NFC CONFERENCE WINNER
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ 11/4
Los Angeles Rams @ 4/1
Green Bay Packers @ 5/1
San Francisco 49ers @ 7/1
Dallas Cowboys @ 11/1
Arizona Cardinals @ 12/1
Dynasties aren’t meant to happen in the NFL. It’s a system that’s built on parity, an egalitarian construct that ensures that most teams contend in any given game, and across the season as a whole. Sure, some teams struggle for a year or two, maybe three, but before long, after their “developmental phase” they’re back, armed with high round draft picks, protected by the salary cap that ensures no New York Yankees or PSG style outspending the chasing pack to success.
Get paid as a WINNER if your team scores 35 points or more in any regular season NFL game!
There are always exceptions to the rule of course. The Detroit Lions, for example, haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. The Jets have lots 60 of their last 83 games, over five and a bit seasons. And at the other end of the spectrum, in the first two decades of the millennium, the New England Patriots managed to build the most successful franchise in the history of the NFL, and some may reason, given the constraints, the most effective in sporting history.
Inevitably, as the current champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers roll into Boston this weekend to take on the Patriots, all eyes are on two men: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the most visible, and significant components of that Patriots dominance over an extraordinary twenty-year run, where the team made the playoffs seventeen times as divisional champions, appeared in nine Super Bowls, winning six. It’s the first time the two have met as opponents, Brady leaving for Florida ahead of last season, guiding his new team to a championship in his first year. Brady is the most successful quarterback of all time, Belichick the most effective Head Coach.
There have been a number of right time, right place pairings in the NFL. We’re seeing one right now in Kansas City, where the offensive innovation and breadth of coaching experience that Andy Reid possesses has connected with Patrick Mahomes, a generational talent at quarterback, and one perfectly suited to helping Reid paint his effervescent offense on canvas. But none, as yet, have delivered anything close to the production that Brady and Belichick have managed.
Much has been made of how Brady’s return will play out at Foxboro. Will the fans give him a hero’s welcome? Most certainly, and indeed it’s been suggested by some that Patriots fans would do well to go overboard pre-game, to try stir up deep seated feelings in the typically cerebral, and ‘strictly business’ like Brady. Belichick is also a master at controlling his emotions. In Press conferences, he deadpans his way through in a laconic drawl, straight batting the media like a Test Match batsman digging in for a heroic, game saving century. During games, rarely do we see any deviation from his concentrated, composed demeanour. Surely a nightmare to play poker with, Belichick is deceptively measured with his game face on, as those close to him convey his deep-seated passion and dry sense of humour.
Speculation abounds on why Brady left, or perhaps more pertinently, was allowed to leave New England and Belichick’s role within that process. If the Patriots are an outlier within the wider construct of the NFL, then Brady is within the quarterback position. In the same way that the Patriots weren’t meant to continually succeed, neither was 44-year-old Brady meant to be able to perform at this level, for that long. Eventually all players are moved on, however seemingly integral. The great Brett Favre was replaced by Aaron Rodgers and left Green Bay. In San Francisco, Joe Montana was moved aside for Steve Young, and ended his career in Kansas City.
When Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted in the second round of the 2014 Draft by New England, would the same thing happen? By 2017, the younger quarterback was primed and ready to take over but Brady, then in his late 30’s, was showing no signs of slowing down, and had other ideas. As did Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was firmly in the Keep Brady camp. In contrast, reports suggested that Belichick was ready to move on, and a behind closed doors power struggle ensued. In the end, Brady (and Kraft) won, Garoppolo was shipped to San Francisco, and TB12’s reign continued, for a few more years anyway. Critics of Belichick suggest that the decision for the team to remain with Brady was vindicated given the subsequent Super Bowl win, and even Belichick apologists struggled with understanding why he’d even entertain the idea of moving on from the player that had delivered so much alongside him and was still playing at a demonstrably elite level.
But to question why it was even a contemplation for Belichick is to overlook how he’s always operated. He’s one of the few Head Coaches in the NFL with personnel control as a dual coach/GM and he has always maintained a very clear vision. He’s loyal and appreciates leadership, but accepts that everyone is replaceable, and won’t fall into the trap of overpaying a player because of that loyalty, or ability, or past contribution, particularly when age becomes a factor, assuming a decline in performance for older players. Early in his tenure at New England, just a few days before the start of the season, Belichick cut one of the team leaders, and indeed star players, Lawyer Milloy. A suitable contract couldn’t be arranged, and Belichick decided the best course of action for the team would be to redistribute the money and get better value elsewhere. The locker room was appalled, his players confused, a situation that could have spiralled out of control. But the winning culture was already in place in New England, games were won again, new locker room leaders emerged, life moved on, as Belichick had banked on.
This is not to say Belichick has a heart of stone, and doesn’t feel anything, rather he’s able to detach himself from nostalgia, or sentiment when the job is in hand, and that should serve him well once again this weekend. On the field, he knows Brady better than any other coach, and will dial up a plan to throw him off his stride. Typically, with Brady, that’s about getting pressure through the middle of the line. When pressure comes from the outside, Brady is adept at stepping into the pocket, towards the line, away from the danger to buy him that split second buffer to release the ball. Not hugely mobile, Brady struggles more when required to scramble, and freewheel away from pressure that’s coming directly towards him.
In the same way Belichick knows his former charge well, so too does Brady who will relish the edge his familiarity with his old coach could give him. The battle of wits between the two will be compelling and far outweighs the hype of what happens before and after the game between the two men. The Bucs are clearly the stronger roster, but it’s an offense that can be slowed, particularly if the ground game doesn’t get going. Offensively is where New England are really struggling – and have done since Brady’s departure – and much rests on the maturity of rookie quarterback Mac Jones and his ability to move things on and deal with the pressure of the situation.
Should the Bucs win? Most probably. But as both Brady and Belichick well know, things don’t always go to plan in the NFL.