This article is the first of a series that I will be working on this offseason: I’ll be taking a look back at some of the moments that altered the course of the Patriots franchise, and wondering what might have happened if they didn’t. I’m going to start with, arguably, the most important.
The date was September 23, 2001. The country was still reeling from 9/11, and fans were just happy to get back to some normalcy after the NFL took the previous weekend off. The Patriots’ game against the Jets started with Joe Andruzzi running out of the tunnel with two American flags, and his brothers, all NY firefighters, being the honorary team captains. There was a very bittersweet feeling in the crowd, we were happy to be back at the Patriots game, but we also knew that all of our lives would be changed forever.
Little did we know, Patriots games were about to change forever as well.
Drew Bledsoe had just signed a 10-year, $103 million contract that offseason, and looked like he would be the Patriots starting quarterback for the rest of his career. After going 5-11 the previous season, fans were looking for the team to turn things around this season with their second-year coach, Bill Belichick. And, unbeknownst to many people, Tom Brady had worked his way from fourth string to backup QB in one season.
It was an ugly game, and the Patriots were losing 10-3 to their AFC East rivals. Bledsoe threw a pair of bad interceptions, one happening in the end zone, and Marc Edwards had two fumbles, both in Jets territory. With just over five minutes left in the game, Bledsoe was forced out of the pocket and started running towards the sideline. He was being chased by Mo Lewis, and, just before he could get out of bounds, Lewis caught up to him.
The hit that Lewis delivered to Bledsoe has been talked about by many of the Patriots on the sideline that day. Some say it’s the hardest they have ever heard, and I’ve even heard that Bledsoe’s facemask was actually bent in. One thing is for sure, Bledsoe is one of the toughest QBs in pro football history. That play happened on third down, so the Patriots had to punt, when they got the ball back, Bledsoe was the QB who went into the game.
He even led the Patriots into Jets territory, before Edwards fumbled away their chance at tying the game. When the Patriots got the ball back after the Jets went three-and-out, it was Brady who would lead them onto the field. That made sense, since Bledsoe literally almost died that night. He had suffered a hemothorax, and there was blood pouring into his belly — in fact, there ended up being three liters of blood in his belly.
He was in and out of consciousness during his ambulance ride to the hospital. It resulted from a blood vessel tearing in his chest, something that most doctors agree almost never happens as a result of a sports injury (there’s a fascinating Sports Illustrated article from a few years ago about how his injury has changed the way team doctors approach injuries to their players).
We all know what happened after Bledsoe’s injury: Tom Brady stepped in and never looked back. The Patriots, thanks, in part, to Bledsoe coming off the bench in the AFC Championship Game, won Super Bowl 36, and five more since.
But what would have happened if Bledsoe never went down?
I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that Brady would’ve ended up starting a game in 2001. I know that some people (my dad included), feel that Brady was going to take over in 2001 no matter what, but I just find it hard to believe. Forget the fact that Bledsoe had signed the richest deal in NFL history that offseason and had been the starting QB since being drafted first overall in 1993. The team loved Bledsoe. He was a leader in the locker room, and one of the most respected players on the team. Even to this day, with Brady being the QB that won them the Super Bowl, the majority of the members of that 2001 team still consider it to be Bledsoe’s team. I can’t imagine having a squad made up of mostly veterans and pulling the plug on your starter mid-season.
Without Brady as the starter, would the Patriots have been even close to the team they ended up being? There’s no way to know for sure, but I don’t think so. Primarily because I think Brady was better equipped to run Belichick’s offense. He was willing to take the short, check-down passes that the offense is built on, whereas Bledsoe was more of a gunslinger, looking at his downfield reads first. This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be good in that system (although his completion percentage was well below 60% the year before), but there’s a real chance they may not have made the playoffs, never mind winning the Super Bowl.
So let’s turn our attention to the offseason. Would Belichick have made the decision to move on from Bledsoe and insert Brady as the starter before the 2002 season? Brady’s contract ran through 2003, but Bledsoe had an option before the 2002 season that would’ve allowed the Patriots to cut him without suffering much of a penalty. The problem is that the rest of the NFL still thought highly of Bledsoe, and, if there’s one thing Belichick prides himself on, it’s maximizing his assets.
So maybe Belichick would’ve traded Bledsoe during the offseason and moved on with Brady. Here’s the problem with that: as I already said, Bledsoe was one of the most respected guys in the locker room, and they would not have been happy if Bledsoe had been shipped off in favor of some sixth round pick. They would’ve gotten over it, and been just fine, but one would imagine that the chemistry in the locker room would be far different if that is how the Bledsoe to Brady transition had happened. Would they have been as galvanized and close-knit as they would become? As I said, there’s no way to know, but it’s hard to believe they would have.
One thing that I think is reasonable to assume is that Belichick would eventually have moved on from Bledsoe in favor of Brady. If you don’t believe that, let’s go back to Cleveland, where he cut hometown hero Bernie Kosar just five weeks after signing a 5-year, $37 million contract extension. Yes, Bledsoe had signed the richest deal in NFL history before the 2001 season, but, as with most NFL contracts, it wasn’t that simple. There were multiple option years, where the Patriots could cut Bledsoe at very little cost to them, including one after the first season of the contract.
All of those signs point to the Patriots being able to move on from Bledsoe fairly easily. But what if he didn’t? What if he thought Bledsoe was good enough that he had to move on from Brady, kind of like how he moved on from Jimmy Garoppolo? I find it highly unlikely that would have been the case, but both of these greats would be so very different. Belichick is the best coach ever, and Brady is the best player ever, but they both benefited so much from having the other. Would they have been able to reach the heights they have without one another?
There are many people that have many different opinions on how things would’ve turned out if Bledsoe had been healthy the entire 2001 season, and they’re all pretty valid. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where Bledsoe stayed healthy, and these questions would all be answered. I’m just happy I live in a world where we never had to find out.
If you have any ‘What If’s...’ you’d like to see, or one that you’ve often thought about, be sure to comment here, or tweet at us! This will be a weekly segment, be on the lookout for an article next week!
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats