By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
As hard as it is to picture, there is a part of the Bill Belichick Patriots era that existed pre-Tom Brady. In fact, Bill had two whole offseasons of putting together a team before Brady really became a part of the picture.
With Brady now headed for Tampa, will Bill handle things any differently than he has for the past 18 years? You could argue Brady established himself as a ‘sure thing’ after winning the Super Bowl in 2001, if not the next year by proving ’01 wasn’t a fluke. Keeping that in mind, what do Belichick’s moves in the offseasons prior (mainly focusing on 2000 and 2001) tell us about what he’ll do now?
Those early 2000’s Patriots teams weren’t even supposed to be built around Tom Brady. The identity of those teams was meant to be elite defense with a neutral passing offense carried by a power run game that could chew up yards and clock. Brady’s emergence allowed them to add a passing dynamic, but that was a bonus.
In 2000, the Patriots used two of their top three draft picks on big, road grading offensive linemen (Adrian Klemm, Greg Robinson-Randall). The next year, Belichick once again used two of his top four picks on linemen (Matt Light, Kenyatta Jones). The other two picks (DT Richard Seymour, CB Brock Williams) were dedicated to defense.
During that span in free agency, the Patriots added eventual crucial pieces to multiple championship defenses. In 2001 alone they signed Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Terrell Buckley, Anthony Pleasant, and Bryan Cox.
In 2001 they also added running back Antowain Smith, who proved to be a core workhorse back for the first two Super Bowl runs. Guard Mike Compton was also among their top signings, he started all 16 games during their Super Bowl XXXVI run.
Looking at Belichick’s moves over the past few seasons and early on this offseason, he may be back on that track. The majority of this year’s signings have been on the defensive side of the ball. Adrian Phillips, Beau Allen, and Brandon Copeland are probably the three biggest external names brought in so far. On top of that, speculation has been that a post-coronavirus physical is all that is holding up the team adding pass rusher Derek Wolfe.
Belichick has also made a point of bolstering the offensive line, highlighted by the surprising decision to franchise tag guard Joe Thuney. You could argue the planning for the running game goes as far back as 2018, when the team drafted running back Sony Michel in the first round. He hasn’t exactly been the flashy playmaker fans expected a first-round pick to be, but based on what we’ve seen in his first two years it’s not unrealistic to think he could play an Antowain Smith-type role in a post-Brady offense.
“But will a strategy from 2000 work now?” you may ask. “The NFL has changed so much in the last 20 years.”
The reality is, a good defense never goes out of style. Take for example the 2019 San Francisco 49ers. That team was based on an elite defense and a strong running game, and came within a few poor Kyle Shanahan decisions of a Super Bowl.
Jimmy Garoppolo is certainly a big name, but it would be tough to argue he was one of the most influential people on the field for the Niners. Of the 13 quarterbacks to start all 16 games last year, Garoppolo threw the 12th most passes, ahead of only Josh Allen. Meanwhile, seven quarterbacks who played less games than Jimmy G in 2019 threw more passes than him.
For the people who wanted a historic performance from Jimmy Garoppolo, you got one— Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth) January 20, 2020
He's just the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win a conference championship game throwing 8 or fewer passes, and the first in 47 years
Bob Griese did so twice, in 1972 and 1973
The Patriots don’t have nearly the roster the Niners did in 2019, but that’s not to say they can’t get there. San Francisco had won six games or fewer the four seasons leading up to their Super Bowl run, including just four wins in 2018.
This is not to say the next quarterback can’t become a playmaker. Obviously Brady became one, and the Patriots adjusted. It’s a good problem to have. Even if that is the case though, it takes time.
The 2019 season proved that the age of quarterbacks throwing the ball 50-plus times a game on a regular basis may be on its way out. Unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the rare elite arms like Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers, it just isn’t sustainable. Teams like the Niners, Titans, Bills and Ravens (all playoff teams) proved you can win games in the modern era with a strong running game and stout defense.
In that lens, Bill Belichick is right in his sweet spot. He can pick up where he left off when Brady emerged in 2001, putting together his championship defense and handing the offense a single responsibility of not turning the ball over. As boring and/or unlikely as that may sound to some fans, it’s the quickest way to getting back to becoming a winning team in the post-Brady era.
Plus, he’s done it before.