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‘The Patriot Way’ is more complex than the Brady-Belichick debate makes it seem

Related: Hating Tom Brady must be exhausting

AFC Championship - Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Leading up to Super Bowl 55 between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the storylines that is making the round also touches on the New England Patriots. Despite two decades of evidence suggesting that no one-or-the-other answer to this question can be found, “Who was more responsible for the Patriots’ success, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick?” is a popular discussion these days.

The greatest quarterback-coach duo in NFL history, Brady and Belichick led New England on an unprecedented run of success. Between Brady’s ascension to the starting position in 2001 and his departure to Tampa Bay during last year’s free agency, the two men helped bring six Super Bowl wins to the Patriots and establish a dynasty the likes of which should not be possible in a league aggressively trying to push parity.

However, the so-called “Patriot Way” prevailed regardless of the challenges New England faced. From players and coaches leaving the organization, to continuously drafting at the bottom of the first round, to salary cap constraints, to unsubstantiated cheating allegations, to off-the-field developments beyond anyone’s control, the Patriots train just kept rolling along.

With Brady now in Tampa Bay and preparing to play in the Super Bowl in Year One after leaving Belichick and New England, however, the “Patriot Way” is again in question.

Was it really Brady all along?

Listening to past and present Patriots speak about this mythical phrase aimed at describing the team’s success through the years, however, makes it obvious that a) there is no clear definition, and b) the definitions that do exist are oftentimes built around personal opinion.

The Brady definition

Take former New England wide receiver Danny Amendola, who won two Super Bowls during his five seasons driving on the “Patriot Way”. Amendola appeared on FOX Sports’ First Things First earlier this week and defined the phrase more in favor of Brady than Belichick.

“When you see ‘Patriot Way’ in the dictionary, it’s going to have Tom Brady’s pic next to it,” he said. “None of those coaches threw any passes. None of those coaches caught any passes. None of those coaches made any tackles. They got guys in the right position because they watch a lot of film and they spend all their time at the facility. But Tom Brady is the ‘Patriot Way,’ and that’s the reason why Tom Brady’s in the Super Bowl right now and the Patriots aren’t.”

While Bill Belichick would probably agree with the assertion that players play and coaches coach, Amendola’s statements did create quite a response. One fellow former Patriot and ex-teammate of the wide receiver in New England, for example, did not agree with this definition of the “Patriot Way”.

The Belichick definition

For Rob Ninkovich, it means something else.

“Look, the way Bill coaches is the ‘Patriot Way’ and for 20 years, they had Tom Brady to embody that philosophy perfectly,” he told Boston.com. “The way that Bill coaches his team to be putting the team first, not selfish, doing what’s best for the team, putting the team’s goals in front of your own personal goals. That was Tom Brady. He was able to do that for 20 years.

“I get players sometimes, they start to lose the concepts of look, ‘We’re the ones out here making the catches and the tackles and all the things that win you the football game,’ but the way Bill coaches the team is the ‘Patriot Way.’”

Ninkovich spent eight seasons alongside Brady and Belichick, joining the team as a free agent in 2009. Like Amendola, he won two Super Bowls under their leadership and saw the Patriots’ inner workings up-close — all while making big plays in a championship setting. But while the since-retired linebacker credited Belichick with establishing the system now known as the “Patriot Way,” he also spoke highly about Brady.

“Tom was a great, great Patriot for 20 years and he was what everyone came into that building to see: this is how you do it, this is Tom Brady, I’m looking up to that guy,” said Ninkovich. “He’s a Super Bowl champ, he’s an MVP, that’s the way I do it. That’s the way I go to work. That’s the way I go to meetings, [those] are the notes I take. That’s how Tom was able to be such a leader in that locker room.”

The Brady & Belichick definition

Brady, the most successful player pro football has ever seen, was the on-field embodiment of the Patriots’ system. Brady took popular slogans such as “Do your job!” or “No days off!” — both of which coined by Bill Belichick, by the way — to heart and molded a Hall of Fame career around them.

Accordingly, one ex-Patriot called Brady “the face of the Patriot Way.”

“To me, if somebody asks me, who embodies and who is the face of the Patriot Way, kind of hard to argue the point that it’s Tom Brady,” long-time offensive tackle Matt Light said during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show.

Whereas Amendola and Ninkovich where integral members of the Patriots’ Dynasty 2.0, Light was a founding member of the first version — the one that won three Super Bowls in a four-year span between 2001 and 2004. As the team’s left tackle during those years and up until his retirement in 2012, Light helped shape the “Patriot Way” as we know it today.

For him, it is therefore not a classic either-or discussion even though the 2020 season saw Brady reach the Super Bowl while Belichick’s team missed the playoffs at 7-9.

“Can he win without Tom Brady? Yeah, I think he can. I mean, we did it in 2008, right? If you want a case study to look at, we had a guy in Matt Cassel who filled in, did a great job. Same coach, same Bill Belichick,” said Light. “I don’t look at this season and try to compare it in the realm of, ‘Who’s more important, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick?’ Those are two of the most dynamic people to ever play in the game. ...

“I wouldn’t put either one of those guys down, but it is a system. New England is a system kind of scheme. It always has been, always will be with Bill Belichick as the head coach.”

The chaotic definition

While Light last played for the Patriots during the 2011 season, and Ninkovich and Amendola left the team in back-to-back offseasons after the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, Dont’a Hightower is still around. He did sit out the 2020 season after exercising the Coronavirus opt-out, and his future is uncertain at this point, but Hightower has been a core member of the team ever since his arrival in the first round of the 2012 draft.

The long-time team captain and three-time champion had an entirely different perspective when it came to defining the “Patriot Way”: Hightower took a more existential approach when asked about it in 2017.

“Honestly, there is no definition of the “Patriot Way,’” he told the Houston Chronicle. “There is not a word or phrase we could use. It is just more about the way you carry yourself, about the way you manage expectations, and know what expectations are. Guys come in not knowing what it is and guys go out not being able to explain what the ‘Patriot Way’ is, but when you are there, you know what it is. Guys buy in.”

While Hightower’s definition does not necessarily discredit the others, it does raise an important point: the “Patriot Way” is almost a spiritual experience, whose presence can hardly be pinned to one single individual.

Kevin Faulk, who arrived in New England even before Belichick and Brady came aboard in 2000, also defines it in a similar way.

The simple definition

Like Matt Light, Faulk has been recognized as one of the best players in franchise history by being voted into the Patriots Hall of Fame after his retirement. He spent 13 seasons with the organization, and is one of just six players to be part of the first three championship teams to have arrived in the 1990s and under different head coaches than Bill Belichick.

As he pointed out in a Players Tribune article back in 2017, the “Patriot Way” is not about one person or a some vague concept. It is about winning.

Some people say it’s the way Coach Belichick runs the team, preaching accountability and placing a strong emphasis on doing your job. Some say it’s our style of play, with Tom Brady as our quarterback. But truthfully, it’s neither.

The Patriot Way ain’t about nothing but winning, man.

That’s it.

Winning certainly has proven itself an integral part of the Patriots’ last two decades: no organization in the NFL came close to having the same consistent success as New England year-in and year-out — no organization was able to challenge its standing atop the league’s mountaintop for more than one or two seasons.

Regardless of how it is defined, and who gets more credit for its creation and maintenance through the years, the “Patriot Way” was the foundation of it all.

Was it Brady? Some, like Danny Amendola, apparently think so. Others, like Rob Ninkovich, go with Belichick. As always, however, the truth is somewhere in the middle: for the “Patriot Way” to become reality and the basis of New England’s dynasty, the stars needed to align perfectly. Those stars are Brady and Belichick, as well as others such as Dont’a Hightower, Matt Light and Kevin Faulk.