Professional sports is an industry that has a limited shelf life when someone participates as an athlete. Organizations rely on key contributors to establish a winning culture and a set of expectations. As important as these figures are to a successful franchise or brand, there comes a time when those contributors need to be replaced to keep up a company's momentum. As valuable as an athlete is to a winning formula, a coach or front office leader is more important to maintain for an organization. The leader in the front office more often than not is the one who finds the star athletes. But fans find it much easier to get attached to star athletes than the masterminds that find them. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are arguably the best coaching and quarterback play combination in NFL history. Their reign as the gold standard for how franchises should run has been a testament to consistency and winning through the years.
Yet, rising tension and unusual organizational moves give the impression that this partnership may be breaking up soon. Patriots fans and ownership have become attached to their star quarterback Tom Brady. They need to handle this situation logically by cutting ties with Brady and trusting in Belichick. As great as Brady has been for New England, Belichick is the reason the Patriots function as smoothly as they do year after year. The Patriots have the opportunity to learn from dynasties that have collapsed before, by moving forward with Bill Belichick and without Tom Brady. There are numerous examples of organizations that chose to move on from their aging stars in the short term to maintain long term success.
The World Wrestling Federation (WWF), now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has always relied on creating superstars to build their loyal fan base and recognizable brand. During the 1980's, the WWE depended on cartoon like, larger than life superstars, Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage to carry the company. While they still hold a legendary status within the company, they had only a limited shelf life as professional athletes.
Vince McMahon, owner and chairman of the WWE, understood this inevitable truth about athletics. In order to keep his company thriving, he needed to move on from the pillars that elevated his company.
World Championship Wrestling (WCW), launched by CNN and TBS media mogul Ted Turner, became a competition threat to WWE during the 1990's. WCW dominated the ratings shortly after its founding. WCW accomplished this by drawing viewers away from the WWE through signing the aging yet still recognizable Hulk Hogan and Macho Man to their active roster. WCW had a short-sighted plan in taking on WWE. They decided to showcase older defectors that were first established products in the WWE, instead of developing younger talent. With media mogul Ted Turner leading the way financially, WCW had the money and platform to destroy the WWE, but their momentum stalled by thinking about the short term.
WWE, who were thought of as a form of family entertainment in 1980's had to evolve with the time to survive. Under the leadership of Vince McMahon, WWE countered WCW. They introduced younger talent like Shawn Michaels and HHH, who eventually developed into new superstars. WWE also changed their storylines to target a more mature audience and draw viewers away from WCW. In what would become the "Monday Night Wars" WWE was running a marathon while their inexperienced opponent was running a sprint.
While the WWE took some time to regenerate their ratings, their long term plan to let older talent go enabled the company to not only survive, but thrive as the premiere sports entertainment company in the world today.
There are other examples that are even more closely related to the supposed rising tension in New England. The San Fransisco 49ers made the difficult decision to let legendary quarterback Joe Montana go to move on with the younger Steve Young. The Indianapolis Colts made the heartbreaking choice to cut ties with an injured and aging Peyton Manning to draft Andrew Luck. The Green Bay Packers elected to move forward with Aaron Rodgers instead of the beloved Brett Favre following his first retirement.
While it may be difficult for New England's fan base to accept, Tom Brady's time as a professional athlete is quickly coming to an end. Brady should be considered one of the most valuable draft selections in NFL history, falling to the Patriots in the 6th round. A story like Brady's, where a 6th round draft pick becomes a Hall of Fame caliber player, is a rarity in the NFL to say the least. Brady will also be considered one of the greatest to ever to play the quarterback position being a five-time Super Bowl champion. But the success Brady has enjoyed is not entirely his doing and is also a product of arguably the best coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick.
Belichick, who also serves as the Patriots de facto general manager, has built New England into the franchise all others envy in the NFL. Belichick and his ability to foreshadow with roster moves has kept New England competitive year after year. He had the knowledge to cut lose former stars like Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Wes Welker, and Adam Vinatieri. There has also always been a concentrated effort by Belichick to surround Brady with a consistently reliable group of talent. A group of talent that attempts to highlight his strengths and hide his few weaknesses in a system where Belichick is the mastermind. Brady has had the luxury of playing with talents like Teddy Bruschi and the soon to be Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Randy Moss. This list does not include playmakers like Rodney Harrison, Darrelle Revis, Aquib Talib, and Rob Gronkowsi, arguably the best tight end in the NFL today.
Yet, the most consistent playmaker through the years alongside Bill Belichick has been Tom Brady. Belichick had the foreshadowing to see Brady's potential when he was brought in with a 6th round pick during the 2000 NFL Draft. Seven quarterbacks were taken before Brady, leaving him with a lot of motivation to prove he belonged in the NFL. Brady survived training camp and was kept on New England's active roster by Belichick to prevent other teams from signing him. A patient and diligent Brady would then become the starter in 2001 after star quarterback Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest that season. Belichick stuck with Brady through the season, even with Bledsoe agreeing to a then record, 10-year $103 contract just the previous off-season in March of 2001. Belichick then traded a fully recovered Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills, cementing Brady as the preferred option at quarterback for New England.
Since that time, Brady has been the steady, culture setting, on-field presence for New England, with no one threatening to replace him. But Belichick as a long term planner, has been proactively searching for Brady's replacement to continue his NFL dominance. Belichick went through average prospects like Matt Cassel, who filled Brady's spot admirably in 2008. Brady went down in Week 1 and was forced to miss the remainder of the 2008 season with two ligaments in his left knee. Belichick let Cassell go though to the Kansas City Chiefs. This is despite Cassel being able to compile an impressive 10-5 record as a starter in Brady's absence.
Ryan Mallett was taken with a 3rd round selection in 2011, but did not meet expectations, being traded to Houston after three seasons with the Patriots. Despite Mallett being a disappointment, the next New England quarterback prodigy would be thought of as the ideal replacement for Brady.
Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted by the Patriots in the second round of the 2014 draft. Garoppolo earned the opportunity to start two games in the 2016 season while Brady served his four game suspension for the Deflategate scandal. This limited sample was enough to convince many that he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL and more importantly Brady's replacement. In his two starts, Garoppolo would throw for 498 yards and three touchdowns before being sidelined against the Miami Dolphins with a shoulder injury. Jacoby Brissett, Garoppolo's backup, also emerged as an attractive prospect to teams in need of a quarterback.
In a set of unusual moves, Belichick traded not just Garoppolo, but Brissett too, leaving no option to replace Brady in the long term. Belichick, the mastermind who has always been five moves ahead of other executives, traded both options that could have replaced an aging Tom Brady. Not only did Belichick trade two legitimate NFL starting quarterbacks, but got a less than adequate return for them considering their value.
Garoppolo was traded to the San Fransisco 49ers for just one 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. This seems to be an inadequate return considering that Garoppolo was the supposed replacement for Tom Brady. Reports around the situation have said that Belichick traded his long term quarterback to San Fransisco for a few reasons. The first reason is Belichick wanted to position Garoppolo well with a franchise on the rise being run by John Lynch and coached by Kyle Shanahan.
Kyle who is one of the brightest young coaches in the NFL also has an offensive mind which will benefit Garoppolo. John Lynch has also slowly built the 49ers into a young and hungry group of talent. Even though San Fransisco started the year out 0-4, three out of those four losses had a scoring margin of less than three points. Ultimately, the two factors that have held the 49ers back is a the lack of playing experience and a capable franchise quarterback. If Garappolo's 5-0 start as the 49ers starter is any indication, they will become a budding playoff threat in the NFC West looking toward the future.
The subtle reason for why Belichick gave Garoppolo to San Fransisco so cheap is the relationship Bill has with Kyle's father, former Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shanahan. His friendship with Mike and respect for his son led to a deal that was probably heartbreaking to agree to for Belichick.
Belichick loved Garoppolo and wanted to keep him in a Patriots uniform. But with Jimmy's expiring contract and the legendary Tom Brady still in place, it forced Bill to make the choice he would eventually have to make for the long term success of the Patriots. Bill understood that as great as Brady has been and continues to be for the Patriots, Garoppolo was ready to take over Brady's role. Bill knew he needed to cut ties with Tom not just to continue the Pats success, but assert that he was the genius beyond New England's nearly two decade dominance.
When Bill went to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who had previously given Bill total control, Kraft refused to let Brady go, even if it meant long term success. It was following this exchange that Belichick reportedly became infuriated with the Patriots and the ownership's refusal to let Garoppolo take over as the starting quarterback. Kraft, who sees Brady as a son, became overly attached to the aging athlete. It is easy to do, considering how impactful and dominant Brady has been for New England. But with Kraft placing his faith in Brady instead of Belichick, he ignored the mastermind that has caused his wealth to spike exponentially since purchasing the Patriots. Kraft, who bought the Patriots in 1992 for $175 million, has seen the franchise's value increase to a staggering $3.7 billion in 2017 according to Forbes.
Belichick regretfully followed Kraft's orders and made it so Brady would be New England's only capable option at quarterback moving forward. In a spiteful and rage filled set of moves, Bill first called Kyle Shanahan. Bill gave him a gift in Jimmy Garoppolo for a minimal cost of a 2nd round pick. Belichick then went on and also traded Garoppolo's back up, Jacoby Brissett to the Indianapolis Colts. All Belichick got for the capable Brissett was a bust wide receiver in Phillip Dorsett. Belichick may have wanted to find a replacement for the injured Julian Edelman, but a first round disappointment like Dorsett does not even come close to fulfilling that role. It is clear to anyone that has seen Garoppolo or Brissett play this season that the Patriots lost on both of those deals.
Belichick also gave away Brissett to a foe in the Indianapolis Colts. Newly tagged Colts General Manager Chris Ballard may be the reason for this deal. Belichick is a grudge holder that vividly remembers when former Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson led the crusade against New England in the Deflategate scandal. With Grigson no longer in the building, Ballard's first act of business was to repair Indianapolis's relationship Belichick.
Ballard, who previously worked in Kansas City before coming to Indianapolis, used his connection with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to make peace with Belichick. Belichick, who has respect for Reid, reached out to the Colts, mending their relationship and giving them Brissett for a bargain price. With both Garoppolo and Brissett now purged from New England's roster, it left a 40-year-old Tom Brady to carry the Pats into the future.
It's possible that Belichick is still thinking five steps ahead for New England. There could be a method to Belichick's madness by bringing in yet another prospect to develop under Brady. In an upcoming draft that will be loaded with talent at quarterback, there may be a plan to position New England even better for the future. But Belichick is just too intelligent of an executive and too much of an NFL historian to have made these short-sighted decisions without spiteful intentions.
There is no doubt Belichick and Brady are one of the most successful coach and quarterback combinations in NFL history. 15 AFC East Championships, 12 AFC Title game appearances, 8 AFC Championships, and 5 Super Bowl victories. Coming off a hard fought win against Jacksonville in the 2017 playoffs, Brady and Belichick will try to capture their 6th Super Bowl title together in Minneapolis on February 4th. Their partnership and willingness to work together to establish a winning culture in New England is nothing short of remarkable.
Yet, there comes a time when all great partnerships must be broken up in order for success to continue. Belichick had a long term plan to keep New England atop the NFL. In the process, Belichick would cement his legacy as the true mastermind behind New England's seemingly untouchable dynasty. But it required letting Tom Brady go, something fans and an attached owner are just not ready to do. But if the past serves as any indication, Belichick is right more often than not when it comes to making personnel decisions. Patriots supporters should enjoy this playoff run with Belichick and Brady, because it could very well be the last time they work alongside one another.
Jimmy Kennedy, who thinks Bill Belichick is the reason for New England's success more than Tom Brady, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org