The Patriots have an intricate offensive system, probably more so than any other team in the NFL. The organization knows how to gameplan for just about any team or scheme. But there has been a history of positional turnover, at least in the time Tom Brady has been the starting quarterback and centerpiece of the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
Taking a look at the coaching staff since 2000, there have been 3 official offensive coordinators: Charlie Weis, Bill O’Brien, and Josh McDaniels. Brady has made it to at least one super bowl with each (3 with Weis, 1 with O’Brien, and 4 with McDaniels). Weis won all 3, O’Brien lost his only appearance, and McDaniels has won 2 so far. Looking further into the success of each coordinator, each can be broken down by their record in each postseason appearance. Weis was present for four seasons, missing the playoffs once (2002) and winning every postseason game Brady appeared in. O’Brien had three seasons with Brady, losing one Super Bowl (2011) and facing one-and-done playoff appearances with losses to the Ravens and Jets(!). McDaniels, in two stints with the team, had a greater variety of finishes. They lost a divisional round game to the Broncos, a conference championship to the Colts, and a Super Bowl to the Giants in his first stint, missing the playoffs in 2008 when Brady got injured. I will return to this point later. In his second stint, they have not failed to reach the AFC Championship game. They have lost to the Ravens and Broncos (twice), and beaten the Colts, Steelers, and Jaguars. Going back to the final season with O’Brien, Tom Brady has been to 7 consecutive AFC Championships, winning 4 and losing 1 (the extra win was against Baltimore with O’Brien, which finished with Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal).
What’s the point of all of this? The point is that with all of these offensive systems, Brady has had tremendous success, though with O’Brien’s the team was eliminated early a few times. He has been league MVP three times and Super Bowl MVP four times. Regardless of the coordinator Brady has been able to lead the team deep into the playoffs in the majority of his time as a quarterback, reaching the Super Bowl in 50% of his seasons and the AFC Championship in 62.5% of his seasons. He has led the league in passing yardage three times, including at the age of 40, and touchdowns four times. Regardless of the offensive system, one constant factor remains: relying on Tom Brady is enough to get you to the playoffs, more often than not deep into the playoffs.
How do we qualify that success? Brady deserves most of the credit, as he has had a revolving door of wide receivers that range from reliable and dominant (Brown, Edelman, Welker, Gronkowski) to briefly great but short lived (MOSS) to bust (Gaffney, Ochocinco, Lloyd, Thompkins, Stallworth, Caldwell). The mediocre-to-bad receivers tend to outnumber the good-to-great ones, especially with Belichick’s tendency to cut or trade players a year or two before age catches up to them. But Brady has managed to play at peak performance with any assortment of receivers, great or terrible, through injuries and inconsistencies.
How, then, do we explain the team’s record without Brady? Since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Brady has missed 20 games (16 in 2008 excluding one series against the Chiefs, 4 in 2016, and about half of a playoff game against the Steelers in 2001/2). In that time, Matt Cassel managed an 11-5 record (missing the playoffs through wild card tiebreakers), Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett went 3-1, and Drew Bledsoe handled one win in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh. That’s an impressive 15-6 record without Brady. How does that impact Brady’s legacy?
In regards to 2008, 11-5 is a solid record. But with a very similar roster from the previous season, losing Brady made a difference of five games. FIVE games out of 16 is 31.25% of the whole season. That’s like a difference of 50 games in the MLB or 26 in the NBA. It’s a huge difference.
As to 2016, the Patriots were locked and loaded to get their revenge from the year before and from Deflategate. Martellus Bennett and Chris Long were all in for a chance at a ring, and the offense operated more conservatively with the backup quarterbacks in. Garoppolo looked very good in his 6 quarters, but still made a few decisions that Brady would not have made. And while their victories over the Cardinals, Dolphins, and Texans were very good wins, they were beating up on some teams with clear deficiencies and only beat Arizona because of a missed field goal. They were also shut out at Gillette by a mediocre Bills team. Brady then had a near-MVP season the rest of the way, losing only one en route to the greatest comeback of all time in the Super Bowl.
So the title of this post is somewhat true and somewhat facetious. Brady is the system. He is the only consistent part of the offense from 2001 to now, and he’s playing better than ever at the age of 40. To try to diminish that because the team as a whole has had a lot of talent on both sides of the ball (particularly the defense at the start of his career) and god-tier coaching at times is ridiculous.