September 23, 2010
Since making it to the Super Bowl following the 1996 season (and immediately losing Head Coach Bill Parcells), the New England Patriots had steadily declined over the following four years. From 11-5 in the AFC championship season, they had gone 10-6 under Pete Carroll in ’97, and lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs; 9-7 in 1998 to just snag the last wild card spot and go out in the first postseason round; 8-8 and out of the running in 1999, Carroll’s last season; and 5-11 under first-year Head Coach Bill Belichick in 2000.
Through it all, Drew Bledsoe had been the team’s quarterback. The club’s first draft pick in 1993 (and first overall) out of Washington State, he had put up significant numbers, especially in his first few seasons. Big, at 6’5” and 240 pounds, with a strong arm, he was also immobile and prone to taking hits (he was sacked 45 times in 2000). Still, he was tough enough to keep coming back and the club had shown confidence in Bledsoe by signing him to a 10-year, $103 million contract. At 29, he was still in his prime.
New England lost its first game of the 2001 season at Cincinnati. Two days later, the terrorist strikes on New York City and the Pentagon caused football to take a back seat to far greater concerns and the following weekend’s games were postponed.
When play resumed, the Patriots hosted the New York Jets at Foxboro Stadium on September 23. The game was a low-scoring affair. New England’s Adam Vinatieri kicked a 24-yard field goal in the first quarter and New York’s John Hall responded with a 26-yarder at the end of the half.
In the third quarter, New York DT Steve Martin recovered a fumble by the Patriots deep in Jets territory and they responded by going 93 yards in 12 plays to score on an eight-yard touchdown run by RB Curtis Martin.
But the play that had huge consequences, if not for this game than for the season and beyond, occurred in the fourth quarter. Bledsoe took off in an attempt to run for a first down and was hit hard by Jets LB Mo Lewis. He suffered a chest injury that knocked him out of the game and, ultimately, out of the season and off the team.
In for Bledsoe came the unknown backup quarterback, Tom Brady. Brady was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2000, having had an undistinguished college career at Michigan where he had difficulty competing for playing time against the likes of Brian Griese and Drew Henson. As a rookie, there were questions about his size (while he had good height at 6’4”, he was initially listed at 210 pounds) and arm strength. But Brady worked hard on the practice field and in the weight room.
By the 2001 preseason, Brady had improved to the point that Coach Belichick was suitably impressed with his development - even if Bledsoe had not gone down to injury, he might have gotten an opportunity to play. Brady had also added about 25 pounds to his frame and no longer looked too spindly for the NFL.
The young quarterback wasn’t able to salvage the game against the Jets; after completing five of his first six passes, he misfired the rest of the way and ended up successful on 5 of 10 attempts for 46 yards (Bledsoe had completed 18 of 28 passes for 159 yards with no TDs and two interceptions prior to his injury). New York held on to win, 10-3.
The Patriots won their next game against the Colts in what would be the first of many memorable showdowns between Brady and Peyton Manning. It was also the first of 11 wins in the remaining 14 contests as New England ended up with an 11-5 tally and won the AFC East. Carefully coached by offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Brady showed tremendous composure and leadership skills. While he didn’t possess Bledsoe’s arm strength, he was more accurate. A come-from-behind 29-26 win over the Chargers was a defining performance for the young quarterback. Even after Bledsoe was cleared to play again, Brady continued to start.
The Patriots defeated Oakland in a snowy Divisional playoff game, the last at Foxboro Stadium, and won at Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship (a game in which Brady was knocked out of by injury and Bledsoe stepped in). They upset the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl to cap the stunning season.
Tom Brady ranked third in the AFC in passing (86.5) and second in completion percentage (63.9) as he threw for 2843 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He was selected to the Pro Bowl. By the time another three seasons had gone by, he had also quarterbacked the Patriots to two more NFL titles.
Drew Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo following a season in which he displayed typical class after being relegated to the bench. He had a Pro Bowl year with an 8-8 club in ’02, but a porous line and declining skills made his last two years with the Bills far less successful. Bledsoe finished up with two years in Dallas, reunited with Head Coach Bill Parcells.