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AFTER LOSING THE GRUDGE WAR TO BRADY, BELICHICK STAYED TOO LONG
He’ll always be remembered as football’s coaching G.O.A.T., but the Sunday farce in Vegas shows he’s no longer connecting with young players and can’t catch Brady, who’s struggling himself these days
At least Tom Brady, on a tequila bender, played catch with the Lombardi Trophy in the Hillsborough River. Bill Belichick has not won a playoff game since he and his quarterback divorced. And unless Jakobi Meyers had a cell phone that allowed quick on-field execution of a gambling app — this being Vegas, this being the age of DraftKings — there is no plausible explanation for what happened Sunday beyond an emerging reality.
The greatest of NFL coaches has stuck around too long, allowing himself to be hijacked by gremlins who’ve reduced “The Patriot Way” to a punchline. And while he’ll always have a place on Mount Coachmore, in his hoodie, we come away from such hideous scenes asking pertinent questions.
Why is he still out there, pushing 71, when Nantucket and a bigger world await? Is he still trying to one-up Brady? Does he not realize, lousy as Brady is looking himself in Tampa Bay, that he already has lost that grudge war? Brady owns seven Super Bowl rings, to Belichick’s six, providing ammunition finality to those of us who think the G.O.A.T. Quarterback had slightly more to do with the New England dynasty than the G.O.A.T. Coach. Perhaps now, as he ponders another mid-January at home, Belichick will accept that Brady is the American icon heading to a Fox Sports booth for $375 million while he’ll be remembered as the demanding enabler who unlocked the potential of the 199th draft pick. Those legacies, I’m afraid, already have been written.
No leader on top of his game would have enabled the tragicomedy that cost the Patriots a critical game, if not a playoff berth. You’ve seen it by now: Rather than order quarterback Mac Jones to take a knee with three seconds left at his 45-yard line and head to overtime against the Raiders, Belichick and his failing, pencil-behind-the-ear, rocket-science-pedigreed playcaller, Matt Patricia, tempted disaster by sending in a draw play for running back Rhamondre Stevenson. If you’d never heard of him before now, Stevenson is 24 and in his second pro season. He’s young. He’s vulnerable to making mistakes and ignoring instructions, which had been, as he said later, “The coaches gave us a play just to kind of run the time out, just get down. I feel like I should have done just that.”
So instead of hitting the turf when tackled in Raiders territory with 0:00 on the Allegiant Stadium clock, Stevenson morphed into a wannabe backyard hero and attempted something decidedly un-Belichickian. He lateraled the ball back to Meyers at the Raiders’ 40. Unlike Stevenson, Meyers has been in Foxborough for four seasons and should have known better than to prolong — again, Belichick should have had taken a knee — what is going down as the dumbest decision and most absurd play in the league’s 102 years. Choosing a weird time to summon passing skills from his quarterbacking days at Arabia Mountain High School, outside of Atlanta, Meyers reversed direction and tried to THROW THE FOOTBALL TO MAC JONES.
To be clear, Belichick had not instructed his players to be lateraling. They freelanced of their own volition, which should remind him that Gen Z players generally are about 90 percent less coachable than players from the leather-helmet era. Still, if his methods were still effective in 2022, thoughts of reckless laterals wouldn’t have entered the brainstreams of Meyers and Stevenson. His methods, obviously, are not as effective now. Or the Patriots, after missing the playoffs in 2020 and crawling out of Buffalo after a 47-17 wild-card loss last winter, wouldn’t be 7-7 this season and needing help to claim the AFC’s seventh and final playoff berth.
The errant pass was caught by Jones, all right — Chandler Jones, wearing silver and black. As a Belichick protege, Josh McDaniels, began to celebrate an unexpected holiday gift on the other sideline, one Jones delivered a final blow to the other Jones — steamrolling and squashing him like a Big Mac — and gave the Raiders a 30-24 victory with a 48-yard interception return. The scowl on Belichick’s face will not disappear in 2022, if ever again. It was revealing how his players took responsibility for the farce when he did not.
“Just trying to do too much, trying to be a hero, I guess,’’ Meyers said. “I thought I saw Mac open. I didn't see Chandler Jones at the time. I thought (Mac) was open and tried to get it to him, and let him try to make a play with it. But the score was tied, so I should have went down.”
Said Stevenson: “The play call is just a draw play and nothing more, nothing less. I'm supposed to know the situation, I'm supposed to know how much time is on the clock. Critical situations. I failed to do that today.”
“It’s not his fault,” Meyers said. “He gave me the ball because he trusted me. I have to be smarter than that.”
As for the Jones-on-Jones violence at the end, the quarterback blamed himself for a feeble tackling attempt. Again, in the distant New England past, Brady might take down an opponent after a picks. He was coached up. Mac Jones is not being coached up. “I gotta tackle the guy,” he said. “It’s on me and it’s my fault … so I tackle him, and then we play for overtime. So it’s on me. We gotta make that. Not good enough by me.”
Of course, none of this madness would have unfurled if Belichick had ordered Jones to take a knee. After mumbling that “the play didn’t work” and that Meyers and Stevenson “made a mistake on the play,” he did respond when asked, “If there was any coaching point, after you called the draw, to say the play’s over, just fall down and go out of bounds?”
“Obviously, that would have been better than the result,” Belichick grunted. Still, he refused to accept even a modicum of blame, adding: “Yeah, we talk about situational football. We talk about it every week, but we’ve obviously got to do a better job playing situational football and not making critical mistakes.”
Why not have Mac throw a Hail Mary? “Taking a shot at the end zone?” he said. “Couldn’t throw it that far.”
Well, Belichick drafted him as the anointed successor to Brady. That hasn’t worked out, either, with rookie Bailey Zappe displaying more zest in October. Funny how Jalen Hurts, who bolted Alabama when Nick Saban decided Tua Tagovailoa was better, might be the league MVP this season in Philadelphia. And how Tagovailoa, when healthy and not in concussion protocol, is playing well in Miami. But Mac Jones, who succeeded both in Tuscaloosa, has regressed after a promising rookie season. Seems the QB Class of 2021, viewed then as rich and deep, is crystalizing into something less. Trevor Lawrence finally is living up to his No. 1 billing in Jacksonville. Zach Wilson looks like another Jets bust. Trey Lance — who was expected to supplant Jimmy Garoppolo, dealt to the 49ers by Belichick in 2017 — might never be the starter in San Francisco with the emergence of Brock Purdy. Justin Fields if a run-first, pass-second delight in Chicago, where fans don’t understand the quarterback position — they’ve rarely seen a decent one — and don’t realize he’s vulnerable to serious injuries. If teams were re-drafting today, the order would be Lawrence, Fields, Lance, Jones and Wilson. But Lawrence might be the only one headed to long-term stardom.
Consider it another letdown in Belichick’s career twilight. Before Brady entered his life, he was just another once-fired head coach with a sterling defensive reputation trying to make hay in New England. When Brady grew tired of a repressive regime and left, he instantly proved he still could be a champion — opting for a fun, loose head coach and punishing defense with the Buccaneers. He won a Super Bowl in 2020. A prisoner to his competitive inferno, he continued to play when he could have retired. Since then, he has lost his wife to a public divorce and only will make the playoffs this season because the NFL rewards every division champion. At 6-8, a game ahead of three other stumblebums in the lame NFC South, the Bucs might be the most wretched postseason qualifier ever.
Sunday, while Belichick lost his ass in Vegas, Brady was a central figure in his biggest career collapse. In 23 seasons, he’d won the previous 89 times his teams led by at least 17 points at halftime. Two fumbles and two interceptions later, Brady watched as the quarterback sometimes hailed as his torch-passing heir — Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow — threw for four second-half touchdowns and led an onslaught of 34 consecutive points. “He’s Tom and I’m Joe,” Burrow said last week, while Brady was foolishly supplying fodder for a Bengals team that almost won a Super Bowl last February.
“Fairly tough,” Brady said of their defense.
“Hearing that from an old, savvy vet from him, we're a ‘fairly tough defense,’ with four turnovers, what would you say — tough as nails?" Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt said after the 34-23 win.
In his brief press conference — as Bengals cornerback Eli Apple was chirping outside, “The future is now, old man!” — Brady said something his tormented former coach wouldn’t say. “The two fumbles were my fault — it was uncharacteristic,” he said. It goes without saying that Brady has been distracted by his divorce, as he continues to help raise his kids while his ex-wife dates around.
But it was his decision to keep playing at 45, even as the Fox seat is kept warm for him. True, as I’ve told anyone who asks, why begrudge Brady when no other male in the American workplace is expected to retire in his mid-40s. Just the same, no other male in the American workplace is pummeled by 300-pound defenders and subjected to brain trauma.
As we reminisce one day about the most successful collaboration of a quarterback and coach in football history, we’ll say Tom Brady was wise to leave the clutches of Bill Belichick and win once more. But we’ll also say he should have retired after his seventh championship. And we’ll say Belichick should have left then, too.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.