The New England Patriots dynasty could be on its last legs.

Tom Brady is 42 years old and a free agent after this season, and New England’s offense has been struggling in recent weeks, opening Bill Belichick’s team up to plenty of criticism despite its 10-3 record ahead of a Week 15 showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s fair to wonder whether the Patriots have what it takes to right the ship and win a seventh Super Bowl title.

With this in mind, the ESPN “First Take” crew resurrected the years-old debate Thursday: Is Brady or Belichick more responsible for the Patriots’ unprecedented success over the past two decades?

Max Kellerman was firm in his stance, choosing Belichick while also suggesting Brady ensured the “cupboard would be bare” by outlasting Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, two former Patriots backup quarterbacks who have thrived since being traded from New England.

“What I’m saying is if you do the experiment now: Brady leaves New England and Belichick is there without its quarterback, and Brady goes somewhere where all they need is a quarterback, I’m still telling you that next year the Patriots will do better than wherever Brady goes because it was always more Belichick than Brady,” Kellerman said. “They’re both the all-time greatest — Brady is the GOAT; I’m not saying that he’s not. But the Patriots dynasty was always primarily about Bill Belichick, and if he’s in place, you continue the dynasty with a one-year interruption.”

Stephen A. Smith, as you might have guessed, thinks Kellerman’s argument is “utterly ridiculous,” for he has seen Brady overcome far too many obstacles over the course of an illustrious 20-year NFL career to believe the quarterback is a product of his coach.

“What I saw on the field for the vast majority of the last 19 years was Tom Brady doing it up,” Smith said. “I saw many, many, many occasions where if it were not for Tom Brady, we wouldn’t view Bill Belichick in that fashion. I saw many occasions where the defense was suspect, where the personnel was highly suspect and the greatness of Tom Brady came shining through. So when you sit up there and say that Tom Brady is great but that the reason we talk about him as the GOAT is because of Bill Belichick, my response is: I’ve got no argument with that, so long as you’re willing to accord the same level of respect to Tom Brady when it comes to Bill Belichick. Because how great would Bill Belichick be if he didn’t have Tom Brady?

“And that’s what I’m saying that we have to look at here. You talk about the personnel. Anybody that succeeds Tom Brady, if we’re going to be critical in any way about him based on this season, make sure you give him the same weapons. Don’t come to me with an upgrade at the wide receiver spot, an upgrade at the tight end spot and then sit up there and have a new quarterback and say, ‘See, that’s better than Tom Brady.’ Because my contention is if Tom Brady had better weapons, we would not be talking about him this way.”

Even if Brady leaves New England after this season and plays for another team, it’ll be difficult to glean much from what happens moving forward. Not only is Brady past his prime, making it unfair to compare his production now to his production several years ago. But there are far too many variables to consider.

Perhaps then we should just embrace Damien Woody’s argument that Brady is an on-field extension of Belichick, resulting in the perfect match for building sustained success at the highest level.

Thumbnail photo via Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports Images