During this NFL season, New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick has been featured in a series of ads for Subway.
He doesn’t do much in them. Just stands there boring his eyes into whatever schmuck has been dumb enough to buy fried chicken.
In one of them, a woman talks herself into getting a foot-long sub motivated entirely by the power of Belichick’s stare.
“Good speech, coach,” she says at the end.
When were these commercials filmed? Because they no longer make any sense.
As recently as last year, football people routinely referred to Belichick as the best in history at his job.
Today, with his team sitting at 2-5, after another miserable late-game loss on Sunday, Belichick should be stripped of his honorifics. He no longer seems like the best coach in history. He seems like the luckiest.
Because, as it turns out, Belichick didn’t make Tom Brady. Brady made him. And now, without raising a word against him or a hand in his direction, Brady is unmaking him.
It may be the most subtle act of reputational destruction in sports history. If this is Brady’s revenge, then God it must be sweet.
The Belichick-Brady extended meet-cute is the foundation of their co-legend. Brady was an underappreciated semi-starter at a major college. Belichick was a well-regarded assistant coach who’d been a failure the only time he’d had the top job, in Cleveland. Both men nursed enormous grudges against those who’d overlooked them.
The way this story goes, Belichick identified the potential in Brady that no one else could see. That’s not quite true. The man who pushed hardest for Brady inside the Patriots' organization was the quarterback coach, Dick Rehbein. Belichick drafted six players before he took Brady.
So this wasn’t eyes meeting across a crowded room. Belichick took a limited-risk gamble on someone one of his lieutenants had convinced him about. The romance would not begin until a couple of years later.
Anyone who follows football knows the story – Drew Bledsoe got hurt; Brady stepped in to be his temporary replacement; Bledsoe came on in relief to win the AFC Championship game; Brady got the job back in the Super Bowl and won that.
At that point, the story was not about New England’s embarrassment of quarterbacking riches. It was Belichick’s brilliance in managing an awkward situation. It was his courage and tactical nous – not Brady’s talent – that turned the Patriots from a very good team into a great one.
Even as the Super Bowls piled up and Brady’s own reputation grew, Belichick continued to benefit from that initial impression.
In the late phase of their dynasty, the Patriots often looked pretty average on paper. That was Belichick’s version of a plan.
Whenever a player other than Brady developed into a star and came looking for a payout, Belichick would jettison him. He refused to spend big money in free agency. He didn’t draft particularly well. But he did continue to put a winner onto the field.
Although he was the person creating the dearth of options, Belichick’s ability to deliver results without the proper tools was held up as the ultimate proof of his genius. He was football’s Billy Beane – except he won.
It was a great story. Add to it Belichick’s public persona (or complete lack thereof) and it got even better.
The people who watch football don’t look like football players. They look like Belichick. He was the perfect hero for the lumpy, fashion-challenged, middle-aged tranche of NFL fandom. King of the Couch Potatoes.
Which was fine. Sports doesn’t make money staging games of skill. It gets rich making myths. Belichick’s was one of the best.
But it conveniently left out one thing – Brady.
Of course, everyone recognized that Brady was the cornerstone of Belichick’s enormous success. What they didn’t get was that Brady may have been the entire edifice.
Last summer, Brady left the Patriots via free agency. He said a lot of nice things about the organization and Belichick as he left. But in his own ingratiating way, Brady is as blank as his former boss. It’s often hard to tell what he means when he says things or if he says them because he thinks that’s the polite thing to do.
But it’s fair to say this: If Brady thought Belichick was as important to his success as everyone else seemed to think, he probably would have stayed. Because no 42-year-old leaves the team he is synonymous with to spend the last couple of years of his career getting his ass kicked all over the place. I don’t care how much money they’re offering.
Since leaving, the two men’s fortunes have diverged somewhat.
Belichick got Cam Newton as Brady’s replacement. He’s been an unmitigated disaster. On Sunday, he had New England inside the Buffalo Bills' red zone late in the fourth, trailing by three, looking for the win. This is when Newton decided to take a walk through the Bills defence carrying the ball like a loaf of bread. He was stripped. Game over.
New England hasn’t failed to make the playoffs since 2008 – a season Brady missed with a torn ACL. But it’s truly been a long time since it was eliminated in November.
Meanwhile, down in Tampa, old man Brady is leading the most electric offence in the NFL. No one considers Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians a genius. But Arians is discovering that you look an awful lot more like one when you’ve got Brady standing beside you.
We’ve long since settled the debate about who is the best quarterback in history. It’s Brady. It’s Brady for a dozen reasons.
But so late in the day, he is providing another. He didn’t just turn a so-so franchise into the one most synonymous throughout North American sport as the exemplars of winning.
He then left that franchise, so as to illustrate that it had only become that because of him and him alone.
Maybe Brady doesn’t mean any of this to be taken as a slight on Belichick’s suddenly shrinking legacy. But if he does, man, I think I rate his cold-bloodedness even higher than his passing game.