Name a more compelling on-field subplot to the 2020 NFL season than following what happens in New England without Tom Brady and what happens in Tampa with Brady.
Because there isn’t anything more fascinating.
How will Bill Belichick and the Patriots power on while playing without Brady under center for the first time in two decades?
To what kind of heights can Brady lift a Buccaneers franchise that has spent a lot more time as NFL doormats than it has winning?
At age 43 and playing in a new system and with a new coach for the first time in his NFL career, can Brady be the same Brady who led the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles?
Hot-button debates on these questions rage on in New England and Tampa and everywhere else.
Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst, is bullish on Brady having immediate success in Tampa and highly skeptical of the Patriots remaining winners without him.
“I think New England is in for a rude awakening,’’ Orlovsky told The Post. “That roster is depleted. Yes, this was a team that was 12-4 last year, but it was 0-4 against the best teams in the AFC, getting drummed.’’
Now Brady is in Tampa, where he signed as a free agent in the offseason, and former enigmatic Panthers star Cam Newton is the starter in New England.
“There are a lot of other teams in the AFC that have closed the gap,’’ Orlovsky said. “Yes, they’ve won for 20 years in a row, but not this way. It’ll be interesting to see if they can pull that off.’’
Brady’s absence puts Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels squarely in the spotlight — more than he ever has been before. How well can McDaniels, who has spent most of his career coaching Brady (though, in the end, Brady was coaching him as much as he coached Brady), tailor a new offense around Newton, who has spent the better part of the past couple of seasons with injury issues?
“The most important person in the organization this year is Josh McDaniels,’’ Orlovsky said. “The most important person to Cam Newton’s success is not a player. It is McDaniels.’’
What are the Patriots missing most without Brady?
“Flawless and reliable execution,’’ Orlovsky said. “You knew that Tom was going to execute, that the ball was going to go where it was supposed to go when it was supposed to go there. You will miss the reliability of that. That’s going to be felt.’’
Orlovsky sounded as certain as an analyst can be about how Brady is going to thrive in Tampa.
“I think he’s going to have an MVP-caliber season,’’ Orlovsky said. “There are some people that think he’s done, and I’m just not that person. I think that he will have a monster season. I always say this: ‘Be careful telling greatness when it’s done. Greatness tells you when it’s done.’ ’’
Bill Parcells, the Hall of Fame head coach who led the Patriots to a Super Bowl and won two of them with Belichick as his defensive coordinator with the Giants, has his doubts about Brady finding instant success in Tampa.
“When you’re talking about a player who’s 43 years old … quite frankly, my expectations are not as high as a lot of people’s,’’ Parcells told The Post. “There’s not been many guys that age to go do that successfully.’’
Parcells is a lot more confident in Belichick being able to continue his success in New England without Brady than Brady turning Tampa Bay into a Super Bowl contender overnight.
In a sense, Parcells was endorsing system over talent.
Brady in Tampa?
“Let me tell you something about Tampa — and I say this respectfully — they do have some firepower, but everybody’s talking about how now Brady is the answer with all this firepower,’’ Parcells said. “Well, nobody’s talking about the fact that they gave up 47 sacks last year. If they give up 47 sacks, [Brady] won’t make it ’til the 10th game.
“You have to be able to protect the quarterback. If you can’t do that, they won’t be any better. [Brady] will get them out of some [trouble]. He’ll throw the ball away to make them a little bit better, but in the long run it won’t work, because at some point in time he’s got to be able to sit back and throw.’’
It sounds like Parcells is betting on Belichick over Brady.
“Listen, obviously I want Bill to do well,’’ he said. “We worked together a long time. Now, Brady I don’t know. He’s been a remarkable player. But he’s going to the losingest franchise in the history of the NFL. Everybody said, ‘Well, they won seven last year.’ Well, we’ll see.’’
Orlovsky downplayed the 47 sacks, blaming many of them on quarterback Jameis Winston.
“Tom gets rid of the ball faster and quicker than anybody ever,’’ Orlovsky said. “That offensive line was better than people talked about, but Jameis was just so bad last year. Jameis couldn’t get the ball out quickly, he held onto it, so that really hurt the perception of that offensive line.’’
Is Orlovsky concerned about Brady quickly adapting to a new system, new coach and new environment?
“It’s a real thing … for most people,’’ Orlovsky said. “I just don’t think it is for Tom.’’
What signs does he see that tell him that Brady isn’t done?
“I see his arm is still plenty strong, he still moves in the pocket pretty well, he places the ball where he needs to place it … all the physical tools that are needed, he still has,’’ Orlovsky said.
“Mentally I feel like I have all the ability,” Brady said. “I’ve seen every defense. There’s no play I haven’t run. There’s no defense I haven’t seen. It’s just physically, are you still able to execute your job? And I’m very fortunate to still be able to do that.
“The reality is, the clock is ticking on everybody. We’re going to have to work as hard as we can, and not waste any minutes trying to get used to one another. Embrace the challenge, and see it as an opportunity to see what we can become.”
Brady now gets to throw to receivers Mike Evans, who had 67 catches for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 and Chris Godwin, who had 86 catches for 1,333 yard and nine TDs.
“Hopefully, the knowledge I’ve had with my experience playing quarterback will allow me to transition quickly,” Brady said. “I know for a lot of us, things in life can change and you’ve got to be able to adapt and evolve. With each of those changes comes different opportunities to learn and grow. That’s where I’m at.’’
Belichick, in his predictable low-tone drone, in May downplayed life without Brady, saying matter-of-factly: “Well, we’ve played at other times without Tom.’’
He was referring to 2008, when Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury in the opener and New England went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback. Cassel finished the year with 3,693 yards, 21 TDs and 11 interceptions.
That helped Cassel earn a large contract from the Chiefs the following offseason, but he never played that well again, proving to be a free-agent bust and finishing his career as a nondescript journeyman. Cassel’s career fizzle-out only added merit to Belichick’s brilliance, having been able to win with him while Brady was gone for the season.
There’s been some chatter about Belichick’s motivation to show he can win without Brady and Brady eager to prove he can win away from Belichick.
“[Belichick] might bring up a couple articles … everybody saying it’s over — ‘Brady this, Brady that,’ ’’ former Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said recently. “Of course, he’ll say something about that [to his current players]. But at the end of the day, whether he makes the point or not, he knows the team will be motivated to prove they can win without Tom.’’
Harrison, who played alongside Brady from 2003-08 and won two Super Bowls as a Patriot, knows exactly what the vibe is like in Foxborough right now.
“It’s not just talk, not with the Patriots,’’ Harrison said. “It’s a chip you carry in the weight room, you carry in the film room, in the dining room, you carry at home watching extra film, it’s a chip that motivates you.’’
One former Patriots player who played for Belichick, linebacker Matt Chatham, finds himself “uncomfortable’’ with all the talk about whether either can win without the other.
“I feel like that question if sort of reserved for them for some reason,’’ Chatham told The Post. “We don’t have that conversation about Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. I don’t understand why it comes up that way for [Belichick and Brady] or Mike Shanahan and John Elway.
“We never did it with Elway, we never did it with Steve Young. Jerry Rice, like, ‘Yeah, Jerry was great but he played alongside two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.’ Or Thurman Thomas in the K-Gun, did being in that system elevate Jim Kelly?
“We literally set aside separate rules for Bill and Tom and I think that’s crazy. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable every time we dive into it — unless we’re going to go review everyone. We only do this with Tom and Bill and that sort of drives me nuts.’’
Through it all, Brady, in the few times he has spoken publicly this offseason, has remained philosophical about his ballyhooed move.
As a Northern California native whose idol was Montana, the former 49ers great, Brady vividly recalls the day Montana left San Francisco in 1992 after 14 seasons and multiple Super Bowl titles to continue his career in Kansas City.
Now he’s living out a copy of the path his idol took.
“I just think life continues to change for all of us,’’ he said. “Having the opportunity for me to continue to play football and lead a team is something that I love doing. I’ve loved playing the sport since I was a kid, since I was throwing footballs in the parking lot at Candlestick. And I still love doing that today.”
Can he lead a Tampa Bay franchise that hasn’t reached the postseason since 2007 and hasn’t won a playoff game since the Super Bowl in 2002 to the same heights to which he carried the Patriots?
Will his absence spell doom for the Patriots?
Name better storylines to the 2020 NFL season.
Because they don’t exist.