I have to come clean. I’ve been a New England sports fan my whole life, but this football season has been different. Not just because of COVID-19, but because I’m one of the thousands of New Englanders who have been quietly, but wholeheartedly, rooting for Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brady wasn’t born and raised in New England like me — he’s from San Mateo, California — but he might as well have been. He was with us here for 20 years, and we’d adopted him. As you probably know, in the 18 seasons he started regularly at quarterback, he led the Patriots to nine Super Bowls, winning six of them, and took us to an astonishing 13 AFC championship games. He gave Pats fans something to cheer for, through all those frostbitten Decembers and snowbound Januarys, and he usually did it with grace and a likable smile. Tom Terrific. He was appreciated most of all by those of us who’d suffered through decades of mediocre teams and quarterbacks before him.
So, when he parted ways with the team last year, a lot of us were miffed. Like children of divorced parents, we took sides, some blaming Brady for the split and others, like me, blaming the team and coach/general manager Bill Belichick. We felt Brady was treated shabbily in his final years here, that he deserved better, and that the team should have just kept him happy. So, for at least some of us, when they let him go, our rooting interests went with him.
Was he a little peevish and less committed in his last year? Umm, yeah. But by then, his relationship with the team had soured. Did his social media posts, diet, health claims, and “TB-12 Method” get kind of weird? Well, sure. He said a sports drink helped protect him from concussions, and he Twitter-posted himself as a centaur. Was his personal trainer probably a pain in the rear for the team and Belichick? All right, I give. But when you have one of the greatest players of all time, you put up with a few things.
Legendary Celtics’ coach and GM Red Auerbach used to say that you can’t treat players the same. He was wise enough to keep his superstar players happy, like center Bill Russell and, later on, forward Larry Bird, though both players could be difficult and headstrong. And when their skills diminished, as everyone’s eventually do, Auerbach still kept them around. More than once, other GMs made him solid trade offers for Bird, but he always refused, saying, “You have to give loyalty to get loyalty.”
Some say sports are much more of a cold-hearted business today than they used to be, and there’s some truth to that. But people are still people. When Brady went to Tampa Bay as a free agent, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown followed. Other players enthusiastically joined the Bucs. Meanwhile, I didn’t see anyone breaking down the door to come and play for the Pats. Belichick wasn’t very Auerbach-like in how he handled the Brady situation, and the Pats paid for it, at least in the short term. I’m afraid they might in the longer term, as well.
This is blasphemy in New England, I know, but I think Belichick is a little … well, overrated. I’ll grant that his knowledge of the game is probably unmatched. He was raised by a college football coach, for heaven’s sake, and he’s been a coach all his life. But knowing the most about coaching football doesn’t make you the best football coach, just like knowing the most about playing the guitar doesn’t make you the best guitar player. No one could ever convince me that he didn’t single-handedly cost the Patriots a Super Bowl win against the Eagles in 2018 by benching our best defensive player for the entire game, for reasons the two of them have kept as secret as the nuclear codes, while a backup quarterback racked up 41 points against our defense.
Without Brady, Belichick’s record as a head coach is — how should I put this — lackluster. He’s 25-28 (.472 winning percentage) with the Patriots and 61-72 (.459) overall. He won two Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator with the Giants, but in his eight seasons as a head coach without Brady as his starting quarterback (five with the Browns and three with the Patriots — I’m counting 2008 when Brady was out with an ACL injury), Belichick has been to the playoffs exactly once (1994) and has won a single playoff game. By contrast, during the four years Brady was at the University of Michigan, the team was 40-9, and after Brady moved into the starting quarterback role as a junior, they were 20-5. He led them to an Orange Bowl victory against Alabama in 2000, his senior year. He was the Comeback Kid, and that was all under head coach Lloyd Carr. Now, 21 years later, in his first season with Tampa Bay under head coach Bruce Arians, he’s going back to another Super Bowl. I’m not saying Belichick stinks, but I don’t think it’s the coaches.
I also have to confess that, after what they did to Brady, I was kind of rooting for the Pats and Belichick to lose this year. There are only a few Pats fans who did that — “Serves ’em right” is a little childish and spiteful. And it left me conflicted. It was hard at times to watch the home team struggle to go 7-9, but it was great to see local sportswriters exacting their revenge on Belichick for all those years of death stares, smugness, and “it is what it is” claptrap during his press conferences. Maybe he’ll be humbled a bit now and acquire a sunnier disposition. I’m not holding my breath.
So you can guess who I’ll be rooting for in Super Bowl LV, as the Bucs square off against the Chiefs on Sunday: Tom Terrific. TB 12 — the player, that is. The Comeback Kid, at the age of 43.
Tommy, we love ya, but just go easy on the centaur posts.