This is the first in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Quarterbacks
Let’s suppose the Red Sox had held on to David Eckstein, and then became the starting Red Sox shortstop.
As the 2001 season ends and the 2002 offseason begins, the World Champion Patriots carry with them an incredible tale that has woven itself for almost five months now, but must soon reach its conclusion. The tale had already reached its climax when Tom Brady was awarded this new Cadillac truck in the Louisiana Superdome last Sunday. But all tales must achieve resolution after climax, and the Patriots are now faced with one of the more unlikely resolution stories in franchise history.
Not long after the Patriots celebrated the high water mark in team history, they must now figure out how to break their ties with Drew Bledsoe. The Bruins once traded Ray Bourque, and Bobby Orr was allowed to finish his career as a Black Hawk. It can be done.
Bledsoe has already asked the Patriots to trade him, something viewed as a foregone conclusion. He eschewed the Tuesday victory celebration, choosing instead to head home to Montana to relax and discuss his football future with wife Maura. Bledsoe is a champion, and will soon get a ring signifying such. But one reason Bledsoe declined to attend the big blast was that he felt that he wasn’t a part of this championship, and that he didn’t want to overshadow Brady at the party.
Meanwhile, Brady shows up to the party, and looked like he needed help from that guy who gives end zone celebration lessons. Despite all the speakers that got up there to address the crowd, Brady was not one of them. Word is that Brady remained silent out of respect for Bledsoe.
As the 2002 Red Sox season looms on the horizon, if you take a step back and remember the clubhouse problems at the end of last season, and then look at the Patriot quarterbacks, how in the world can you like the Red Sox right now? If John Henry and Larry Lucchino do nothing else, they need to cause Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and all those other whiners to want to bond together as a team like the Patriots have. Getting new management will help, but they need to look at the Patriot quarterbacks as shining examples of how to interact professionally in the face of adversity and prosperity.
Brady’s 2001 season will go down as one of the more remarkable in NFL history, and not just the Patriots. This is a guy who battled for his job at Michigan with another guy named Drew (Henson), yet wound up going 20-5 during his stay in Ann Arbor. He was the 199th player selected in the 2000 NFL Draft. He was the fourth string Patriot quarterback his rookie season, playing behind John Friesz and Michael Bishop.
Twelve months later, he is the Super Bowl MVP.
And he is the man who made Bledsoe expendable.
Making Bledsoe expendable? Yikes. Was Larry Bird ever expendable? Ted Williams? Bill Russell? Any of the aforementioned Red Sox or Bruins? Trying to comprehend the fact that the Patriots need to trade Bledsoe weighs pretty heavily on the “unbelievable” scale. In just twelve months, Bledsoe went from the centerpiece of the Patriot franchise and the best bet to unseat John Hannah as “greatest Patriot ever” to watching the Patriots win their first Super Bowl title on the bench as backup quarterback.
That last fact has to be reason number one why Bledsoe missed the Tuesday blast. Watching the Super Bowl instead of playing in it was the final dagger in the heart of Bledsoe, the biggest cupful of salt poured on the wound first opened up by the Jets’ Mo Lewis on September 23. Not being able to lead the Patriots to victory last Sunday was perhaps more than Bledsoe could take. He will look at his ring for the rest of his life, know what little he had to do with it, and it has to be killing him already.
There is no doubt that Bledsoe was missed Tuesday. Some fans carried signs showing support of him. Fans chanted for him. It is a fair thing to assume that if Bledsoe had gotten up to speak, he would have received the biggest ovation of all. And Brady would have probably been leading the cheers.
Brady is currently in Hawaii, selected for this year’s Pro Bowl. In dissecting his 2001 season, raw numbers won’t tell the story. Well, some do, numbers like 14 and 3. That’s the wins and losses for the Patriots since Brady took over. Maybe he’ll match his Michigan record of 20-5 halfway through next season, and don’t bet against it (that would mean the Patriots start next year 6-2).
Since taking over for Bledsoe, Brady engineered huge wins over Indianapolis (twice), New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta, nail biters against Buffalo (twice), Cleveland and Miami, and come-from-behind gems against San Diego and the Jets. The Charger win featured Brady’s most prolific passing day, but the Jet game was his biggest win in the regular season. It was in that game where Brady shook off a bad first half, and led the Patriots to a big win over their hated rival with a near-perfect second half. The Jet game transformed the Patriots into “title contenders”, and cemented Brady as “the Patriot quarterback of the future, and no longer Bledsoe”.
The logic is simple. The Patriots badly needed that psychological boost with a win over the Jets. Moreover, Bledsoe had always played nervous and dazed against the Jets, but Brady’s cool allowed him to overcome his lousy first half and enabled the Patriots to squeeze by the Jets by one point. It was the biggest fork in the road for the 2001 Patriots, and Brady allowed them to travel down the better of the two forks.
Once the playoffs hit, Brady played well enough to lead his team to victory. Charlie Weis shackled Brady throughout the first three quarters of the Oakland game, but Brady turned it on in the fourth quarter and overtime with completion streaks of 10 and 8 in a row. The controversial call helped, but it was according to the rulebook and the Patriots pulled out a win that will have Raider Nation gnashing their teeth for years to come.
Brady was zipping along in the Steeler game, until safety Lee Flowers fell on Brady’s left ankle. Brady left the game for good, and Bledsoe came on to finish the job. Bledsoe finished sub-.500 in completion percentage, but threw a classic touchdown pass to David Patten on his third toss of the game, and guided the team towards their third Super Bowl berth. Bledsoe wept openly as he took the final kneel downs as greater Pittsburgh looked on in shock.
For the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick went back to Brady. Playing mistake-free football, Brady did just enough to keep the Patriots even with the Rams, then engineered the drive for the ages in Patriot history which led to Adam Vinatieri’s championship kick. That drive is what got Brady the Super Bowl MVP, and you have to be really excited that a 24-year old kid with that little experience can lead his team on a Super Bowl-winning drive almost like it’s nothing. It’s like Bird taking over a game which can give the Celtics a world championship. Same thing.
Brady is on top of the world. He got a trip to Disney World and the Hula Bowl. His future in the NFL is solid, and he is the new glamour boy in the league. Some were skeptical about Madison Avenue scurrying to someone like Brady, who might still be perceived as a fluke by many. Brady need not worry. The smart thinking is that soon he will need to fight off offers.
The Patriots were the benefactors of some of the best fortune the sporting world had ever seen. How can you explain a guy like Brady coming off the bench, taking over for the almost-deceased Bledsoe, and lead his team to a Super Bowl win? You think of someone like Jeff Hostetler and Super Bowl XXV, but Hostetler had more seasoning than Brady. Earl Morrall of Miami did a nice relief job in 1972, but Bob Griese was there at the finish.
Simply put, Brady won better than Bledsoe. He learned to read defenses better. He was less susceptible to the spontaneously foolish play. He’s not faster than Bledsoe, but it could be that he’s simply smarter. Brady may have caused some folks who thought Bledsoe had the stronger arm to change their tunes, one of them being former Super Bowl quarterback Phil Simms of CBS.
And Brady pulled off this miracle season despite the death of his position coach in August. Dick Rehbein campaigned for this guy to be drafted, but his untimely passing during Smithfield camp robbed him of seeing his impeccable judgment come to full fruition. Both Brady and Bledsoe have Rehbein written all over them.
Brady could unseat Jane Swift right now if he wanted to. Belichick probably could, also. Ditto for Vinatieri, who wowed ‘em on David Letterman this week.
But what will become of Bledsoe?
Naturally, Patriot Nation will think about such things as “get as much as you can for him!” The best bets right now seem to be Cincinnati and Washington, and maybe Chicago. Dallas would be a good fit if they would give the Patriots the six pick, though they may not want Bledsoe at this time. Some talk even centered around Houston and the top pick, but the Texans are likely to use that top pick on Fresno State’s David Carr. Bledsoe will be moved, but most likely not until the Patriots lock up Brady past the 2002 season, which they literally are compelled to do.
And when that sad day comes, when Bledsoe is actually traded away, Patriot Nation should take a step back and salute this magnificent human being.
Bledsoe defined the term “professional” all season long. Instead of grousing over his lost playing time, he went out of his way to help Brady, whom he considers a good friend as well as working colleague. Never once did Bledsoe try and divide the team with complaining and campaigning for him to return to starting quarterback. In a year where Bob Kraft proclaimed “team first” at the trophy ceremonies, Bledsoe is the “team first” poster boy.
It will be a tragedy that Bledsoe will not finish his career here in New England. In as much as many fans would like him to stay and back up Brady, it won’t and can’t happen. Bledsoe is too expensive to be a backup, and too young to sit and rot on someone’s bench. Bledsoe has to move on. It’s just a shame that it has to happen.
But Bledsoe meant more to the Patriots this season than anyone will ever know. His heroic stature will never be forgotten. His rugged composition, his intense desire to win, and his impeccable personal qualities make him one of the most legendary sports figures in this area. The only thing that will keep Bledsoe from the highest of accolades will be longevity. Whomever he goes to, he will likely identify with that team for the long term.
But in New England, he will never be forgotten, nor underappreciated.
Brady will continue on, with Damon Huard at his side, himself a former NFL starter and very capable pitcher himself.
Bledsoe will move on somewhere else, and hopefully resume a career that had Canton, Ohio written all over it.
He takes with him a ring, a fiery spirit, and a burning desire to get back out on the playing field again.
And he takes with him the adulation of Patriot Nation, something he’ll have for the rest of his life.
Next feature: Running backs