When the Patriots fell to the Broncos in the AFC Championship, the vigorous appreciation for Bill Belichick’s coaching performance in the face of numerous devastating injuries quickly shifted to a vilification for his job as the Pats’ head of personnel.
Tom Brady doesn’t have enough weapons to contend, we’ve shouted.
The quarterback’s Super Bowl window is closing, we’ve lamented.
The coach’s ego is getting in the way of his team’s best interests, we’ve vented.
What if they never win again, we've cried.
Then, for a fleeting, rational moment, it occurred to me:
My goodness, our expectations are out of whack.
It is one thing to get lost in a nearly 15-year period of excellence, but it’s another entirely for that success to suddenly be deemed an expectation.
It wasn't always this way.
Belichick was an adequate coach in his five years in Cleveland. His Browns enjoyed one 11-win playoff season in an otherwise unproductive stint that culminated with a 36-44 record. In the majority of cities, he’d be run out of town, and the fans of Foxborough would be at the front of that line.
Brady was locally regarded as a sixth-round nobody when he was drafted out of Michigan by the Patriots in 2000 before he stole our hearts a year later. You mean this guy was supposed to hold the fort down with Drew Bledsoe out?
Together, the coach and quarterback have formed the best duo of their generation, perhaps all-time. After more than a decade nurturing Robert Kraft’s fifth son, Belichick ranks sixth in NFL history with 199 victories. In New England, both he and Brady sit better than 100 wins over the .500 mark. It’s a laughably impressive distinction.
But when their reign began, they weren’t two of the best. They weren’t superhuman, certainly not the kid under center.
Brady had won through efficient, timely production, and he was strongly aided by his defense and special teams. In his first four seasons as a starter, he won three Super Bowls and all nine of his playoff games, but he never reached 3,900 yards, 29 touchdowns, completed 64 percent of his passes, or had a QB rating of 93 in a single season.
He was an above average individual with an elite postseason resume.
It really wasn’t until 2007 and the arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker that Brady’s numbers inflated beyond imagination. Since, he’s grown into the Tom Brady we reference today, the stylish dresser with a supermodel wife. The guy who could own a house with a moat. For all we knew, the Brady of 2001 could have lived in an apartment over a teammate’s garage.
Similarly, that 2007 campaign featured a coach with an 18-0 start. Dolphins of years past feared the end of their immortality.
Two Super Bowl appearances later, the line between being two of the best and the two best has been blurred by a freak catch against a helmet that made a career and a pesky dropped ball that partially damaged a legacy.
Brady was a 27-year-old winner of three titles; now he’s approaching 37 without a fourth. Belichick will forever be the mastermind of Spygate until he silences his critics in the form of a Gatorade bath and a confetti shower.
Can we, if only for a moment, wait to decide their respective places in history and appreciate the facts?
Only two quarterbacks in league history have advanced to five Super Bowls: Brady and John Elway. The Broncos QB is remembered fondly, however, because he won in his final two tries after failing in his first three. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana never reached that fifth game, but won all four of their chances.
Belichick is one of just three coaches to guide his team to five appearances in the Big Game, matched by Tom Landry and exceeded by Don Shula’s six. The latter two only won twice. Chuck Noll set the standard with four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span for the Steelers.
Noll had Bradshaw for 10 additional seasons around those championship years, but won just 16 total playoff games. Yes, there used to be fewer opportunities, but Belichick has emerged victorious 18 times with Brady.
Landry had Roger Staubach – widely considered one of the best to play the position – for 11 years during his run in Dallas. Still, Staubach was limited to 11 playoff victories and Landry never even captured another conference title without him.
Shula took multiple quarterbacks to the brink, but could never cross the threshold with one of the greatest in Dan Marino – the man with jaw-dropping regular season achievements, who’s equally famous for his postseason futility.
Montana was coached to three titles by Bill Walsh in San Francisco, but that dynasty endured three years totaling 11 wins. Brady has never won fewer than nine games in a single-season, and that’s happened only once.
Elway played for 16 seasons and reached 13 wins one time. So far, Brady can make five such claims.
It’s unfair to hold the early triumphs of Belichick and Brady against them as their window together shrinks. Championship games aside, they’ve also been eliminated from three conference finals trips. In theory, they’ve been on the cusp of eight Super Bowl appearances in 12 years. Eight. That would mean a place in the season’s final game in 67 percent of Brady’s years in the starting lineup.
Naturally, that’s not a fair view. We can only operate in realities and, on occasion, injuries have gotten in the way. At other times, it’s been the types of soul-crushing plays or underperformances than can only define a one-game playoff series.
In the NFL, the better team doesn’t always win and the superior players and coaches most definitely don’t regularly rise to the top. If it did, there would be a '19-0' banner hanging at Gillette.
To be disappointed the Patriots have yet to win that elusive fourth Vince Lombardi trophy is reasonable. But to hold out an expectation for it before Brady retires to his California mansion and Belichick is forced to groom a new franchise quarterback is downright ludicrous. History tells us otherwise because the wins came early.
Had those titles arrived in this decade rather than the one prior, much like with Elway, would there be an alternate perception? Would Brady be chastised for failing early, or given a pass since the standard was different back then?
Both Brady and Belichick have already done enough. That was true years ago. Unfortunately, though, the bar was set too high too soon, to the point where it’s now practically out of reach.
If it all ended today, the pair would go down as three-time winners, lauded for their accomplishments but also tagged with one question: What if?
It's instinctive to wonder once both have retired, even now, what could have been. Maybe, with one more ring, that notion will go away, but probably not. It will only be substituted by the absence of a fifth championship, where both Brady and Belichick could have stood alone.
Don't judge them by what hasn't happened. Be thankful for what has.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The author is solely responsible for the content.
About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
Send Adam Kaufman an email.