When Tom Brady left the New England Patriots, the question was whether he could escape coach Bill Belichick’s shadow.
Now the fairer question might be whether Belichick will be able to escape Brady’s.
The Super Bowl titles Belichick won without Brady came three decades ago, which might as well be an eternity in the NFL. He had his first losing season in 20 years last year and, at 1-2 and with a rookie quarterback, might well be headed for another this season.
Brady, meanwhile, will arrive in New England on Sunday night with all the swagger of that ex you’ve been dreading seeing. The one who, instead of going to pieces in the aftermath of the breakup, is living his best life.
The 44-year-old leads the NFL in touchdowns (10), and trails only Derek Carr in yards passing (1,087). He’s got a shiny new Super Bowl ring and, that hiccup Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams aside, seems to be having a blast with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and all the toys they’ve given him.
“Look, I have so much respect and appreciation for Tom and everything he did here and for me and for our team,” Belichick said Monday. “We’re just getting ready to compete against Tampa this week, and we’re going to keep our focus on that.”
Good luck with that.
Brady and Belichick are linked in a way few other players and coaches in the NFL have been. Certainly not in this era, at least, where coaches are hired to be fired. For 20 years, the two were the model of stability, their success what every other team tried to emulate.
Together they won six Super Bowl titles and nine AFC championships. Brady was a three-time regular-season MVP, Belichick a three-time coach of the year.
Their relationship was always a source of fascination, and not simply because of what it produced. Belichick is as old school as he is curmudgeonly, while Brady is a crossover celebrity who is as comfortable in the fashion scene as he is in the locker room. Surely one, or both, had to chafe at the notion he was reliant on the other and was itching to prove that wasn’t the case.
When Brady announced in March 2020 that he was leaving New England, he and Belichick both said all the right things. They insisted there was no bad blood or hard feelings, expressing their gratitude for their time together and utmost respect for the other.
But that didn’t stop everyone else from lining up to see who would fare better on his own.
Belichick insisted Monday he didn't run Brady out of New England, saying “it wasn’t a question of not wanting him, that’s for sure.” Rather, Belichick said, the Patriots weren’t “as good an option,” alluding to earlier comments he’s made about New England having mortgaged its salary cap future in exchange for those three Super Bowl titles in five years.
Had Brady stayed in New England, Belichick suggested, he would have faced the same talent gaps across the roster that were a source of frustration his last few seasons. Instead, he’s got an impressive offensive line in Tampa Bay and a multitude of playmakers. Mike Evans. Chris Godwin. Antonio Brown.
Even Rob Gronkowski, the future Hall of Fame tight end and Brady’s old buddy from the Patriots, came out of retirement to join the juggernaut.
“That’s a very talented offensive football team, a very talented defensive football team,” Belichick said. “That’s why they’re as good as they are. Got a lot of good players. They’re well-coached and they’ve got a really good team.”
That ignores a few key details, however. That Belichick is New England’s de facto general manager, for one, with the discretion to build the roster he wants. If the Patriots are lacking playmakers or need to shore up certain positions, those shortcomings are on Belichick.
And while Brady is surrounded with talent, as well as a creative offensive coordinator in Byron Leftwich, he’s still the one who has to make plays, no sure thing for a guy in his mid-40s. After getting off to a slow start last season – the Bucs were a run-of-the-mill 7-5 going into their bye week – Brady has run the table.
That loss to the Rams on Sunday was his first since late November, ending a 10-game winning streak.
“Tom’s a great player. Nothing surprises me that he does,” Belichick said.
Perhaps that’s why Belichick had little interest in taking a trip down memory lane Monday, either on his weekly radio appearance or news conference with Patriots beat writers.
Nothing will ever diminish what Brady and Belichick did together. But Brady’s success in Tampa Bay has allowed him to carve out a legacy all his own while Belichick cannot yet say the same.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick meet in NE for first time since breakup