I came into this season believing that Bill Belichick and the Patriots needed to win the Super Bowl to secure their legacy, or at least the perception of their legacy. It was difficult to admit from a fan's standpoint, but the painful truth seemed obvious: SpyGate was a stain that could be removed only with a fourth championship.
Although it certainly would be a lovely affirmation, now I’m not so sure another Lombardi Trophy is a requirement. Perhaps this is all Belichick needed: an unexpected way to restore his and his franchise’s good names. Belichick and the 2008 New England Patriots, to the dismay of their countless skeptics, have greatly exceeded expectations without their MVP quarterback, not to mention countless other fallen members of the cast. It is a remarkable story of resilience, and Belichick’s accomplishments during this relentlessly compelling season should be enough to repair whatever dings and dents his reputation suffered a year ago.
Talk about your redemption songs. In the immediate aftermath of franchise quarterback Tom Brady’s devastating knee injury 7 minutes and 33 seconds into the new season, the pundits, experts, and multi-concussed ESPN analysts practically sprinted to declare the wicked witch in the gray hoodie dead. The tone of the moment was downright snide, almost gleeful. I’ve never understood the blatant and widespread animosity toward Belichick — it’s just so personal.
Sure, he’s about as glib as a chalkboard, and sometimes it seems he’s unforthcoming just for the sport of it. Perhaps he’s more of a bear and a bully behind the scenes than we know, but the collective vindictiveness when he fails or catches a bad break is just so unbecoming. I’ll never get it.
I imagine these statistics might be seared onto your brain given how frequently the networks hammered us with them in the season’s early weeks: With Brady directing his offense, Belichick is 87-24 as a head coach during the regular season, and 14-3 in the postseason. Without Brady, Belichick is 41-57 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs. The point did not need to be spelled out: Now we’ll see how good of a coach he is, went the common refrain. The implication was clear: He was nothing before Tom Brady, and he’ll be nothing without him.
There’s no disputing that Brady enhanced Belichick’s standing in the game’s history. Of course he did. You cannot exaggerate Brady’s importance in the franchise’s five AFC title game bids, four Super Bowl appearances, and three championships in seven seasons. If he never takes another snap — and I apologize for even suggesting such a scenario — he will be in the argument about the greatest quarterback of all time. But it’s somewhere between foolish and disingenuous to suggest the relationship wasn’t mutually and equally beneficial.
Another common twist on this is just as misguided: The perception that Belichick lucked into Brady. (If they thought he was so special, why’d they draft washout tight end Dave Stachelski a round earlier? Huh? Huh?) There’s little doubt that Brady was essentially a Dick Rehbein-endorsed quarterback flier during the 2000 draft, but it’s apparent that the Patriots saw characteristics in him — uncommon preparation, leadership, and desire, for starters — that told them very early on that they had discovered something considerably more valuable than training-camp roster fodder.
Belichick wouldn’t have let a skinny sixth-round pick occupy a coveted roster spot as fourth quarterback in 2000 if he hadn’t recognized encouraging traits in him. He wouldn’t have elevated him above a respected backup such as Damon Huard in training camp a year later if the signs that he was eminently capable of doing the job weren’t there. And I will remain forever convinced that Brady was on the verge of winning the starting job from Drew Bledsoe even before Mo Lewis so viciously made the decision for everyone.
In retrospect, Belichick clearly recognized something we didn’t, and something few other coaches would have noticed. That theme seems to be recurring seven seasons later, as understudy Matt Cassel writes a tale that rivals Brady’s in its improbability. While we savor Cassel’s emergence, we can’t help but recall the words of one of the few national media voices who dares to heap praise on the Patriots’ coach. “Belichick thinks he has something special in Matt Cassel,” said Phil Simms of CBS just one week after the sky seemed to fall in Foxborough. Funny how no one is pining for Daunte Culpepper or yelping about the Patriots’ lack of a proven backup now.
Yes, Belichick knew best. Again. And although I disagree with the new conventional wisdom that this might be his best coaching job — he gets demerits for channeling Rich Kotite in the costly loss to the Colts, and nothing will ever top winning Super Bowl XXXVI with that limited roster — I can offer no higher praise for Belichick than this: Given equal talent and with something of tremendous importance at stake, I would not hesitate to choose him to coach my football team over every last one of his current peers and perhaps over everyone in the game’s history.
In Bill we trust? You’d damn well better believe it. Still.
But you know how this tired game is played. Matt Cassel’s ascent to stardom will be official only when the network blowhards start gobbling that he made Bill Belichick. And not the other way around.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org