Murmurs that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick deserves to be fired are starting to reach fever pitch. This is not the first time such talk has bubbled to the surface, nor will it be the last. But if New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is thinking clearly, firing Bill Belichick should not be on the table anytime soon.
Bill Belichick has been the most successful NFL head coach of the Super Bowl Era (1966-to-Present). It is not even particularly close. During that time he ranks first among all NFL head coaches in:
- Regular Season Wins (299)
- Playoff Wins (31)
- Total Wins (330)
- Conference Championships (nine)
- Super Bowl Championships (six)
It has become a common talking point to state Tom Brady deserves the majority of the credit for the Patriots. Those opinions are growing louder in the post-Brady years in Foxboro. Even Shannon Sharpe, a longtime Bill Belichick admirer, changed his tune about the Belichick/Brady credit divide this week. Apparently last Sunday’s blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys showed Sharpe the error of his thinking.
.@ShannonSharpe believes Bill Belichick's legacy "deserves to take a hit" 😳
"It's becoming more and more apparent to me that Tom Brady was largely the reason why the Patriots won." pic.twitter.com/d2Gakm5Gdw
— First Take (@FirstTake) October 2, 2023
While Tom Brady went on to win a seventh Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bill Belichick remained in Foxboro with less success. After a 1-3 start this season, the Patriots are now 26-28 in the regular season since Brady left, 0-1 in the playoffs. But giving Tom Brady all of the credit for two decades of excellence in New England is a false narrative.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001-to-2004. Having Tom Brady on those teams was certainly very helpful. But not only was he not the only reason for those championships, he was not even the primary one.
Those New England Patriots teams featured defenses led Hall of Fame players Ty Law and Richard Seymour. They were joined by Pro Bowl caliber defenders such as Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Vince Wilfork and Mike Vrabel.
It also helped the first Patriots dynasty to have the most clutch kicker in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri. And in 2004 Corey Dillon had the greatest single-season of any running back in franchise history. This is not to discredit Tom Brady’s contributions to those titles, only to state the obvious: the New England Patriots won as a team.
Credit for Super Bowl titles belongs to ownership, the front office, support staff, coaches and players alike.
The Patriots then went on a 10-year championship drought. That span included scandals, an undefeated regular season and two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants. By the time the 2014 New England Patriots raised the Lombardi Trophy, only two players (Brady and Wilfork) remained from the 2004 champs.
A second Patriots dynasty went on to win three more Super Bowls in five seasons. Those titles came between the 2014 and 2018 seasons. The three main common denominators from all six Super Bowl teams were Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But as was the case with those first three Super Bowls teams, there was plenty of help winning titles four through six.
On offense, New England featured the greatest tight end in NFL history in Rob Gronkowski. They also had clutch Pro Bowl receiver Julian Edelman. Defensive players on those teams included Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore.
Was Tom Brady the most important Patriots player on those teams? Of course. But does Tom Brady win those Super Bowls without Butler’s interception against the Seahawks? Without Edelman’s catch vs. the Falcons? Or without the Patriots defense shutting down the Rams in a 13-3 win? Of course not.
While a Brady vs. Belichick debate for championship credit seems irrelevant regarding who should be the New England Patriots head coach in 2023, it is not.
Tom Brady left Foxboro following the 2019 season to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady played great and was surrounded by excellent skill position players. Tampa featured running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, and tight end Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join Brady as well. A defense led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Antoine Winfield Jr. helped hold the Kansas City Chiefs to nine points in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady finished his first NFL season away from New England with his seventh Super Bowl ring.
Meanwhile back in New England, things didn’t go as smoothly for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They had nearly $26 million in cap space tied up on players no longer with the team. Brady’s dead cap hit counted for $13.5 million in dead cap money. So not only was Belichick tasked with fielding a competitive team with less money than usual, he was also trying to replace the greatest quarterback ever. To compound problems for the 2020 New England Patriots, the franchise saw the most players opt out of the COVID season. And once the season began, both Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore were forced to miss time in COVID protocol.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers became Super Bowl champions the first year after Tom Brady and Bill Belichick parted way. The New England Patriots finished 7-9.
The following year New England selected quarterback Mac Jones in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Jones would beat out Newton for the starting job in training camp. As a rookie he helped lead the Patriots back to the postseason. However, the season ended with a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills on Wild Card weekend. Despite a largely successful season, the 47-17 loss left people feeling only marginally better than the year before.
Had the 2022 New England Patriots built on that playoff appearance, perhaps the narrative would be different today. Unfortunately for all involved in Gillette Stadium that was not the case. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, taking several assistants with him. Bill Belichick replaced McDaniels with former Patriots assistants turned NFL head coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Strangely, these two had built their reputations on defense and special teams respectively. The gamble did not pay off. The offense never gelled, Mac Jones regressed and the team finished with an 8-9 record and missed the playoffs.
This year the Patriots are off to a 1-3 start as they prepare to play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. They just received an absolute beating courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys. Just one week into October and this season is already in jeopardy of being lost.
All of this goes back to the issue of credit for two decades of New England Patriots dominance. Now that Tom Brady is being credited for all of the Patriots success, Bill Belichick is being given none of the leeway normally afforded to a coach with his impressive resume. For comparison’s sake:
- Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys won his final Super Bowl following the 1977 season. He would be allowed to coach 11 more years in Dallas before being replaced after a 3-13 season in 1988 and a change in ownership.
- Chuck Knoll of the Pittsburgh Steelers won his final Super Bowl following the 1979 season. He would be allowed to coach 12 more years in Pittsburgh before being replaced after the 1991 season. He had made the playoffs once in his final seven years.
- Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins won his final Super Bowl following the 1973 season. He would be allowed to coach 22 more years in Miami before retiring after the 1995. He had not played in the AFC Championship in a decade despite having Dan Marino at quarterback.
- Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots won his most recent Super Bowl following the 2018 season. He would be allowed to coach four more seasons, plus four games, before people were ready to fire him. It had been one full season since his last playoff appearance.
Is a short Super Bowl drought following decades of excellence unfathomable to the masses? It certainly shouldn’t be. But because Tom Brady won immediately after leaving Foxboro and Bill Belichick has not, the narrative has completely changed. Not only is Bill Belichick not a good coach in 2023, was he ever? It’s ridiculous.
If Tom Brady stayed in New England and Bill Belichick left for a better situation, would the Patriots have kept on winning? Would Belichick’s teams have been average? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. As a result, everyone seemed intent to answer hypothetical questions in whichever way suits one’s own argument.
Not to let him off the hook entirely, Belichick is not blame-free here. Had he made some better draft picks and better free agent signings over the past decade, the Patriots would be in much better shape today. Since 2013 New England has used first or second round picks on former Patriots Aaron Dobson, Dominique Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, N’Keal Harry and Joejuan Williams. Their 2022 top picks Cole Strange and Tyquan Thornton are not currently contributing.
Free agent disappointments of late include Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor and (so far) JuJu Smith-Schuster. There has also been a failure to address issues with the offensive line and taking too long to realize the need to improve team speed. Things may also have gone better if there been a better replacement plan in place for the departure of McDaniels and others.
But people should not forget that Bill Belichick brought the majority of Tom Brady’s supporting cast to New England. Even after the most recent title he has made some quality signings like Matthew Judon and excellent draft picks like Christian Gonzalez. Unfortunately, both are now out injured, potentially for the season. Games have also been missed in 2023 by Trent Brown, Mike Onwenu, Cole Strange, Riley Reiff, DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. Bill Belichick has no control over injuries. What would be the record of a healthy roster?
Also, with 20 years of success comes front office personnel and assistant coaches leaving for promotions elsewhere. With winning comes solid role players cashing in for big pay days elsewhere. It decreases the margin for error, one that is currently impossible at times for the Patriots to overcome.
Nobody will claim Bill Belichick has been amazing this season. Nor will anyone say the New England Patriots have looked great. They have one win through four games, and their last outing was the worst of the bunch. If things continue down this path it is fair to consider whether or not Belichick is the right man for the job. But giving Belichick more time to straighten this out is beyond reasonable. Since Bill Belichick last won a Super Bowl the only head coaches to do so are Bruce Arians, Sean McVay and Andy Reid. Winning Super Bowls is not nearly as easy as the Patriots made it look for so long.
Robert Kraft has only hired three head coaches since purchasing the New England Patriots in 1993. All three of his hires will wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Belichick. When the time comes to find his fourth coach, Kraft will make another excellent choice. Belichick’s eventual replacement could be Jerod Mayo, Bill O’Brien or possibly somebody from outside the organization. But the time to decide is not now.
Next season will be number 50 for Bill Belichick as an NFL coach. It will also be number 25 for him as head coach of the New England Patriots. The greatest coach of the Super Bowl Era deserves to celebrate these gold and silver anniversaries on the Patriots sideline. He is also just 17 wins away from catching Don Shula on the all-time wins list. He should have the opportunity to catch Shula if he is willing and able.
Hopefully all of the recent noise doesn’t make Robert Kraft anxious. If he doesn’t allow Belichick to coach through 2024, it will be a big mistake. Would a 71-year old Bill Belichick join a different franchise and keep coaching, perhaps even out of spite? Would anyone put that past him? It would be unpleasant to see him on any other sideline. It would also likely end any relationship between him and the Patriots franchise beyond repair. That would be an unfortunate end to a wonderful run.
Bill Belichick has earned the right to finish on his own terms. Merely coaching 2-15 teams for the next decade while chasing Don Shula is certainly not okay. But it is okay to give Belichick a fraction of the leeway offered to other legendary NFL coaches. Following the 2024 NFL season, Bill Belichick can step away from the sidelines, hopefully having amassed 17 more wins. And when that day comes, he will have left the New England Patriots franchise in far better shape than how he found it.