FOXBORO – Of all the people wedged into Canton, Ohio, that last weekend in July of 2000, pretty much nobody was there to see the Patriots.
Raider Nation was there for Howie Long’s induction. The Coalition of 49ers fans were there to see both Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott enshrined. Western Pennsylvania sent its denizens out for both Montana and Steelers owner Dan Rooney.
Bill Belichick working a sideline as a head coach for the first time since he was canned by the Browns in 1995 just down the road apiece in Cleveland? Pfffft. Ohio knew Belichick and they weren’t really interested in spending much time thinking about what promised to be a short-lived future with the Patriots.
Anybody going to see that game was going to see Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens for a few series. To catch a glimpse of Bill Walsh, in town for the festivities.
By the time the fourth quarter started it was 20-0, Patriots and New England had just slipped in their sixth-round rookie Tom Brady for mop-up work.
He hit Sean Morey, Chris Floyd and Shockmain Davis with completions during the “let’s wrap it up” portion of the festivities.
I often think about that weekend now, 16 years later. Belichick has lapped Walsh – the jilted protégé of Belichick’s idol Paul Brown. Brady has surpassed Montana as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
The symmetry there being that Brady and his little bowl cut were in the stands when Montana and Dwight Clark connected on The Catch kicking off the Niners Dynasty in 1981. I think of Rice and how, 18 months later, he’d be standing under a tent in the parking lot of snowy Foxboro Stadium trying to figure out how his Raiders lost the Snow Bowl. I look at Chris Long – still a teenager at the time – there for his father Howie that day. And how now Chris is here, playing for Belichick alongside Brady.
I asked Belichick on Sunday what he recalled about the game. Belichick went to the quarterbacks.
“That was an interesting game, because we started out a little bit on the Tim Rattay trail and [late quarterbacks coach] Dick Rehbein went down there and worked him out at [Louisiana Tech],” Belichick recalled. “They ran a big spread offense and he had a lot of big numbers. We kind of liked him, thought that might be a late-round pick. Then we got on Brady, so it was kind of Brady [in the late sixth round] and Rattay in that seventh round. As luck would have it, we took Brady, they took Rattay, and here they are playing against each other. So, we kind of got a look at that. Guess we took the right one.”
Rehbein was the one that cast the deciding vote in favor of Brady during the draft three months earlier.
For Rehbein, seeing the two players compete on the same field that night along with another 2000 quarterback draftee, Giovanni Carmazzi had to fire up his evaluative skills. Rattay looked meh – 10-for-21 for 105 yards and three sacks. Carmazzi not so much. Brady was fine in that limited duty. He would be a good student to work with.
Six days later, Rehbein died. Cardiomyopathy. That tragedy led to Belichick becoming more hands-on with the quarterbacks and getting even better insight into what Brady was about in terms of work ethic, leadership, smarts and ability.
It was a time when everyone – including the presumptive franchise quarterback – was on notice. The Patriots weren’t good enough to have players appointed to starting roles. They would need to earn it.
“We had a lot of rebuilding to do in 2000, 2001,” said Belichick. “We had a few good players, I’m not saying that. But once you got past those guys, there was a lot of things that needed to be …changed.”
Change came. How drastic, quick and how lasting and successful the change would be, nobody could have ever known.