FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is the classic at-the-bar debate that has no correct answer, but many layers that spark passionate debate.
If the New England Patriots didn't select quarterback Tom Brady with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft, with Brady beating the odds to become a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, would Bill Belichick still have had the same level of coaching success?
In turn, if Brady had been drafted by another team and didn't have the luxury of playing in the same system over his entire career under a top-notch coaching staff, would he have had the same level of playing success?
In 2001, the second year of Belichick's coaching tenure, some believed he was already on the hot seat early that season. Had Brady not emerged to help spark the Patriots to an unexpected run to their first Super Bowl championship, who knows what might have happened? At that point, Belichick was building an excellent foundation with an epic free-agent class and a cleaned-up salary-cap situation, but as we've seen across the professional sports landscape, sometimes patience is in short supply.
Meanwhile, would Brady ever have gotten a fair shake as a rookie with another team? From a physical-development standpoint, teammates recall a scrawny quarterback who had a lot of work to do in the weight room, yet Belichick had the foresight to keep him as the fourth quarterback in 2000. That's almost unprecedented, keeping a fourth signal-caller.
We can go around and around on these hot-button questions, but for now, let's turn it over to AFC East colleagues Rich Cimini (Jets), Mike Rodak (Bills) and James Walker (Dolphins) to get their division-based view on the Belichick part of the story.
Cimini: You mean, would he have 13 division championships, six conference championships and four Super Bowl titles without Brady? No, of course not; but let's not sell the man short. Let's give Belichick credit for establishing a winning culture and surrounding Brady with the right pieces. If having a generational quarterback guarantees titles, how come Don Shula never won a Super Bowl with Dan Marino? It's because Shula failed to field a championship-caliber defense, robbing Marino of a chance to shine in the postseason. It has been a different story in New England. Belichick has Brady's back, putting him in the right system and giving him enough weapons to succeed. Belichick wouldn’t be an all-timer without Brady; he'd be like a lot of other good coaches -- successful, but vulnerable to the fickle nature of a parity-driven league.
Rodak: Probably not, but as Rich said, let's not discount Belichick entirely as a coach. I had the opportunity to re-watch the NFL Films documentary "Cleveland 1995" recently, which chronicled Belichick's final season as Browns coach. The film was a reminder of several points: One, Belichick had a detailed plan in place in Cleveland and surrounded himself with what became an all-star cast of scouts and assistant coaches; two, he had his flaws in dealing with the public and media; and three, he fell victim to external circumstances with Art Modell's ownership that doomed his tenure with the team. Belichick brought undeniable coaching talent to the Browns, but he was rendered mortal by factors out of his control. That hasn't been the case in New England, where owner Robert Kraft has developed a keen sense of how to run an NFL franchise. Because of that, I believe Belichick still would have been successful with the Patriots, even without Brady. But four Super Bowl wins? Let's give Brady some of the credit for those.
Walker: Absolutely not. The two are tied at the hip in creating the Patriots' dynasty. Each party is at least 50 percent responsible, and I would even go as far as giving Brady 60-40 credit for New England's run of four Super Bowl victories and six appearances. Having arguably the greatest quarterback ever not only solidified the NFL's toughest position for 16 years, but it also masked many of Belichick's personnel mistakes at other positions via the draft and free agency. The Patriots also are allowed to cut bait sooner than most teams with players -- good and bad -- because they know Brady annually keeps them in the title hunt. Belichick could answer this question once and for all by sticking around for several years after Brady retires. But Belichick doesn't appear interested in doing so, which is a wise move.