By Bill Burt
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are already counted among the top coach-quarterback combinations since the Super Bowl era began in 1967.
Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning. Don Shula and Dan Marino. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
In December, they broke the Shula-Marino record of 16 years and 116 regular season victories for the Miami Dolphins — and they did it in 35 fewer games, more than two seasons' worth.
Now, four years after losing Super Bowl XLII to the Giants, 17-14, Belichick and Brady have another chance to match Walsh and Montana's record of four Super Bowl rings. The Pittsburgh Steelers, with head coach Chuck Noll and quarterback Terry Bradshaw, also won four Super Bowls and did it just six seasons, but those championships were built around defense, not Bradshaw's offensive prowess.
It takes a great coach and a great quarterback to make great combination and, as individuals, Belichick and Brady are among the best ever at their jobs.
"Bill's two greatest strengths are his insight into the game and his foresight," said former Patriots offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Charlie Weis. "He's well above any coach I've ever seen in his study of the game, the insight he puts into it, while at the same time he's always thinking down the road.
"As for Tommy," said Weis. "His feet are so still. There are times he just stands there. There are people all around. He just stands there. And there are times he has to move a little to the left, a little to the right or go back or go forward. He does it, finds a window and throws the ball. I've never seen anyone so calm playing the quarterback position. There are certain people who have it — and I can't tell you what 'it' is — Tommy has it."
What happens when you put the two together?
"You get championships," said Weis. "That's what makes them special. They understand each other. They respect each other. They know that they can't get to where they want to go, which is winning championships, without the other. It really is a special relationship."
Ex-coach and current ESPN studio analyst Herm Edwards knows about coach-quarterback relationships. And he knows a lot about the one based in Foxboro.
Edwards and former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy lead all past and current head coaches with nine games against the Belichick-Brady combo. With Peyton Manning as his QB, Dungy was a respectable 4-5 against the Patriots duo, and that included an 0-4 start. Edwards was only 1-8.
Edwards' Jets teams finished 39-41 over his five years using three different starting quarterbacks — Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington and Brooks Bollinger. Edwards' teams made the playoffs in his first, second and fourth season.
"Let me put it this way. I was a lot smarter when Chad (Pennington) was healthy," said Edwards. "I'm not saying we were great or he was leading us to Super Bowls. But having a quarterback you can trust, and vice versa, is paramount. Coaches and quarterbacks are linked together, good and bad."
Edwards said the bond between Belichick and Brady shows in the way the team plays.
"You can see it. The way the offense moves, so efficiently. That's the both of them," said Edwards. "In today's world, more than any, it is a quarterback-driven league. When you have an elite one you sleep a lot better at night. You know that if the game is close in the fourth quarter, that your quarterback probably won't beat himself. Brady means four or five wins a year. I really believe it."
Brady and Belichick are often asked about each other and about their relationship.
Brady has always said that Belichick is the boss and that his coach's preparation is unparalleled.
When asked to compare Brady with, say, Peyton Manning or rank him among the all-time best, Belichick usually holds back a bit. But he makes it clear he understands his own success is tied to Brady's
"Anything that's associated with winning, I'm proud of," said Belichick, after beating the Ravens in the AFC Championship two Sundays ago. "There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady. He's the best. He does so much for us in so many ways on so many different levels. I'm really fortunate that he's our quarterback and for what he's able to do for this team."
The close relationship between coach and quarterback was on display in the NFL Network's documentary, "Bill Belichick: A Football Life."
Belichick and Brady were seen having frank discussions about the team and its struggles in 2009 during a painful loss to the New Orleans Saints. It was almost as if Belichick was seeking his quarterback's advice.
"We have no mental toughness. We go on the road ... we have no mental toughness," said Belichick to Brady. "I can't get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can't do it."
Belichick and Brady's mutual trust goes back to the 11th game of the 2001 season, when Drew Bledsoe had regained his health two months after a rib injury. The Patriots were 5-5, and Brady had been good, not great, over a four-game stretch, with seven touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
In a controversial move, Belichick chose Brady over Bledsoe. In that first game as the undisputed starter, Brady threw for four TDs in a 34-17 win over New Orleans. The Patriots never lost again that season.
Edwards has reminded Belichick, Brady and the Patriots from time to time that he played a role in the success of the team over the last 11 seasons.
"Remember, it was our guy that knocked Bledsoe out of the game and opened the door for Brady," said Edwards. Edwards was talking about former Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, who knocked Bledsoe out of action as he tried to run out of bounds in September of 2001.
Are Brady and Belichick the best ever?
"That's a tough thing to say," Edwards said. "When my father was asked about serving in World War II and all of the great soldiers, he'd say, 'You know, there was a World War I. There were some pretty good soldiers there, too.'
"Belichick didn't invent football. And we don't know about some of the great stars before the NFL was on the map. I will say this ... In this era, nobody has been better than these two."