The year is 2001 and the New England Patriots are playing the New York Jets in the latest installment of the fierce division rivalry. Late in the fourth quarter, with the home team Patriots trailing 10-3 and finding themselves on the verge of starting the season 0-2, quarterback Drew Bledsoe scrambles to his right to gain a first down on 3rd an 10. However, he fails to reach the marker after getting tackled by linebacker Mo Lewis.
What is worse than Bledsoe not gaining the first down is him suffering internal injury because of the hit by Lewis. The quarterback goes back on the field for his team’s next offensive series but is unable to continue – the Patriots are forced to insert second-year backup Tom Brady into the contest. And while Brady does not win the game for New England, he establishes himself as the team’s new starter.
The story of how Brady took over for Bledsoe and ultimately led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory is well known. But what if Bledsoe had never gotten injured in the first place? What if Lewis instead of tackling him, opted to moderately push the veteran passer out of bounds? With SB Nation’s “What if...” week underway, let’s go down that rabbit hole to find out what the league would look like without the Bledsoe injury.
Let’s start with the game against the Jets: Even with the more experienced Bledsoe in, the team likely would not have won the game. However, that does not mean that the Patriots’ 2001 season would have looked like their 2000 campaign which saw them go 5-11 and finish in last place in the AFC East. New England, after all, did have a good roster that was able to play some productive football especially on defense.
It is therefore not impossible to see the team still winning a fair amount of games in 2001. Maybe not enough to earn the second overall playoff seed on an 11-5 record, but certainly enough to show some progress in year two under head coach Bill Belichick – possibly even enough to sneak into the playoffs on a 9-7 record and as the sixth seed. However, in this scenario, the Patriots do not win the Super Bowl, and the unexerienced Brady never starts a game in 2001.
This has a trickle down effect on the entire league. First, the Oakland Raiders never have to travel to snowy Foxboro for a divisional postseason game and instead go to the second-seeded Miami Dolphins. While Miami defeated Oakland earlier in the season, the team enters the playoffs on a three-game losing streak. The Raiders emerge victoriously, go on to Pittsburgh and are able to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl against an inconsistent Steelers squad.
There, the Raiders hit a road block by running into the Greatest Show on Turf. The St. Louis Rams offense proves to be too good for Oakland’s 19th ranked defense and wins its second Super Bowl in three years. More importantly, however, Oakland decides to stay with Jon Gruden and not trade him away to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the offseason. This, in turn, means that Tampa Bay does not win the Super Bowl in 2002 – a trophy that instead goes to the Raiders.
Back to the Patriots: Without Brady emerging as the long-term starter in 2001, the team has to make a decision after the season about Bledsoe. After all, his 10-year, $103 million contract was structured in a way that gave the team an option during the 2002 offseason: Pay him a $7.2 million bonus to pick up the rest of the deal – with the next option point coming in 2004 –, or moving on from the veteran.
Enter Bill Belichick. New England’s head coach, under whom Bledsoe signed the long-term option-based deal, stated in a 2011 interview that the team came close to already starting Brady over the Pro Bowler in 2001. However, the team decided not to due to his lack of experience – at least when it still had a choice. One year later, though, things looked a bit different.
Brady has another year of practice and more playing time as the number two under his belt and proved himself as capable of being handed over the keys. As a result, Belichick makes the stunning but considering the structure of the contract not really unexpected decision not to pick up Bledsoe’s contract option. Instead – and we’re somewhat back in the real timeline now – the veteran gets traded away for a first-round draft pick.
The question is: Would Belichick really risk his long-term job security by moving the Patriots’ franchise quarterback? Possibly, because a) Bledsoe would likely not have shown any signs of improvement throughout 2001, and b) his contract was structured in a way to give New England an out after one year – an option Belichick could have inserted very much speculating that he would move the veteran later on.
Back to 2002 we go. The Patriots enter the 2002 season with Brady as a first-year starting quarterback. And while their schedule now looks slightly different and easier after not winning the division in 2001, having Brady in might negate any potential wins gained that way. As has been the case in real life, the team finishes 9-7-ish and out of the playoffs. Another possible year of improvement should help Belichick keep his job despite possibly missing the postseason three straight years.
From that point on, everything would probably look like it did in the real timeline: The Patriots go on to win the Super Bowl in 2003, Brady turns into the NFL’s best quarterback, and a bold decision – going with Brady instead of Bledsoe – starts a dynasty if a few months later. The major difference, therefore, is that the Rams get a second Super Bowl win and the Patriots have to wait until two years later to win their first.
Oh, and Oakland does not move on from Gruden just yet. The Raiders, despite their victories in the early decade, never turn into the AFC powerhouse they looked like in 2001 and 2002. Instead, their success proves to be unsustainable behind an aging and expensive roster. By 2003, the team is middle of the pack and by 2004 short-fused owner Al Davis decides to trade Gruden. Which team takes him? How about his hometown San Francisco 49ers who instead of signing Mike Nolan bring in Gruden.
This means that Nolan challenges Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel for the head coaching job in Cleveland. However, the Browns still go with the more successful defensive coordinator and we are back at normal.
Ultimately, the NFL might look a bit different had Bledsoe never gotten injured. Ultimately, though, it is not hard to see him get replaced by Brady further down the line. New England, therefore, still turns into a multiple-Super Bowl winner by the mid 2000s.