Bill Belichick never tipped his post-Brady plan. Now it’s clear.
By Ben Shpigel
When Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season, the New York Yankees did not have an obvious internal candidate to replace him, and that was not a problem. They believed, and so did their fans, that the team’s next shortstop, no matter what, would be a good one, and he was: Didi Gregorius, acquired in a trade, blossomed into a dynamic all-around player during five seasons in pinstripes after an inauspicious start.
Some professional sports franchises, because of their prestige and success, tend to engender a certain faith when making decisions, especially big ones.
The Yankees are one of them. The New England Patriots are another.
For the past three months, the Patriots’ conspicuous quiet through the draft and free agency insinuated that Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick in 2019, would replace Hall of Fame-bound Tom Brady at quarterback. That seemed ludicrous and totally believable all at once.
With eight Super Bowl victories — with six as New England’s coach — Bill Belichick has the organizational standing to say, and do, just about anything short of proclaiming his dog, a magnificent Alaskan Klee Kai named Nike, as special-teams coordinator. That includes not just moving on from perhaps the best quarterback in league history in Brady, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this offseason, but anointing as his successor a player who has attempted only four NFL passes.
“It could be misplaced, but your average Patriots fan looks at it and says, ‘Well, if Bill Belichick decides that Tom Brady shouldn’t be here anymore, he must have a better plan,’” said Michael Holley, a longtime sports reporter and columnist in Boston who is now a professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. Holley, who has written four books about the Patriots, including, “Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football,” added: “People are just so used to Bill Belichick figuring it out.”
Like the Yankees, who once professed they were comfortable with Bubba Crosby supplanting Bernie Williams in center field only to wind up snatching Johnny Damon from Boston, the Patriots did, indeed, appear to figure it out. They agreed to sign Cam Newton, the 2015 most valuable player who has been hampered in recent seasons by shoulder and foot injuries, to a one-year deal reportedly loaded with incentives.
If Newton, 31, is healthy, there is little reason to expect he wouldn’t start this season. The signing is a great value for the Patriots, who delight in making the rest of the league — or at least those who entered the offseason with unstable quarterback situations — look foolish. Newton’s arrival teems with that potential.
Because it was unlikely that New England would unearth a pocket quarterback as reliable as Brady, the Patriots, rather than replace him with a lesser version, pivoted. During Brady’s tenure, the offense certainly evolved, at various times prioritizing two pass-catching tight ends or an up-tempo pace or the run-heavy system that propelled New England to its last championship, after the 2018 season.
How the team adapted in that time, and thus the roster, was governed as much by what Brady did well as what he did not. If healthy, Newton allows the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme a way to capitalize on the threat of his mobility or keep defenses honest with his arm, using the run-pass option.
As other teams expended precious draft capital or lavished expensive contracts on quarterbacks, the Patriots waited. They stayed away from Marcus Mariota and Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, all of whom signed short-term deals as backups, and opted not to draft a quarterback — though, as Belichick indicated afterward, that was not necessarily by design.
The Patriots have long cultivated a reputation as a team that skirts the boundaries of fair play, from their involvement in the so-called Spygate and Deflategate scandals to their most recent controversy, in which they were fined $1.1 million and docked a 2021 third-round draft pick for videotaping the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline during a game last December in Cleveland. This move for Newton — leaked, as it happened, minutes before the videotaping punishment was levied — grants New England yet another edge.
For Newton, the appeal of the Patriots is simple: the opportunity to resurrect his career with a banner franchise, for a legendary coach, with a forgiving depth chart. If he wanted to remain a starter, New England presented his best option. But while Newton upgrades the position, it is unclear how much he can help transform the rest of the roster.
Beyond Brady, the Patriots also lost, among others, star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to play with his buddy in Tampa Bay; defensive stalwarts Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins; kicker Stephen Gostkowski; and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The Patriots are not rebuilding but rather reinventing themselves, with a coach who loves to tinker.
With Brady gone, the only person capable of cloaking the Patriots’ deficiencies is Belichick, who is entrusted with squeezing a 12th consecutive division title from a team that will resemble none that he has overseen during his time in New England.
After every coaching milestone, Belichick, who has won the third-most games in league history (273), deflects questions about his legacy and redirects praise onto his players. He has won with an array of stars, in different ways, but never without Brady, his tether for two decades. Given his choice, Belichick did not pick Bubba Crosby. He picked a former star, an electrifying and charismatic presence. He chose Cam Newton.