In one 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday, we watched the NFL’s answer to the Soviet Union unravel into an inescapable end.
In Las Vegas, Raiders players were lighting cigars and celebrating a 30-6 win over the New York Giants on an Instagram Live session, jovially puffing smoke into a camera lens, as if the Berlin Wall had just collapsed directly onto ousted head coach Josh McDaniels. Across the country, the New England Patriots had already suffered a home loss to the Washington Commanders earlier in the day, and head coach Bill Belichick was nearing a Monday media conference that would be anchored by questions about his job security. Belichick would maintain a stern chin and general disdain for it all, but the exchanges felt like a once-powerful dictator capable of being deposed at any given moment. And somewhere between these two coaches, benched Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo silently maneuvered under it all, representing one last mothballed relic of a fading New England ideology.
This all felt like the end of The Patriot Way, the greatest and most poorly replicated corporate doctrine in NFL history, now just paint over rust.
Through the six titles and decades of dominance, we occasionally wondered what the collapse of a joyless but remarkably successful philosophy would look like. Now we know: It would come with one last franchisee failing; with the quarterback who never duplicated Tom Brady’s magic succumbing; and with the head of the monarchy facing an open interrogation about the mounting failures of his throne.
Eventually, focused by the lens of history years from now, the epitaph will be a singular conclusion: The Patriot Way was really just The Brady Way. And the evidence of that reality will be a simple matter of subtraction. Remove Brady, and the championship math falls apart. You can apply it to organizations, coaches, players and even many of the personnel men that represented the foundation for Patriots titles. Brady was forever New England’s prime number. Lasting organizational and individual success was divisible only by Brady and the number 12.
The Patriots are three and a half years into that equation breaking down. A multitude of assistant coaches left the nest only to falter. An assembly line of personnel men have sought new horizons, efforting a blueprint that steered them only to unemployment. And New England’s quarterback position? It’s no closer to fielding a capable Brady successor than when he walked out the door following the 2019 season.
The collection of records speak for themselves when it comes to the history books — from Belichick’s extremely average head coaching résumé without Brady, to the repeated failure of his assistant coaches upon leaving, to Garoppolo’s one special season in a decade (I’ll repeat that: he’s had one special season in 10 years) — but it’s worth at least a brief glance at each individually as we declare the end of The Patriot Way.
Bill? He’s a bottom-line, what-have-you-done-lately “results” type of guy, so let’s stick to that mantra and deliver it without any varnish. His regular-season coaching record with Brady as a starter in New England was 219 wins and 64 losses (a 77.4 percent win rate). His Patriots regular-season coaching record since Brady’s departure? Twenty-seven wins and 32 losses (a 45.8 percent win rate). The Patriot Way didn’t change when Brady left. Bill’s handle on the organization didn’t, either. But the quarterback position did — apparently taking Bill’s golden touch with it. And for those who like to argue that “every great coach is a function of his quarterback,” the guy Belichick is chasing for the all-time victory record, Don Shula, mounted his success with six (six!) primary starting quarterbacks in 33 years as a head coach: Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese, David Woodley, Dan Marino and Scott Mitchell.
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Conversely, Brady was the primary starter at quarterback for 18 of Belichick’s 20 winning seasons in New England. In that time, Brady made clutch plays that changed playoff games, covered for a multitude of bad draft picks on offense, navigated two decades of Belichick’s joyless demeanor, and constantly endured a debate about who was “most responsible” for the success … despite demonstrable evidence of Belichick’s assistants (who he was most responsible for grooming) repeatedly leaving and falling miserably without Brady. The simple truth is that Belichick’s record is one that thrived when he had a second head coach at quarterback — not to mention one who was capable of covering for his draft and free agency miscues. That was the true Patriot Way. And it worked only with Brady managing upward and downward in the organization.
This is a fact we should have seen with McDaniels, whose career coaching peaks have been Everest-ian with Tom, and a low-lying Taco Bell parking lot without him. A man who professed to Yahoo Sports in 2022 that he wasn’t going to repeat the same mistakes from his failed Denver Broncos era, then somehow managed to turn his Raiders locker room against him in less games than his previous catastrophic stint as a head coach. It was a palace coup so complete that the resulting live-streamed locker room celebration from this past weekend included team owner Mark Davis taking part in the reveling. In the totality of the NFL’s history of firings, you’d have a hard time finding a scene where players are smoking cigars like they just won the lottery, and the franchise owner is bouncing around next to them after cashing their winning ticket.
McDaniels isn’t the first, of course. What many people don’t remember is that he isn’t even the first failed “Patriot Way” disciple to get a second chance … and to have that second chance also crash and burn. Eric Mangini flopped twice as a head coach, with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. Romeo Crennel did, too, with the Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. After that trio, it has been carnage for Belichick’s Patriot Way assistants. Joe Judge went 10-23 with the New York Giants and ended in a revolt. Matt Patricia? He was 13-29-1 with the Detroit Lions, with a locker room that reportedly detested him. Bill O’Brien is pushed as a success story, but he had a roller-coaster ride with the Houston Texans that ended badly and with a locker room that took up sides between him and former Patriots-turned-Texans executive Jack Easterby. Charlie Weis? Flopped at Notre Dame and Kansas. Brian Flores? The most memorable part of his tenure with the Miami Dolphins was an attempt to replace Tua Tagovailoa with Deshaun Watson and then subsequently filing a lawsuit against the team and league for racial discriminatory practices. And Brian Daboll? He pulled the Giants out of a ditch in 2022 and then drove them right back into it in 2023.
The one common thread shared between all of these coaches and Belichick? Almost all of them had some kind of significant quarterback problems and no Tom Brady to provide cover.
All of which brings us to Jimmy Garoppolo, who genuinely might be the nicest and locker room-friendliest guy who is going to catch some strays in this final reckoning of The Patriot Way. To Garoppolo’s credit, there is no laundry list of people he has ever blamed or slighted or thrown under the bus. By all accounts, he has always been a good teammate who did whatever he could when put onto the field. Arguably his biggest transgression in all of this was simply being someone put into the back of Brady’s head during his three years with the Patriots. He had talent. He had skills. And early in his career, it wasn’t apparent how fragile he was physically. All of this fueled a lasting notion for Belichick that Brady was a player who — like every other star on the Patriots’ roster — could eventually be supplanted when the timing called for it. Garoppolo wasn’t responsible for that notion. But he has lived under some version of it his entire career.
Traded to the 49ers, the thought process was that Garoppolo brought two things with him: the skill to at least challenge Brady in New England, and the focused mindset of having been inside The Patriot Way for three seasons. Both were undermined by Garoppolo’s average arm strength, questionable decisions under pressure and a general inability to be durable. Had he stayed in New England and ultimately replaced Brady, he would have been an unmitigated disaster under Belichick’s expectations. Even his heights in San Francisco, which were basically just the 2019 season, look good-but-not-great in retrospect. But it was McDaniels’ reach for him in Las Vegas — trying to recapture The Patriot Way with a quarterback who experienced it — that thrust Garoppolo back into the gravity of a dying star. He didn’t ask for it. Maybe he didn’t want it. But when he joined the Raiders, he must have known he was signing up for it again. Especially given the Patriots’ pedigree of the the head coach and front office. And the results, both for Garoppolo and the staff, were predictable. Maybe even as simple as trusting history, rather than leaning into the still-winless hope that this time it will work.
After Sunday, it should be carved into granite and placed in the lobby of every NFL franchise: The Patriot Way as a championship formula doesn’t work without Brady. It has never worked without Brady. It doesn’t matter how many head coaches or quarterbacks you throw at it. It’s a square wheel, an airplane without wings, a submarine with screen doors. It’s a design that doesn’t even work for the architect who invented it in New England.
Which brings us to a conclusion. The most successful monolithic culture in NFL history is dead. The last remnants are falling. We now know that The Patriot Way has always been The Brady Way. Often imitated, never duplicated. And as of Sunday, finished once and for all.