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Thursday, January 16, 2014
A chemistry forged by triumph, failure

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have had more games together than any other quarterback-coach combination in the Super Bowl era, and only one other combo has more titles.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The coach and the quarterback have been together for 14 years. Their narrative is so rich, sometimes we forget where they came from.

Before Bill Belichick was the innovative hoodie icon, he was an ex-coach in Cleveland looking for work after a lackluster 36-44 record with the Browns.

Before Tom Brady was a Super Bowl MVP and an international bon vivant, he was manning the rear of the Patriots' depth chart, a sixth-round pick who shared snaps with Drew Henson at Michigan.

Belichick plucked the earnest Brady out of NFL oblivion to assist in navigating their storybook ascension atop the pro football heap. It was a risky maneuver; incumbent quarterback Drew Bledsoe was a talented, affable Pro Bowler stripped of his job due to injury. Owner Robert Kraft, who considered Bledsoe part of his family, warned his coach, "I expect you to be accountable for this decision.''

It was a decision that changed everything. The coach and the quarterback had no choice but to make it work: Their careers depended on it. They invested in their partnership with a searing intensity and discovered they were kindred spirits when it came to work ethic, attention to details and football acumen. "Tom was everything Bill wanted in a player,'' said former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "Bill is a relentless student of the game, a relentless grinder. And Tom is that way, too.''

Their partnership bore fruit almost immediately: a six-game winning streak to close out the 2001 regular season, which led to the tuck rule, which led to snow angels and Adam Vinatieri splitting the uprights to win it all (twice), to a Rodney Harrison clinching interception for the third title.

The coach and the quarterback kissed the same trophy and rode the same duck boats down Boylston Street.

Their fortunes became undeniably, irrevocably intertwined.

The Belichick-Brady tandem, which won three Super Bowls in four seasons, became the new gold standard by which all franchises were measured.

Each remained mindful of his roots, of the bitter disappointment of being told, "You're not good enough to do this job.'' It became not only their mantra, but the rallying cry of a franchise built with blue-chip talent, yet augmented by castoffs and late draft picks eager to prove their doubters wrong. Belichick and Brady have played more games together than any other coach-quarterback combination in the Super Bowl era (191 games). Furthermore, according to ESPN Stats & Information, they have the highest winning percentage of that era (.775). 

Holmgren, who coached alongside Brett Favre for six seasons and won Super Bowl XXXI with him, believes a long-term, sustainable relationship between coach and quarterback is one of the most critical components in the game, if not the most critical.

"It means a lot," Holmgren said. "The truth about the NFL is when it comes to the quarterback, it's his football team. You are talking to the players, but they are looking at him to see how he reacts. He has to communicate your message to the players. And the longer you are together, the more it all blends.

"And, in terms of actual football, it's invaluable. You spend so much time together that when you call a play, he's already thought of it in his mind. You have an idea, and he's already got the same one.''

When Favre was young, Holmgren said he was incredibly hard on his QB, "probably the way Bill was with Tom,'' he surmised. "Brett was in the principal's office a lot.''

The challenge with a young quarterback, Holmgren said, is to limit his mistakes. It requires discipline and some difficult and humbling conversations.

"I remember distinctly when it turned,'' Holmgren said. "It was in Brett's second year. He sat next to me on the plane, the seat no one wanted to sit in. He told me, 'I get it. I finally get it. Things are slowing down for me. I see what you mean now.' I said, 'Did you ever think I wasn't trying to help you?' Brett was always a bit of a gambler. To his credit, he changed his game a little for me. For that, I'll always be grateful.''

Holmgren watched with interest as Belichick, the coach Bill Parcells nicknamed Doom, pushed the young Brady, sometimes to the brink.

"People say all the time you have to treat your players the same,'' Holmgren said. "You don't. You have to treat your quarterback a little differently.

Belichick-Brady sign
Belichick + Brady is a combination that has resulted in three Super Bowl wins, but none in nearly 10 years.

"Bill could be very tough on his players and his coaches. But once Tom started establishing himself it became a different deal. It's like that famous conversation between Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi. He said, 'Coach, if you want me to be the leader of this team, you can't be ripping my butt all the time.' To Bill's credit, he realized that with Tom.''

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the current longest-tenured coach-quarterback duos (Brady-Belichick, Eli Manning-Tom Coughlin, Drew Brees-Sean Payton, Ben Roethlisberger-Mike Tomlin) have one thing in common: They've won a Super Bowl together.

In recent years, the Patriots' narrative has been pocked with disappointment: a knee injury, a foolhardy taping scandal, a gnawing pattern of "almost.''

The pristine Super Bowl record was shattered by Eli, Peyton's kid brother, who made Big Throws in the Big Game against Belichick, Brady and the Patriots -- twice. So now it's been nearly nine seasons since the coach and the quarterback have won a Super Bowl. Their three championships are second only to Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw (they won four), but in this here-and-now sports vacuum, the "gold standard" duo is scrutinized and criticized for its recent haul of bronze and silver.

They will have to win in Denver against old friend Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game to quiet the chatter that their time has passed.

I asked Belichick on Wednesday how his relationship with Brady would assist him in a game of this magnitude. His dismissed the query: "I don't really look at this game any different than a lot of the other games. I meet with Tom on a regular basis, meet with the quarterbacks on a regular basis weekly all year long.''

(Translated: none of your business.)

Persistence occasionally proves to be successful in these situations, so I asked, "When was the last time Tom Brady surprised you?"

"This morning,'' Belichick replied, with a hint of a smile.

And how did he surprise you?

"We'll keep that between Tom and me,'' he answered, his Cheshire grin in full bloom.

Belichick was more expansive in an interview last week with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher on the CBS pregame show.

"[Tom and I] have had a weekly meeting the entire time we've been together,'' Belichick said. "Tom is one of the toughest players I've ever had to coach, because when you walk into a meeting with Tom, he's already seen every game. Like the Colts. He's already seen every game the Colts have played defensively.

"So you can't go in there unprepared, you can't go in there saying, 'Well, I don't know if they're going to do this,' because he'll say, 'Did you see the Tennessee game? That's what they did.'

"You have to be as well-prepared as he is. And that's a good thing but it's also a hard thing. You can't throw the curveball by him. You better know what you're talking about, because he does.''

That is the crux of their relationship: holding each other accountable. They approach each game in lockstep, with precious few surprises unless Brady misses practice with an illness, as he did Wednesday.

"They know each other so well, I'm pretty sure they could finish each other's sentences,'' observed backup quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Brady doesn't have to explain to Belichick the euphoria of knocking off the Greatest Show on Turf because the coach drew up the game plan that made it possible. Belichick doesn't have to describe to his quarterback how excruciating it was when the ball slipped through Wes Welker's hands in Super Bowl XLVI because Brady threw the pass.

In their short tenure together in Denver, Manning and John Fox have their own horrific memories: Rahim Moore and the shockingly poor interception Manning threw across his body in the playoff overtime loss to Baltimore last season. Their relationship is still developing, but that hardly precludes them from winning.

Maybe this is the year Manning-Fox will be added to the Super Bowl victors list. Or maybe it's Colin Kaepernick-Jim Harbaugh, or Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll.

Obviously, it's not as simple as just the quarterback and the coach. You need an offensive line, a defense, a receiving corps that can make big catches in clutch situations.

But, in perusing the list, which coach and quarterback combination would you take in the Big Game? Give me Belichick and Brady, every time.

Legacy is a weighty word. Both Belichick and Brady have already reserved cushy digs in the NFL annals. Three rings will do that.

Will history treat them differently if they fall to Denver on Sunday? It shouldn't. The Patriots, decimated by significant injuries on both sides of the ball, are playing with house money. This may be Belichick's finest year as a coach, and even though Brady's numbers are modest, what he has accomplished with a carousel of injured and inexperienced targets has been truly gratifying.

"What they've done is remarkable,'' Holmgren said. "How important is it for them to win another one? You are probably talking to the wrong guy. They are so firmly entrenched. To get another one would be more remarkable, I suppose, but this legacy stuff is all about 'What have you done for me lately?' these days. You can't argue with the total body of work.''

As NBA coach Pat Riley is fond of saying, "There's winning, and there's misery.''

You don't have to press Belichick and Brady on what they've done lately. They ask themselves that same question, over and over again.

Tom Brady is 36 years old, and with each passing season, the opportunities dwindle. Nine seasons without a ring is a football lifetime to him. The coach and the quarterback don't want to hear their season has already been a success no matter what happens. They don't care at all right now about their place in NFL history. They are too focused on ducking the misery that has ruined every winter since the glory days of rings and parades and the undisputed claim that they were the best.