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A Hallmark Season With A Happy Ending

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Feb 5, 2004 at 5:00am ET

Steve Sabol and his gang know how to make a doozy of a film.

The music. The cinematography. John Facenda. William Conrad. Harry Kalas. Sabol's dad, Ed, who founded the whole thing. Sabol is perhaps second to Bob Kraft in eloquent heads of corporations. But NFL Films has a genius that even they don't know, and it brought the 2003 Patriot season perfectly full circle.

Their new eponymous satellite/cable channel has spawned a delicious new concept, which is an update of an old concept of theirs. Their NFL Game Of The Week is a full hour of the previous week's most outstanding and compelling game. The concept is incredibly captivating and dramatic, and is easily the best new item to come into the sports viewing public since ESPN's SportsCentury. Their sixty-minute piece on Super Bowl XXXVIII, released Wednesday night, was a masterpiece like the game itself. Set against the backdrop of Reliant Stadium, already one of the most photogenic venues in the league, it turned the drama of this game into a riveting novel which you simply can't put down, a novel which can also form mental images that last forever.

But one brief segment of this film brought fitting closure to this greatest of all Patriot seasons, and nobody would ever realize this immediately. Before we reveal this masterful stroke, we need to tell the story of the season first, which has its genesis all the way back to…

How do you feel now about the Jets "scooping" the Patriots and drafting Dewayne Robertson at five? And the Patriots had to settle for Ty Warren and a bunch of nobodies? That's why the Patriots need to do what it takes to hold on to Scott Pioli. Somebody knows who these nobodies are, and exactly how they will fit in with the 2003 Patriots, a team badly in need of rebuilding after a 9-7 defense of their Super Bowl XXXVI championship.

The Patriots took a couple of cornerbacks in Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel. They added another speedy and small wide receiver named Bethel Johnson. They drafted another BC center named Dan Koppen. They took a smallish but feisty tweener named Dan Klecko, son of Joe. They took Spencer Nead, Kliff Kingsbury and Ethan Kelley, none of whom made any contributions to the team. And they also took a guy who got more props than anyone else on this list, and only Patriot Nation would or could understand why.

Bigger names came along, but the lasting symbol of the Patriot offseason had to be Cal linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. As soon as this guy was drafted, Patriot Nation went nuts. Bill Belichick is a genius. Terrific pick. Typical Patriot. Tremendous value. Best seventh round pick. Biggest sleeper of the draft. Can play both linebacker and DL. The reaction from the drafting of this one man alone typified the Patriot offseason, and helped give the team the impetus it needed to try and win their lost championship back.

Rosevelt Colvin, Tyrone Poole and Rodney Harrison were expected to make big contributions. Warren might vie for the starting nose tackle position in the new 3-4 alignment. Whoops, here comes massive Ted Washington in a trade with Chicago. Richard Seymour now gets to play defensive end in the 3-4. Take your pick at left tackle. Warren. Bobby Hamilton. Jarvis Green. Whew. Good luck, opposing offenses.

Yet as training camp opened up, most everyone wanted to know about this guy named Banta-Cain. Like WMG, he became known as TBC. Everyone who showed great interest in training camp, now moved to Foxborough after a long stay at Smithfield, R.I., cared about seemingly only one person, and that was TBC. When news of his training camp injury broke, fans were disappointed. Their chance to see this most intriguing pick would not come to pass. TBC was a seventh round pick and an outside chance to perhaps make the kamikaze squad, and yet he had become sort of a folk hero in New England already.

Banta-Cain would soon be forgotten, and quickly. All the great work that Belichick and Pioli did in retooling the defense seemed to go down the tubes in two separate transactions. Free safety Tebucky Jones, deemed too expensive to keep at his position, was shipped off to New Orleans in a sign-and-trade deal (it was either that or the franchise tag). The Patriots now faced the awkward prospect of having two strong safeties in the secondary, with Harrison joining Lawyer Milloy.

But that also would not come to pass. September 1, 2003 was thought to be a seminal moment in Patriot history, but in this case "seminal" was meant to relate to Chuck Fairbanks quitting, Clive Rush getting shocked, the "46" defense clobbering the Patriots, and Bill Parcells resigning. Belichick released Milloy, and the Patriots instantly became a franchise in deep trouble. ESPN's Tom Jackson declared that the Patriots "hate their coach!" Both Belichick's decision and Jackson's remark would eventually be debunked, but it can be stated without disagreement that the dumping of Milloy, a team captain and a Patriot institution, remains one of the most brazen and completely impersonal transactions in the history of Boston area sports.

The Patriots paid dearly for this, but only in the short term. They opened the 2003 regular season, after a 4-0 preseason, at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Buffalo Bills came out on their new grass field with a new feeling, a new spirit, and a new strong safety - free agent Lawyer Milloy. The 31-0 plastering the Bills laid on the Patriots should have surprised no one.

The Patriots were forced to play Antwan Harris at strong safety and Harrison at free safety, the latter being out of position. The Patriots were not at all prepared to play football thanks to the Milloy release, as Drew Bledsoe was "allowed" to play his game and dismantle what was left of the Patriot defense. Takeo Spikes and Sam Adams led the Bills defense, and Patriot Nation sadly settled in for what seemed to be a long season that lay ahead.

Their next game, at Philadelphia, was the real opening game of the season, as well as the game that would define and foreshadow the entire rest of the year. Against the team that would eventually nail down the NFC one seed in the playoffs, the Patriots won at brand new Lincoln Financial Field, 31-10. Wilson was switched from cornerback to free safety, and Harrison returned to strong safety. But two major elements happened in this game which the Patriots would do all season long on their way to their second Vince in three years: beating a team with a winning record, and dealing with key injuries yet continue to win and prosper.

Colvin was lost for the season in this game with a hip injury that many thought was career threatening a la Bo Jackson. Washington, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Seymour, Ty Law, Mike Compton, Damien Woody, Troy Brown, Fred McCrary, all of these players would spend all or part of the season with Colvin on the sidelines. Forty-two players would start for the Patriots in 2003. It set an example for the league in dealing with injuries, and it set an example for the Patriot players themselves by teaching them that everyone, but everyone, had better stay ready.

The Patriots beat the Jets at home, then traveled to Landover, Maryland for a date with the Washington Redskins. The Patriots haven't beaten this franchise since 1972, and still haven't. A subpar day from Brady and terrible late game play calling by Charlie Weis ended up in a 20-17 loss to the Redskins. It was a game that at least should have gone to overtime. The Patriots stood at 2-2, and looked somewhat like a team that had possibilities, nothing more.

Then they went and ran the table.

It began with a crazy 38-30 win at home against Tennessee. Mike Cloud, a free agent from BC via Kansas City playing his first game following a four-game suspension, scored 2 touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards on 7 carries. Nobody at Gillette Stadium noticed because they were too busy listening to their radios and cheering David Ortiz's two-run double off future Red Sox closer Keith Foulke to tie the ALDS at two games apiece. How perfect - the beginning of the great Patriot win streak becomes a footnote thanks to what is becoming the bane of the Patriots, that being the Red Sox.

While Grady Little was busy butchering the great season of the Red Sox, the Patriots quietly began piling up win after win, and doing so in a quiet and unspectacular way, for the most part. But sandwiched between a nondescript 17-6 win against the Giants and an ugly 9-3 conquest of Cleveland came a date in Florida with the Dolphins, and baseball had a hand in this game, big time.

The state of Florida offered Steve Bartman asylum in Florida, but Massachusetts would have been a better choice. Bartman, the famous Cub fan who disrupted Moises Alou in catching that famous foul ball, triggered the push that helped the Marlins win the pennant against the Cubbies. Because the Marlins and not the Cubs made it to the World Series, the baseball infield was still out there when the Patriots came to town on October 19th. Thanks to that infield, Olindo Mare had a field goal blocked in regulation and saw an overtime chip shot try pushed wide right. Either field goal would have beaten the Patriots. Both kicks were made off the baseball infield.

Instead, Brady fired an 82-yard touchdown pass to Brown for a 19-13 overtime win. This turn of events was the first sign that this season was going to be something special. The word "mythical" might be a better choice, given how this game unfolded and was eventually decided. It was the first Patriot win in Miami prior to the month of November in franchise history. The Patriots were 6-2 and in first place in the AFC East for good.

The next "mythical" moment came two weeks later on a Monday night in Denver. Belichick made his mark in two areas, and both of them further cemented his unabashed genius as a head coach. He circumvented NFL policy on injury reports by listing Seymour as "probable", and then leaving him behind in Foxborough while the team flew west. Remarkably, no one on the Broncos even knew Seymour wasn't there until two hours before game time.

But the second moment was one of the highlights of the regular season. Trailing late in the game 24-23, and facing fourth down and ten at their own one-yard-line, Belichick ordered Lonie Paxton to snap the ball out of the end zone. The ball caromed off the uprights for a safety. The Patriots trailed 26-23, but now had a chance to pin Denver deep in their territory and get a defensive stop.

Ken Walter boomed the free kick 64 yards. The Broncos gained four yards on three plays and punted. Brady took over at his 42, and drove 58 yards in six plays. With 36 seconds left in the game, Brady hit David Givens in the left corner of the end zone for a 30-26 win. This was in an impossible road venue, and on national television for all to see.

After a week off, Parcells and Terry Glenn came home to Foxborough as Cowboys. What was billed as a Big Bill Battle was hardly such. The Patriots stifled the Cowboys, 12-0. The Patriots stood at 9-2 as they prepared to make the first of what would be two visits this year to Reliant Stadium in Houston. Few people in the northeast really knew what was going on with these Patriots thanks to another Texan, Alex Rodriguez, who was about to be traded for Manny Ramirez. We think.

The football Texans battled the Patriots tough, and showed that they are an up and coming force in the NFL. But in the end, Patriot experience and excellence prevailed. Brady had enough in him to rally the Patriots even at 20-20 in regulation with a 4-yard strike to Daniel Graham. 45 seconds away from the first Patriot tie since 1967, Adam Vinatieri won it with a 28-yard field goal despite missing two others earlier in the contest, the first two indoor misses of his great career. They would not be the last indoor misses, and this would not be the last game-winning kick at Houston for Vinatieri, either.

The 10-2 Patriots had to forget about the pesky Texans and deal with the 10-2 Indianapolis Colts, the first time these former division rivals would meet since realignment. The winner would have a leg up on tiebreakers. This battle at the RCA Dome would go down as one of the best games of the year in the NFL, and would produce the single greatest play of the regular season for the Patriots.

Brady came out sizzling, and the Patriots parlayed two Cloud touchdowns and a 92-yard kickoff return by Bethel Johnson into a 31-10 third quarter lead. But two ill-advised Brady interceptions helped Peyton Manning rally the Colts, and they pulled even at 31 with 10:21 to go in the final period. Brady then hit Deion Branch for a touchdown, but later a Kevin Faulk fumble at the Patriot 11 seemed to insure a tying Colt touchdown.

But the Patriot defense would save the day. Manning fired three incomplete passes and the Colts managed only a field goal. On their final drive of the game, the Colts drove all the way to the Patriot 2 with 40 seconds left. Two Edgerrin James runs and a Manning incompletion left it at fourth and goal at the 1 with 14 seconds left. James took a handoff and headed up the gut. Willie McGinest flew in from the left side unblocked and stuffed James. Patriots survive, 38-34, as Gil Santos nearly has a stroke up in the broadcaster's booth.

The Patriots came home to about two feet of snow. They played host to the frozen Miami Dolphins, who do as well in snow as the Red Sox do in Game sevens. Bruschi sealed the deal with an interception return for a touchdown, and the fans made their permanent and indelible mark on the season by flinging huge gobs of snow in the air. It made for a surreal scene, and it overshadowed the fact that with the 12-0 win, the Patriots had clinched the division title.

A tough 27-13 win in the snow (again) against another Florida team (again), Jacksonville, set the Patriots up for a final push at an unprecedented top playoff seed. The win over the Jaguars was the 12th on the season, a franchise record. But with Kansas City losing, the Patriots were now in control of their own destiny to nail down home field for the playoffs.

They went down to the Meadowlands and pulled out a 21-16 win against the Jets. Then they came home and paid back the Buffalo Bills for the opening day shutout by blanking the Bills by the same score, 31-0. Both Bledsoe and Milloy looked as haggard and as beaten in that game as they had looked invincible in the opener. It was the third shutout for the Patriots this season, all at home. The 14-2 Patriots had the top seed and a first round bye for the playoffs.

Tennessee went into Baltimore and pulled out a tough overtime win, then set their sights on the Patriots. Thanks to Kraft, the Patriots managed a Saturday night deal once again just like the Snow Bowl of 2001. Weather was again a factor in this Divisional Playoff game, but instead of snow, a record cold snap hit Massachusetts and the northeast. Game time temperature was four degrees, the coldest game in both Patriot and Titan/Oiler history.

With both Steve McNair and Eddie George nursing injuries, the Titans battled the Patriots tough, but the Patriots were just a slight bit tougher and better. Vinatieri kicked a 46-yard field goal with 4:11 left in the contest, and the defense made it stand up, 17-14. All that stood between the Patriots and Super Bowl XXXVIII was the Colts, who had scored 79 points in two playoff games coming into the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.

But the Patriots made Manning look like a little boy, picking him off four times, three by Law. Only red zone failures by the Patriots kept the Colts close. The Patriots won, 24-14, and packed their bags for Houston and a date with the surprising Carolina Panthers, a three seed, in the Big Show.

Two weeks passed, and hype was minimal because of the low profile of both teams. But the Pats and the Cats finally got down to business on February 1st at Reliant Stadium. The first and third quarters were defensive stalemates. But the second and fourth quarters provided some of the highest drama in Super Bowl history. Every time the Patriots scored, the Panthers answered back. Brady and Jake Delhomme authored the finest quarterback duel in the history of the Super Bowl. Brady's 32 pass completions set a Super Bowl record. Delhomme's 85-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad was a Super Bowl record longest scoring play.

But the game came down to a minute to go, tie score, and the ball in Brady's hands. He drove the Patriots to the Carolina 23 with nine seconds to go. Vinatieri logged two more misses earlier in this game, in this same venue where he suffered his first two indoor misses of his career some two months ago. Now, he was charged with kicking a 41-yarder to win the Super Bowl. Two years ago, he nailed a 48-yarder to win a Vince. No problem.

Vinatieri's perfect kick touched off still another huge celebration in the northeast. The 32-29 win by the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII is the newest entry in the "best Super Bowl ever" contest. Kraft and Belichick held aloft another Vince. The Patriots are once again the best team in the world. That championship feeling has returned to New England.

But most importantly, it validates this organization as the finest in the NFL today. The Kraft-Pioli-Belichick machine ground out a 17-2 record. The Patriots finished with 15 straight wins, the best since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The Patriots continue to baffle the rest of the league with how they win, and with whom they win. They won't conceal Brady forever, as the comparisons to Joe Montana are now growing louder and more frequent. But what this organization is capable of doing staggers the imagination.

And next year, they have two firsts and two seconds in the draft. They can look forward to doing next year what they did this year. They began this great season with the best draft in team history. They have a chance to do better next year, if that's possible.

Kraft and Belichick held up the Lombardi Trophy, Brady flashed that smile that girls love, and NFL Films brought their fantastic Super show to a finish with one final shot of a Patriot player rising from one knee after praying and weeping. Slowly rising to his feet, we greet the countenance of a rugged and devoted Patriot named…

Tully Banta-Cain.

The man who became the folk hero of the 2003 offseason is the last man we see at the end. He recovered from his injury and stuck as a special teams hit man. He registered one sack during the season, and it came against Bledsoe in the season finale. And he made it all the way to the Big Game, and was right there at the finish for all to see and admire.

It is the most proper way to end this tribute to the Patriots. Banta-Cain, to some degree, epitomizes what the Patriots are all about. He'll never be famous, but he'll always be a winner and a champion. Fittingly, it is his image which brings this greatest season in Patriot history to a most happy and satisfying end.

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