Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Trailing by Several TDs in the Game of Love

People are complicated, even football coaches and football heroes. Because of that fact, human relationships are quite complex. They're full of ambivalence. They're messy, even if they share five Super Bowl titles.

So learning that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have a relationship that's complex, messy and with its fair share of friction comes as news only if we deny that the two of them are human beings. Granted they each go out of their way to cover up their humanity, but people they are. Gifted people, which puts added strain on their relationship, since the gifted are extra complex, not least because they know damn well they're exceptional.

Expecting any team's NFL head coach and quarterback to have an endless honeymoon live-happily-ever-after relationship is childish. Worse, it infantilizes both parties in the relationship. It denies them their individuality, their pride, their own competitive natures. Pro football teams generate far deeper emotional ties within themselves than do more normal businesses, but they ARE businesses, and the relationships within them are business relationships, not romances nor pure friendships. A coach and a QB have a transactional relationship, no matter how close that relationship might be. Belichick is Brady's boss. Brady is Beliechick's most valuable employee. That's the truth at the bottom of how they interact.

Oh, how I wish the two of 'em would say words to that effect. Maybe then Pats fans and NFL media would drop the "Tom and Bill face life" soap opera and treat them as the grown, difficult men they are. This is about the vainest wish I've ever made. Belichick says nothing about football's emotional side, let alone his own, Brady says things that mean nothing, and I'm not sure which is less informative.

What would drive a great coach and great quarterback apart? Several traits they have in common. One, a ferocious and unhealthy love of competition and the need to win at it. Two, the near inhuman will, powerful ego, and yes, selfishness that come with the need to compete and triumph.

History offers examples. Otto Graham was not enamored of Paul Brown. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw never liked each other. Troy Aikman won a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer, a coach he despised. It took the latter's illness and death for Joe Montana to reconcile with Bill Walsh

We don't need books to know Belichick and Brady have mutual resentments. We need only examine human nature. Unless they were saints, and they'd fight to be the first to deny that, it is only natural each of these prideful men might feel deep down they don't get their fair share of credit for the Patriots' unmatched success over two decades. One damnable thing about credit is it's hard to split down the middle.

Football is Belichick's life. It's what he is. He's entitled to resent the popular notion that without Brady, he'd never have made a Super Bowl as a head coach, let alone win five. After all, he saw something in the skinny kid at 2000 rookie camp worth keeping him around for. I saw that rookie camp and thought I'd never see Brady make that year's preseason cut.

Brady has more going on his life than football (I love how that drives some outsiders up a wall), but that aw-shucks facade doesn't fool anybody. He knows damn well he's at the very pinnacle of his demanding profession, one of the legends who'll be known by only one name long after he leaves the sport, long after he leaves life itself. He's entitled to feel that his coach could more freely acknowledge, in both public and private, that Brady has been pretty good at football over the years.

Does each man occasionally, or perhaps more often, that they get a "divorce." I'd bet big money the answer is yes. Yet, here they are, married for 19 years in the closest coach-athlete relationship in sports. And of all the historical feats Brady and Belichick have shared, the longevity of their joint custody of the Pats is the most amazing of all. There's been no other coach and QB who've stuck together anything like that long. Nineteen years is about half of Brady's whole life, and more than a quarter of Belichick's. There must be some reason they put up with other that's a good deal more relevant than the backstairs gossip being bandied about.

Love's great for real marriage, but for business, need is the core of a productive relationship. As much as Brady and Belichick may resent each other, which is probably more a subtext than the driving force of their day-to-day interaction, they are also smart enough to look at the scoreboards they've shared since 2001 and realize it all  wouldn't have happened if the other guy hadn't been there too.

Brady may think Belichick's a grouch. He is, after all. But I bet he also thinks that if Bill hadn't been his first pro coach, his most likely career outcome would've resembled Ryan Fitzpatrick's, bouncing from team to team, bouncing between starter and backup., maybe the occasional playoff appearance. Fitzpatrick's had a more than respectable career. A legend he ain't.

Likewise, no matter how much it may gall Belichick to hear or read he owes his success to Brady, the coach is realistic enough to know that without his Hall of Fame QB, his own career path would most likely have followed that of Wade Phillips. Many years as a highly regarded defensive coordinator for various teams mixed in with a couple of head coaching jobs where the lack of a QB got him fired. Phillips' career could be called distinguished without stretching. He's not going to Canton and Bill is.

Belichick has shared another fraught professional relationship in his career with one Bill Parcells. Oh, they've reconciled now, on the surface anyway, but the mutual tension was real and should have been. Being Parcells' number henchman had to have left scars. Parcells was a blast to write about. To work for? No thanks.

At one of the nadirs of their frenemyship. I think when Parcells was at Dallas, a reporter asked Parcells about Belichick. Bill said only "we won a lot of games together. That's all I can say." His tone and facial expression made it clear that in his mind, anyone who didn't immediately understand his answer knew nothing about football at all.

If winning is what drives you, if it's what you value most, then people who help you win have a quality that far outweighs any of their other traits. You might resent them. You might hate their guts. But you need them for the Ws to which you are so profoundly addicted. Perhaps I'm old school, but to me, the idea that Belichick and Brady have resentments and animosities makes their relationship praiseworthy, not something to be sniggered at. Isn't that teamwork in action?

Forget the second-hand drama. As long as the Pats keep winning, Brady and Belichick will tolerate each other. No, that's not quite the right word. They will continue to depend on each other.  If New England goes 7-9 this season or next, the Foxboro Bickersons might get a divorce. Otherwise, they'll co-exist win to win, and probably more wins than that.