Tom Brady didn’t come out of nowhere. The notion that he did -- that no one envisioned him taking over for Drew Bledsoe – is an easy-to-swallow storyline increasingly pushed as the years pass. But it just isn’t true.
In late September of 2001, the second-year quarterback from Michigan was already nipping at Bledsoe’s heels. Brady’s ascent began almost the moment he entered Foxboro Stadium as the 199th pick. Bledsoe, meanwhile, had plateaued at 29.
He was still highly regarded around the league for his toughness, leadership, size and arm strength. But within the walls at the soon-to-be-demolished Foxboro Stadium, Bledsoe’s price tag and limitations had head coach Bill Belichick, Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, and others privately concerned with whether Bledsoe would be part of the team’s success or an obstacle to it.
Belichick and Pioli worked shoulder-to-shoulder in building the Patriots of the 2000s. Their job was monumental. And Bledsoe was a complex part of it.
"Thinking about Drew, part of the blessing and the curse with Drew was that we knew him so well," Pioli explained. "Everyone liked Drew, respected Drew. But because we had been an opponent (of the Patriots) the last three seasons at the Jets, we had started to figure out ways to attack Drew, things that we could do to Drew and what (his) Kryptonite was.
"He was still one of the best quarterbacks in the league but you also have this knowledge of things that may not work," Pioli said. "It was clear that he was playing at a certain level. What was the next level? Are we going to be able to get a ‘next level’ from him? And are we going to be able to provide the things for him that would allow him to take it to the next level?"
Meanwhile, Brady -- one of four quarterbacks the Patriots kept on the roster in Belichick’s 5-11 first season with the team -- built on the momentum he’d created as a rookie. Despite Bledsoe signing a 10-year, $103M extension in March of 2001, Brady’s progress throughout that spring and summer kept the Patriots braintrust on alert. Meanwhile, Bledsoe’s summer work wasn’t good.
Many in the media chalked that up to the lack of talent around the rocket-armed Bledsoe. He was at his best when he could stand tall, pat the ball and rip it downfield. A precision offense based on accuracy and quick decision-making didn’t play to Bledsoe’s strengths. And that’s exactly what Charlie Weis, the team’s offensive coordinator, wanted to run. Bledsoe was trying. But he was more gunslinger than sharpshooter. And while Brady was no gazelle, Bledsoe was a battleship.
That Bledsoe took seven preseason sacks and played almost the entire first half of the Patriots' final preseason game should have been a warning that the Patriots still weren’t seeing what they wanted. If it wasn’t, Bledsoe’s performance through the first two games was. The Patriots lost the opener to the Bengals.
On September 23, the Patriots hosted the Jets. The violent way in which Bledsoe’s day ended -- an organ-rattling hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that sheared an artery -- overshadowed the quarterback’s performance before the hit. It was one of the worst games he’d played in years. The near-tragedy with Bledsoe gave Brady and the team a chance to see what it had. Cold-blooded. But business.
What were the months leading up to that moment like in Foxboro for the Patriots and for Brady? What was the atmosphere around the team and in the facility? And what was it like 20 years ago in the days after Bledsoe’s injury through to Tom Brady’s first NFL start?
With Brady coming to Foxboro to start a game for the final time, we look back exactly 20 years to the week of Brady’s first start at home against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
When did Tom Brady begin to make a major impression?
Scott Pioli, Patriots Director of Player Personnel: I believe we started to see a change in Tommy during the 2000 season just watching his preparation. I've always liked to make this distinction between work ethic and work habits. Brady had both. He had a really strong work ethic. But as we know, there's a lot of people out there that have a really strong work ethic. But if their work habits aren't right, if they're just working on the wrong things, it doesn't matter. And Brady had both of those at a very young age.
Charlie Weis, Offensive Coordinator: I was impressed with the Tommy Brady that went on his whole rookie year. Most of his work took place after practice, or in the building. He didn't get that much work on the field. Most of his work took place after practice. He'd keep guys and he’d tape a script and go through plays. We watched him evolve and I thought that after that first year that he could be in the running for the backup quarterback.
Chris Eitzmann, tight end and Brady's roommate: One story that just sticks out to me the most is the second week of training camp (in 2000). We're walking off the field at Bryant College after we stayed late to run routes. I'm completely gassed. At the time I’m seventh on the depth chart, believing I had a chance but knowing a lot had to happen for me to find my way onto the roster.
Tom was kinda in the same boat. He had two veterans ahead of him (Bledsoe and veteran John Friesz). Michael Bishop (a third-year player from Kansas State) was obviously very popular for what he could do athletically. We're both kind of fighting for jobs. So there we are, walking off the field, second week of practicing and he says, ‘You know what, I'm going to beat out Bledsoe.’
So at the time I was fairly dismissive of it. I'm like, 'Yeah, okay. Sure you are.' But he believed it was 100 percent. There was no other outcome that was acceptable to him. He knew in his heart that at some point he was going to do it. And that's my favorite story of him because I think it tells you so much about who he is and how he's done what he's done.
How committed was Brady in the offseason after his rookie year?
Tom Brady, Sr.: The day after the season ends, he was back at the facility working out and was basically there the whole time probably January 2 to June 30. I think it was July or so he got a call from Charlie Weis just as we were pulling in to play golf. Charlie said, ‘How come you're not here working out?’ after Tommy’s been six straight months of working out virtually every day. And Tommy said, ‘Don't worry, Coach, I'm not going back there to be the backup of a 5-11 quarterback.’
He felt that he had the talents and the ability to supplant Drew reasonably quickly and in fact, several people made comments to that same effect.
Weis: I do (remember that phone call). He did have that, in a nice way, you’d say cockiness. But it was a confidence. He did have that confidence about him. Being a Jersey guy myself, I always liked that type of attitude where, he wasn't shooting anyone else down, he was just saying, ‘Hey, this is what I'm all about.’ And, you know, that's one of the things that stuck out to you.
Despite being impressed by Brady, the Patriots were busy in the offseason bolstering the QB room by signing veteran Damon Huard
Pioli: We were trying to build our entire roster. There was a group of us that felt really good about Brady and the progress he was making. But he was still unproven. Something we wanted to do that season was improve not only our starters, but our depth. We wanted to be a deep football team.
We felt that Brady could certainly be on his way to being the No. 2. Some of us felt more strongly than others. Yet, there was an opportunity to get Damon Huard, a player that we really respected and we knew a lot about because he had been in that division with Miami and the group of us that had been with the Jets knew who he was as a player. We knew he was a backup player who also had some starter experience. So we wanted a player as one of our backups to be someone that had starting experience.
Despite the Bledsoe contract and a fairly lucrative deal for Huard, Brady plowed on
Pioli: That offseason, he acquired a key somehow and he would let himself into the facility and into the visitor’s locker room to watch film because he didn’t want people to see him in there. He would come in down by the weight room and watch tape down there. (I thought the reason he was guarded about it) was a combination that he didn't want people to think he was kissing up but he also didn't want people knowing how hard he was working. I shouldn't say that I know what he was thinking. My assumption or my guess would be was that he knew that he had limitations, but he also knew that no one was gonna outwork him. There’s just that whole idea that you're a professional athlete. And there's other people that aren't working that hard. You know, why would I have to? And that's just me speculating. I don't know why, but I don't think he really wanted people to know how hard he worked.
You’ve heard me tell the story about the draft before the 2001 season. It was a Friday night in the very beginning of April, and I was leaving the building. We still had the (practice) bubble and the lights were on in the bubble. I went around the construction (of the new stadium) to go hit the lights and on a Friday night in April, it's almost 10 o'clock at night and there's Brady working on his own with his boombox, with elastics around his ankles, throwing balls into the net.
I retell that story because I don't know if we saw a change. It was more of this continuum that was constant. It was unrelenting, and it was preparation. It was work habits. And then it began to manifest itself in camps and all the work that he did in that preseason.
He was always prepared and sometimes people focus so much on tools, someone's big arm, the throws they can make, how fast they are.
Brady had a different way of doing things early in his career. And as he got better athletically, as he got a stronger arm, he was doing all the right things and making all the right decisions, not just off the field but on the field when his opportunity came.
Why wasn't Bledsoe's contract a barrier to Brady's ascent? Why was it actually an aid to Brady?
Pioli: We were trying to manage that salary cap from the moment we walked in the door. People often forget the true and accurate history of what the circumstances were when this whole thing started.
One of the biggest issues we had was this imbalance within our salary cap. And part of building a good team is being able to find ways to structure contracts where it's not too heavy-handed one way. Those were some of the things we talked about. That’s what was going through our minds at this time: ‘Hey, we've got to find good young players that can help us address this bigger picture situation.’
There was a feeling that (Brady) might be able to become that player. It wasn't everybody in the organization. It wasn't everybody on the coaching staff. It wasn't everybody in player personnel -- not that it was a very big player, personnel department -- but there was some hopefulness that he could become that player.
There were things that made us think that he could be (a starting-level quarterback) and it was hopefulness. And we thought he was on that trajectory where he could become a starting quarterback and could become our starting quarterback.
I go back to thinking about the Drew thing, part of the blessing and the curse with Drew was that we knew him so well. Everyone liked Drew, respected Drew. But because we had been an opponent the last three seasons at the Jets, we had started to figure out ways to attack Drew, things that we could do to Drew and what someone who's Kryptonite was. He was still one of the best quarterbacks in the league but you also have this knowledge of things that may not work.
It was clear that he was playing at a certain level and what was the next level? Are we going to be able to get a next level from him? And are we going to be able to provide the things for him that would allow him to take it to the next level?
Again, let's look at this in its true context. Go back to that moment, that 2001 offseason, when that offseason starts, we are in big salary cap trouble. You go back to the year before when we got there. In 2000, we were $10.5 million dollars over the salary cap, and the salary cap was much lower ($67.5M). The things we had to do get under the cap in the 2000 season? I think we signed maybe 28 rookie free agents just in order to fill our roster, and to go to training camp.
When we got under the cap in the beginning of March, we were down to 41 players. Forty-one players under contract! That was it. And then we had to build our football team to go to camp. Back in the day, teams were doing borrowing. They would simply take the player's contract, reduce the salary, give them a signing bonus, it would reduce the cap in that year. But that money's still chasing you. It's nothing more than credit card borrowing.
So the credit card borrowing had been done. And we were having to do multiple things: build a good football team, find good players, and then also get our cap in order which is what we were trying to do still into 2001. Heck, we were still trying to do it into 2002.
As training camp and the preseason unfolded, Brady's improvement was impossible to overlook
Dave Nugent, Brady's roommate and defensive end: His appearance had changed physically. He looked different. He carried himself a little bit more competently. Being a defensive player, I was in the defensive meetings and I remember specifically hearing guys like Lawyer Milloy making comments, being like, ‘Man, you know, something's going on. Tom's really improved a lot.’ It was catching the eye of a lot of the veterans. They were noticing it so when he started climbing up that ladder on the depth chart, people understood why that was the case.
I remember Tom just didn't make a lot of mistakes. And, you know, I don't necessarily remember Drew making a lot of mistakes. But I just remember that Tom was climbing the ladder for a reason, and that if they had to play Tom I think there's players in the team that felt super comfortable with that.
Editor's note: This is Part I of Tom E. Curran's three-part series revisiting the rise of Tom Brady from sixth-round pick to seven-time Super Bowl champion. Click here to read Part II.