only ones to continue on separately, after the glow of multiple championships.

Starr posted middling numbers over a four-year span (1968-71), following Lombardi’s exit from the Green Bay sidelines, before retiring from the field; and Lombardi made a comeback with the 1969 Redskins, leading the veteran-laden squad to a 7-5-2 record.

Unfortunately, Lombardi would succumb to stomach cancer the following winter, passing away in September 1970.

LET THE BARSTOOL ABSURDITY AGAIN

From my perspective, the Brady vs. Belichick debates, via sports radio or barstool-based discussions, always seemed like the NFL version of ‘Team Edward vs. Team Jacob,’ the famous rivalry from the Twilight movie series — where a number of hysterical, teen-aged girls (and boys) drew bitter sides between the characters played by Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

On the NFL side, relative to the above comparison …

**The ‘Brady’ supporters would fervently claim Belichick didn’t accomplish much in his five seasons as the Browns head coach (36-44 from 1991-95) or his lone campaign in New England with Drew Bledsoe as the full-time quarterback (5-11, Brady’s rookie year).

**The ‘Belichick’ superfans would point to how Belichick (from a personnel standpoint) set the Browns up for their Super Bowl years as the Baltimore Ravens — soon after the franchise relocated from Cleveland in the mid-1990s.

They might also congratulate Belichick for continually tweaking the Patriots’ roster over a 20-year span, managing heavy turnover changes, annually competing for championships and keeping New England on remarkably sound footing with the salary cap.

Both sides have salient points, but it’s also quite inane, in the grand scheme.

Our neutral perspective: The Patriots were extremely lucky to land the greatest quarterback of all time with the 199th pick (Round 6) of the 2000 draft, just like Brady should be eternally grateful for Belichick sticking with him as the team’s starter in 2001 — even though Bledsoe stood as one of the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks at the time.

Bottom line: Only coaches with major clout would possess the nerve to make such a move, while simultaneously chasing the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl title.

As such, why limit the Brady-Belichick comparisons to the NFL universe?

If anything, Brady and Belichick are the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of our time, with that latter partnership writing the vast majority of iconic hits for The Beatles.

Of course, The Beatles (23 studio albums, five live albums, 27 #1 hits) accomplished the musical-success equivalent of the Patriots’ 20-year-run in less than a decade’s span.

So, maybe we should drop Brady and Belichick, as a working duo, into the still-superhuman stratosphere of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards … who’ve been headlining The Rolling Stones for almost 60 years.

That sounds fair, huh?

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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