If you polled any casual football fan who the best head coach in the NFL was, they’d probably tell you, Bill Belichick. Especially in the first decade or so of the 2000s. However, since quarterback Tom Brady departed for Tampa Bay, Belichick and the Patriots haven’t been the powerhouse they once were. And if the Patriots continue to struggle without Brady, and he continues to thrive in Tampa, Belichick’s legacy could be in trouble.
Belichick’s reputation was in danger even before Brady left the team. His recent draft history and personnel moves left the team without strong enough offensive pieces to take advantage of Brady’s twilight years.
In 2018, wide receiver Danny Amendola left for the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and fellow receiver Brandin Cooks was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Belichick failed to add much receiver help in the NFL Draft that year aside from selecting Braxton Berrios in the sixth round. Berrios missed the entire 2018 season with injury and was waived at year’s end. New England still won the Super Bowl that year, thanks to their stellar defense stopping the Rams’ high-powered offense. But the Patriots’ offensive foundation was at the beginning of a troubling stretch.
In 2019, which would eventually be Brady’s final season with the team, Bill Belichick drafted wide receiver N’Keal Harry with the 32nd overall pick. He’s been a bust. In three years as a pro, Harry’s best season came in 2020, when he totaled just 309 yards and two touchdowns. To make matters worse, Harry was part of a draft class that included Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, and D.K. Metcalf, all of whom were drafted on day two.
The Patriots still had Brady, though. New England finished the 2019 season with a 12-4 record, good for first in the AFC East, before losing to the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card Round.
The cracks in Belichick’s roster became clear after Brady’s departure.
Can Bill Belichick win without Tom Brady?
Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled as Brady’s first successor in New England, and the Patriots finished 7-9 in 2020. They had one of the worst scoring offenses in the NFL that year and were sixth-worst in yardage.
The 2021 season began with the Patriots’ new hope for a franchise quarterback: first-round pick Mac Jones. Belichick spent big in free agency, too, signing wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.
In his rookie year, Jones’ play was serviceable—if not a little overrated, and New England made it back to the playoffs with a 10-7 record. Though they lost to the Bills in the first round, Jones’ performance under center was good enough to be a distraction from the roster’s shortcomings.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ play-calling was a big reason for that, as it did a lot to set up his rookie quarterback for success. Jones didn’t have to do much for the Patriots to win, including during their seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season.
This offseason has brought some more concerns, though. McDaniels left to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. Belichick also reached on a few offensive players in the first two rounds of the draft, and New England lost some key defensive players this offseason, namely cornerback J.C. Jackson and edge rusher Kyle Van Noy. With a weaker defense and the loss of their offensive play-caller, where does that leave the Patriots heading into 2022?
Early reports from the Patriots’ offseason suggest they’re not in a great place. They still haven’t replaced McDaniels with a new offensive coordinator. Instead, New England has their former defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, and former special teams coordinator, Joe Judge, competing for that job.
Turmoil within the organization aside, Jones will likely struggle to play well without McDaniels calling plays. Since the offense always starts at quarterback, Jones’ struggles could translate to another challenging year—even 2020-esque—for the Patriots. Those struggles will be pronounced considering the major improvements the divisional rival Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins made.
Meanwhile, Brady has thrived with the Buccaneers in two seasons away from Belichick and the Patriots’ system. He won another Super Bowl in his first year in Tampa Bay. In his second, the Bucs went 13-4 and tied for the best record in the NFC before losing in the Divisional Round to the Los Angeles Rams.
It’s a small sample size, but it already seems like the more important piece of the Belichick-Brady duo is… Brady.
Bill Belichick’s legacy will suffer if the Patriots finish 2022 with a losing record and end the year near the bottom of the AFC East. Combine that with Brady’s success in Tampa Bay and the potential that he could finish this season with his eighth ring, and you’ve got another significant indicator that it was the quarterback, not the coach, that was the key to success in New England.
Of course, the Patriots could shock the world and somehow excel despite the coaching turmoil. If Belichick can lead New England to a winning season with a sophomore quarterback and without McDaniels? Big win.
Regardless of how it ends, the 2022 season could be the one that will make or break Bill Belichick’s legacy with the Patriots.