Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe 20 years ago, and the rest is so much more than just 'history'
No one knew it at the time, but the entire course of one perpetually mediocre NFL franchise, plus the metaphorical and literal fortunes of multiple people and arguably the league itself, changed in one moment on Sept. 23, 2001.
Tom Brady came into the game at quarterback for the New England Patriots.
The trite thing to say here is "the rest is history," but holy hell what a history. And almost as remarkably, there's still a present.
Brady's origin story on its own is movie script-worthy. He, by his telling, was the least athletic of the four Brady kids, three girls and one boy, raised in Northern California; began as the seventh quarterback on the depth chart at the University of Michigan, and had to endure a two-QB system because then-head coach Lloyd Carr wanted to appease a recruit with the better pedigree; was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft and seventh quarterback taken that year; made the roster as a rookie as the No. 4 on the depth chart, nearly unheard of back then, and even more now; and ultimately worked his way up to the backup position by the end of that year.
When Bledsoe woke up on Sept. 23, 2001, he did so as New England's franchise quarterback. Just months earlier he'd signed a then-record $103 million contract that seemingly cemented him as a Patriot for life.
When Brady woke up that morning, he was a skinny, hardworking kid who had completed exactly one career pass as a professional.
When head coach Bill Belichick awoke that morning, it was with a 5-12 record as Patriots head coach and local media already questioning whether he was worth the fuss. A year earlier, Belichick had accepted the head coaching job with the New York Jets but then scribbled his resignation on a napkin to take the job with New England. After a negotiation, team owner Robert Kraft wound up having to send the team's first-round draft pick in 2000 to the Jets.
And while the Patriots had gone to the Super Bowl five years earlier under Bill Parcells, nationally they didn't register often, and even regionally they were at least third behind the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics in terms of interest.
Then Lewis hit Bledsoe, and Brady entered the game — though that was only after Bledsoe came on for another series and tried to play.
"Everyone knew Tom had the goods," ESPN analyst and former Patriots offensive tackle Damien Woody told Yahoo Sports this week. Woody had a front-row seat for the start of Brady's ascendance and still watches from afar. "The intangibles, they were oozing out: smart, very driven, command, good teammate, just worked his butt off behind the scenes. You just saw Tom methodically work his way up the depth chart, so none of it was a surprise. He was very coachable and you knew if this dude got a shot, you might have something here. I could see him making things happen. That’s not just my take, but I think it's fair to say there were a lot of guys that felt the same way."
Bledsoe's injuries from the Lewis hit wound up being pretty severe. His blood pressure spiked right after the game, leading the Patriots' medical staff to get him an ambulance, and at the hospital it was discovered he had a collapsed lung and internal bleeding. Even though he was out for weeks, initially Bledsoe thought he'd get the chance to win his job back.
He never did.
Woody said despite Bledsoe's disappointment, he was the "ultimate professional," and didn't let his own feelings get in the way of the team's goals.
As Woody notes, back then the Patriots were strong defensively, so Brady didn't have to carry the team. After taking a couple of weeks to find his stride (he was 25-for-47 for just 254 yards with no touchdowns and no picks in his first two starts), New England went 10-2 over the last 12 weeks of the regular season, and then went on an unforgettable postseason run that culminated in the Patriots, who were flat-out embarrassed in their previous two Super Bowl appearances, finally winning the Lombardi Trophy
At not even 25 years old, Brady had reached his sport's mountaintop. An icon was born.
Tom Brady's greatness hasn't dimmed over 20 years
The incredible thing — the really amazing thing, and the thing that, truthfully, was the impetus for this column — is Brady is still playing. And not just collecting a paycheck and wearing a headset as the teacher/backup to some up-and-comer. He's the starting quarterback of the reigning Super Bowl champions and according to at least two people who have watched him play for years, there are some aspects of his game, even as a 44-year-old in his 22nd year, that seem better than at any other point in his career.
"He is playing at a Pro Bowl level and looks like he has not slowed down at all," said a front office executive who was with the Patriots for several years. The executive is still in the league and requested anonymity. "No signs of aging, faster than he has ever been in terms of mental processing and arm strength is better than ever."
"I see aspects of his game that have gotten better," Woody said, almost incredulously. "Physical aspects, to me, have gotten better. His arm seems stronger now, which is crazy."
Think about that. We're not talking about a kicker playing at a Pro Bowl level at 44, we're talking about a quarterback. Yes he's protected, but you can still be planted by a 280-pound defensive end blowing through the line, and no matter if you're 24 or 44, that doesn't feel good. (Brady's been sacked three times and hit eight through two games this season.)
I covered the Patriots every day as a beat reporter from 2006 to 2015, and even seven or eight years ago talking heads were predicting this would be the year Brady's play would just fall off a cliff. Such talk has been heard pretty much every year since. Opposing personnel execs thought it was coming, though maybe that was just wishful thinking.
Tampa Bay has scored 79 points in two games, and Brady has nine touchdown passes. During the Bucs' 10-game win streak that dates to last season and includes the playoffs, he has 31 touchdowns and six interceptions. Quarterbacks literally half his age would do anything for that kind of ratio.
In the entire 101-year history of the NFL, only three other quarterbacks have started a game at age 44: George Blanda, Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde. In a combined 26 starts at that age, they threw 11 total touchdowns against 12 picks.
Brady's play right now feels like it's being overlooked, and that just can't happen.
Maybe it's because Brady has been so good for so long. Maybe it's his long allegiance with the dour Belichick, who makes even the biggest wins feel as joyous as a stubbed toe. Maybe it's the controversies in which they were involved while Brady was in New England. Maybe it's a little bit of all of those things.
But 20 years after one of the most improbable NFL careers began, to see Brady not just still playing but thriving, it can't be understated.
The Bucs, like the Patriots, gained prominence thanks to Brady
He's done the same thing he did back then: lead a perpetually mediocre franchise to the NFL's Promised Land. The standard for Patriots fans now after such a long stretch of dominance isn't just making the playoffs, it's the AFC championship at minimum. Meanwhile for the Buccaneers, outside of a four-year stretch under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden, the bulk of the national conversation around them centered around their uniforms, and more recently how many interceptions Jameis Winston was throwing.
"We look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a totally different light now. Because of who? Because of Tom," Woody said. "We've looked at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a sorry-ass franchise, and now we look at them at the best team in the league, and that's largely due to one guy.
"Now, the Buccaneers have some really good players, but when you've got a quarterback with the pedigree that Tom has and he comes in, the dude changed the culture. Changed the way we think about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's the impact he's had on that organization."
His pace is likely unsustainable, but Brady's current touchdown total played out over a 17-game season would put him at an unreal 76.5.
Then again, at this point can we doubt anything he might do on the field?
"It's ridiculous and unheard of," the front office exec said.
"People need to take it all in and appreciate it because we might not see anything like this ever again. Someone that’s 44 years old playing better than he did 10 years ago probably? And that’s not slighting what he was doing 10 years ago," Woody said.
We're not asking you to drop two bills on a pewter Brady jersey. Just watch and marvel. He might play one more season, he might play five more as he recently intimated. No matter how much longer it lasts, we won't see anything like it again anytime soon.