Kurt Kragthorpe: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick give Patriots staying power
This would be a better story only if New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had mistaken the rookie quarterback for a delivery boy that day, when Tom Brady was carrying a pizza box and stopped to introduce himself.
Even if Brady was only a sixth-round draft choice, Kraft knew him. Yet the owner was not quite prepared for what came next. "I'm the best decision this franchise has ever made," Brady told his boss.
Retelling the story during a news conference prior to the AFC championship game, Kraft said, "It looks like he may be right."
The only other contender for that title? The hiring of Kraft's coach. Bill Belichick's odds against becoming an elite member of the profession seemed as staggering as Brady's, considering he had been fired from his only previous head coaching position in Cleveland.
When the Patriots meet the New York Giants, Belichick and Brady will appear together in a fifth Super Bowl. In doing so, they'll eclipse three iconic coach/quarterback combinations: Dallas' Tom Landry/Roger Staubach, Buffalo's Marv Levy/Jim Kelly and Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw.
They've done it over 11 seasons, a remarkable run in this era of competitive balance in pro football. When Kraft says Belichick "will go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL," he's making a strong argument in citing the circumstances. Nobody else who's in that conversation was coaching when the salary cap and free agency radically altered team rosters year after year.
"This league is set up for everyone to go 8-8," Kraft said.
The Patriots keep defying parity, thanks to Belichick and Brady. Offensive lineman Matt Light is Brady's only remaining teammate from that first championship 10 years ago. Even more striking is the fact that only three other current starters receiver Wes Welker, offensive lineman Logan Mankins and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork were in the lineup in the Patriots' most recent Super Bowl appearance, the loss to the Giants four years ago.
Let's just say Belichick and Brady could not do this without the other.
"Bill's brilliance is understanding what fits for our team," Kraft said.
Belichick keeps finding and developing talent in the continual makeover that every NFL team experiences. It helps that Brady is a constant amid all of that change. After missing most of the 2008 season with a knee injury and then losing in a playoff opener each of the next two seasons, Brady has brought the Patriots back to this level.
When he takes his first snap against the Giants, he'll match Denver's John Elway, who played in five Super Bowls under two coaches over 13 seasons. Another victory would equal Joe Montana's and Bradshaw's four titles.
Brady's distinction is that he's become even more important to his team as his career progressed. "They definitely built an offense around him," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
Ten years ago, Brady led a drive to the winning field goal as New England beat St. Louis. That came at the end of Brady's second pro season, when he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe and led the Patriots into the playoffs. Bledsoe filled in when Brady was hurt during the AFC title game, but Brady returned for the Super Bowl, beginning a run of three championships in four seasons.
The Pats have not won it all since the 2004 season. That seven-year stretch actually makes the return of Belichick and Brady to the Super Bowl more impressive. Because of them, this franchise was built to last. Brady may have expressed big ambitions that day in 2000 when he bumped into Kraft outside the old Foxboro Stadium, but not even he could have seen all of this coming.
Coach/quarterback Super Bowl appearances
Bill Belichick/Tom Brady, New England 5*
Tom Landry/Roger Staubach, Dallas 4
Marv Levy/Jim Kelly, Buffalo 4
Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh 4
* - counting Super Bowl XLVI; Green Bay's Vince Lombardi/Bart Starr won five NFL titles, two in the Super Bowl era
NFL playoff coaching victories
Tom Landry, Dallas 20
Don Shula, Baltimore/Miami 18
Bill Belichick, Cleveland/New England 17
Joe Gibbs, Washington 17
NFL quarterback playoff victories
Tom Brady, New England 16
Joe Montana, San Francisco/Kansas City 16
Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh 14
John Elway, Denver 14
Brett Favre, Green Bay/Minnesota 13
Super Bowl quarterback victories
Joe Montana, San Francisco 4
Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh 4
Troy Aikman, Dallas 3
Tom Brady, New England 3