We will finally get an answer to the age-old question this upcoming NFL season (if there is one at all, that is).
Who is more responsible for the unprecedented success the New England Patriots have enjoyed since the turn of the millennium: quarterback Tom Brady or head coach Bill Belichick?
Brady shocked the sports world in March, choosing to sign with perennial afterthought Tampa Bay after 19 years and five Super Bowls in New England. There had been murmurs regarding the possibility of Tommy Terrific breaking up the dynasty, but choosing to sign with the franchise with the worst winning percentage in NFL history was considered unlikely at best.
Although there were reasons to be pessimistic about the partnership — Brady is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career at 42 years old, and the Buccaneers haven’t made the playoffs in 12 years, which is the second-longest active playoff drought in the league — there are also mitigating factors to the biggest areas of concern.
A lack of proven talent at the Patriots’ skill positions through much of the season may have contributed to Brady’s relatively mediocre performance, and the Buccaneers were still in the playoff hunt until the final weeks, finishing 7-9 despite seeing starting quarterback Jameis Winston toss 30 interceptions.
Now, weapons at the skill positions are the least of Brady’s concern as he’ll be joining a team with two Pro Bowl receivers a year ago in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to go along with buddy Rob Gronkowski and former first-round pick OJ Howard at tight end. Instead of trotting out a quarterback who led the NFL in interceptions, Tampa Bay will start one that hasn’t thrown 30 interceptions in the last four seasons combined.
Watching Brady throw passes in another jersey was already set to provide plenty of intrigue for the impartial NFL fan, but Sunday’s news of Cam Newton to New England took the story to the next level.
The Patriots went 12-4 last season on the strength of the top defense in the league, but with all signs pointing to the unproven and unheralded Jarrett Stidham taking the reigns for Brady, the general consensus was that New England would be undergoing a rebuilding year, perhaps even shooting its shot at Clemson stud Trevor Lawrence.
But instead of turning to a former Auburn quarterback with four regular-season pass attempts to his name, the Patriots are turning to a former Auburn quarterback with a league MVP award under his belt.
Newton will be five years removed from a 2015 campaign that saw him lead the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance when he suits up for New England, and injuries have kept him from returning to that form since, but it will have also been nearly a full year since he’s played in a football game, meaning he’s likely to be healthier than he’s been in quite some time.
Another factor in the case study of the Brady Buccaneers and the Belichick-Newton partnership is that each side will likely be forced to make dramatic alterations to the way they’ve formerly found success to make it work in their new situations.
Tampa Bay’s offense has been designed to go deep early and often, under Winston, who ranked within the top 3 in average intended air yards (the vertical yards on a pass attempt the moment the ball is caught in relation to the line of scrimmage) each season of his career. Last season in his first year under head coach Bruce Arians, Winston was one of only two players with an intended air yards average of over 10.0.
Brady has often been on the opposite end of the spectrum — his 7.4 average of intended air yards in 2019 ranked 28th out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 128 pass attempts. Arians, whose motto is “No risk it, no biscuit,” has said the offense won’t change for Brady, which means we’ll likely see TB12 air out the football more often than he has since he was launching bombs to Randy Moss.
Belichick’s versatility will also be tested going from the precision passing of Brady to Newton, who has been scattershot at times. Patriots quarterbacks have completed at least 60 percent of their passes every year since 2001 while Newton’s career completion percentage is just 59.6 percent.
Ultimately, there’s reason to believe it will work out for each side: Brady will be surrounded with perhaps the most offensive talent he’s been around in his illustrious career, and Belichick has proven he can adapt to new circumstances better than any coach in NFL history.
But if either the Buccaneers or Patriots fail to live up to expectations, it’ll be easy to point to the other party as the driving force during the Brady-Belichick heyday. The conclusion won’t necessarily be accurate, but it will be the best evidence we’ve got.