Wickersham, Seth. It’s Better to be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021. Pp. 506. $40.00 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
According to ESPN journalist Seth Wickersham, the Patriots dynasty began and ended with Tom Brady. That is how he constructs his book, It’s Better to be Feared: The New England Patriots Dynasty and the Pursuit of Greatness, which is devoted to the 20 years Brady spent in Massachusetts and the (at the time of publication) one season he had played in Tampa Brady. The unlikeliness of Brady, the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft, developing into one of the best players in American football history makes for a captivating narrative, setting the starting and ending points for the dynastic incarnation of the New England Patriots.
However, seeing the Pats as a singular dynasty is problematic, as its mainstays were just three people –– Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and team owner Robert Kraft. Belichick installed a system around Brady. It seemed to work regardless of the executors, as he repeatedly built out the roster with bargain players who had been rejected or passed over by other teams. While Wickersham points to the inherent flaws in assembling a 53-player team in that manner, he still falls victim to the same misperception he tries to combat in calling the 21st century Patriots a dynasty. What happened at Foxborough was not one seamless stream of successful teams, but, rather, two dynasties with one brilliant 16-0 season, which ended with a Super Bowl collapse, in the middle.
By now the story is so well known that there is no need to go into it in great detail. Brady was not the quickest or the strongest playcaller at the Patriots’ disposal when he arrived on the first day of camp in 2000. The team already had a good quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, the only “big name: on the roster. In his second season, Brady stepped in for the injured Bledsoe, a presumably temporary promotion that, instead, changed the fates of the three men who serve as links between the 2001-2004 and 2014-2018 teams. Belichick, already a Super Bowl winner as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 1986 and 1990, improved his reputation from a rather disappointing head coach for the Cleveland Browns (1991-1995) to an undisputed football genius. Kraft, who previously had spoken openly about relocating the team from Foxborough to Hartford, became the best team owner in American sports.
It would be farfetched to attribute their success to Brady’s genius, but there is little doubt that, with a different quarterback, the Patriots would not have been as good, thereby justifying the author’s decision to periodize the dynasty with Brady’s arrival and departure. If one needs further proof of his impact, one just needs to take into consideration the first season following Brady’s his move to Florida, when the Patriots crumbled and Brady’s Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
Likewise, Brady could not have achieved as much without Belichick, as proven by the latter’s coaching tree, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Belichick’s coordinators’ failures to become good head coaches is a testament to his genius –– nobody can do what he does. This also applies to such ideas as taping signals, which caused the 2007 “Spygate” controversy. Although other teams and players react to the calls of the opponents, there was something about having them on tape that made Belichick an evil genius, one looked at with suspicion by the rest of the league.
One of his loudest critics was Mike Martz, whose St. Louis Rams faced off against the underdog Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. The game impacted the futures of both groundbreaking teams. “The Greatest Show on Turf,” as the Rams were known at the time, inspired numerous imitators after their rise to prominence in the 1999 season and subsequent Super Bowl win. Just two years later, the Patriots overtook them as the “team-to-be” in the NFL. While other organizations wanted to emulate “the Patriots way,” they failed to understand just how much work went into shaping the franchise and its culture.
Nobody was able to replicate what Belichick did (and continues to do) in New England. Wickersham paints a picture of a lonely man, one who is so obsessed with winning that he fails to build relationships not based on one’s ability to play and/or understand football. His loneliness stems not from his willingness to be alone, as Belichick actually spends a lot of time with his staff members, but, rather, from others’ inability to keep up with him and his strategic understanding of the game. At one point in the book, Wickersham recounts Belichick acknowledging that he is hard on his coworkers, demanding a lot from them. But, in the end, he insists the sacrifices are worth it. And nobody sacrifices more than the coach, who is in his office from dusk till dawn. With time, his sacrifices seemed to overshadow the ones made by Brady.
The quarterback has spent his entire career perfecting his craft and adjusting his game to the limitations of his body. His longevity is attributed to the enormous amount of time he puts into taking care of his body, but luck has also played a huge part in making Brady a true legend of the sport. It is incredible how everything unfolded following the injury to Bledsoe. The decision to stick with the inexperienced player instead of one to whom team owner referred to as his “son” was not a popular one. However, Belichick’s call was backed by his staff, and it turned out to be the right decision. Regardless of the contract signed by Bledsoe, Belichick made a football decision, with the success erasing any potential doubts.
With time, Brady outgrew the system that made him great, pushing for more input. According to Wickersham, he kept asking himself if winning was really worth the compromises that he needed to make. He felt underappreciated, as if the system was more important than the players. Belichick’s willingness to be the villain also did not sit well with Brady, especially since his coach acted the same way with his star player. For instance, Kraft and Brady both cried during their in-person goodbye, while Belichick parted with his quarterback via phone call, a coldness that highlights his intense competitive.
However, Brady proved that he can win without Belichick; now it is the coach’s turn to do the same.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).