When the Patriots rolled into Bryant College for 2001 training camp, no one could know that this team was on the verge of beginning the greatest dynastic run in NFL history.
Editor's note: This is Part II of Tom E. Curran's three-part series revisiting the rise of Tom Brady from sixth-round pick to seven-time Super Bowl champion. You can read Part I here.
Charlie Weis, Patriots offensive coordinator: We brought in Damon (Huard in as a free agent) really to be No. 2 and Tommy to be No. 3 That was the intent. But we figured, ‘Well, let's let them battle it off in training camp.’ They both played pretty well. It was kind of too close to call. So you could have taken the safer route and Damon would have been the safer route, or the higher ceiling route. And we chose to go higher ceiling, and I guess that's a good thing.
We weren't looking for him to beat out Bledsoe at that time; we were looking for him to beat out Damon. It was a big enough task just to get to No. 2. And it wasn't like he greatly outperformed Damon. If you go back and look they probably had very similar stats in training camp.
(We checked. Brady was 31 for 54 for 384 yards in the preseason with two TDs, 0 picks and 0 sacks; Huard was 13 for 19 for 119 yards with 0 TDs, 1 pick and two sacks).
But there was something about this kid. Bill would always talk with me. It was always Bill's call, so even if I wanted to be the one making a call on something, it was Bill's team and Bill’s call every time this conversation came up.
We were on the same page, which that was a good thing, because anytime the offensive coordinator and head coach are on the same page, that's a good thing.
Brady's performance wasn't lost on offensive teammates either. Wide receiver David Patten talked frankly in 2019 about the difference he saw in Brady.
Patten: I’m telling you, we are slicing the No. 1 defense (in training camp). We are killin’ them. And I remember going back to my hotel room feeling like, ‘Shoot, they got the wrong one with the $100 million.'
The 2001 season opened with a 23-17 road loss to the Bengals. The Patriots scored 10 points in the second quarter but then went three-and-out on four consecutive drives in the third and into the fourth. The offense was tough to watch. Against the Jets two weeks later (the NFL postponed Week 2 games because of 9/11), it was alarmingly bad. Bledsoe had two picks, one in the end zone. Seven of their 10 drives were five plays or less and ended with punts or turnovers. At the end of a 15-play drive, the Patriots were lined up to go on fourth-and-goal from the Jets 1. Bledsoe took a delay of game.
Scott Pioli, Patriots director of player personnel: Remember, (Jets head coach Al Groh) had been with Drew with the Patriots. He was also on that staff for three years when we were all with the Jets competing against Drew. This is to not be derogatory towards Drew at all. Every quarterback, every player has their shortcomings and Al knew exactly what they were.
Even though a lot of the coaching things had changed, Al knew what the book was on Drew. Just like we knew to some degree the book was on Peyton Manning as we got to play him more and more. (Bledsoe’s performance in that game) may not have been part of the thinking (when considering Brady), but it was a part of the reality.
Brady came on for Bledsoe with 2:16 remaining and the Patriots at their own 26 trailing 10-3. Their five previous drives were four plays or fewer. Brady responded with an 11-play drive that reached the Jets 26. The game ended with Brady throwing into the end zone incomplete. The ball was nearly caught by Charles Johnson.
Pioli: I believe the backup quarterback always has the best job because no one has a book on him, and no one knew what the strengths or weaknesses or limitations of Brady were at the time. So you have a small package for whoever your backup is. You're running something a little bit different than what your game plan is and they have a chance to shine. So I wasn’t really surprised.
The days after the Jets loss were as fascinating as any of the past 20 years. As Bledsoe laid sidelined with a catastrophic injury, there was a simmering debate on sports radio about whether he was the problem with the Patriots offense and whether we’d find out the answer during his recovery. At Foxboro Stadium, there was hopeful curiosity about the potential of finding out who Tom Brady was.
Pioli: I'd say we were excited to find out. Things like this are so much more complicated, especially in the moment. There are people so disappointed because they absolutely loved Drew Bledsoe.
We were all disappointed for Drew. We were all upset for Drew. We were all worried about Drew because those of us that were in the inside knew the severity of the injury. The world didn't know it for a while but we knew what had happened. There was no conflict. People liked Drew. I liked Drew. Bill liked Drew.
But the next moment you don't have time to worry about or concern yourself (with it). You need to move on. You've got a job, you've got an obligation. Bill has a job, Charlie (Weis) has a job, I have a job, the entire team has a job to move forward.
And it's not insensitive. It's like that’s the business, that's the game, that’s the job, that's sports and competition. Next man up. Now you focus on that. The time and energy and emotion, if you're spending it in that place where you really can't do anything for Drew in that moment, you need to focus your energies on what the possibilities are. And there were a number of us that felt that Brady was a really good possibility.
Even though Brady earned the No. 2 job coming out of camp, there were conversations privately as to whether it made more sense to go with Huard in relief of Bledsoe. There were also conversations prior to Bledsoe being injured about whether Brady needed a shot at starting.
Pioli: Groundswell (of support for Brady) is probably too strong a word, but there were conversations in there with a very small group of us. At the time that the injury happened, there were also people who would have felt more secure in the security blanket of (starting) Damon, a guy who had experience.
Bill Belichick spoke to the team on Monday and told them Bledsoe would be out and Brady would be in.
Dave Nugent, Brady's roommate and defensive end: I remember the night Drew got hurt, all the conversations with Tom and I were about concern for Drew. It wasn't about him taking over anything like that. The next morning, when we walked into the building, the whole building was just deflated. We knew Drew was in serious condition. A lot of the players just felt like their season was over. There's no point anymore.
I remember Coach Belichick reviewed film with us and said, ‘All right guys, I'll see you on the practice field we'll run some laps and call it a day,' and Tom actually stood up and said, ‘Coach, if you don't mind, I'd like to address the team.’
I remember he got up to the front of the room, and I want to be honest with you, I was a little uncomfortable for him, because, you know, I didn't know how the team was going to respond. Because at that time he was our second-string quarterback, but he still was kind of unknown. And he got up there and he said, ‘You know guys, I know this isn't the situation you were hoping for at this point, because I know a lot of you guys are already thinking about next season, but I want to tell you right now, I'm not thinking about next season.’
He said, ‘Our time is now and I commit to you guys I'm gonna do everything in my power to help us to win games. If everybody can commit to do the same thing, we're gonna have a good season this year.’
I just remember the reaction from the guys. Nobody was making fun of the situation. Everybody's like, ‘Man, how much courage it takes for him to get up and give that talk in that situation.’ And I remember that week we had the best practice that we had had up until that point. And that was the week of the Colts game.
As the week began, the effort to make sure Brady had all the support he needed took shape.
Weis: Until that time, I coached from the box. I sat down with Bill and the first thing we decided is that it would probably would be more beneficial if I was downstairs than upstairs.
Drew was the leader of our offense. He was the leader. So on the sideline I could talk to Drew, and then Drew could talk to the assistant coaches, then he can talk to wide receivers, he could talk to the tight ends. He can have those conversations that I already had with him.
One thing with both Drew and Tommy is they were very, very smart. They were very bright. So you could have a conversation with them and we would already be on the same page and they'd be able to relay the information faster than even an assistant coach would, because they could translate what I had said to them.
We needed that type of communication on the sideline to be able to happen quicker, so that brought me down on the field and I basically stayed on the field most of the rest of my career.
Bledsoe couldn’t have picked a worse time to be a scrambler and get blasted. There were some teammates who knew the offense needed a pick-me-up and had seen in practice what Brady could do.
Lawyer Milloy, Patriots safety (from Sept. 26, 2001): Talking to some of the guys on the opposite side of the ball, they said (Brady) goes in there and will say, ‘OK, look guys, I need a little more.’ Or, ‘Run a good route because I’m coming to you.’ He’s just that kind of vocal presence that I think they need over there right now.”
I was covering the Patriots for the Metrowest Daily News in 2001. It was my fifth year on the beat. Brady’s summer impressed me. Bledsoe’s performance over the summer lost me. This is what I wrote in a column under the headline “Patriots face $103M QB question.”
Metrowest Daily News, Sept. 27, 2001: It’s a shame it had to happen this way but at least now we’ll find out. Now we’ll find out whether the Patriots are worse off with somebody other than Drew Bledsoe playing quarterback. ...
If Tom Brady can do as well as Bledsoe has recently -- or even better -- then folks we have an issue. ...
If Tom Brady can take this chicken-bleep offense and turn it into chicken salad, then whoever’s making the calls in Foxboro owes it to the few million who watch on Sundays and the people who’ve been sitting on cold metal benches for 30-odd years cheering for bad teams to rethink it all. ...
… Ability should be the final determining factor and if you get a guy who can do a job just as well for less money, you hire him and get the guy who can’t play to his paycheck out of the way and let him be somebody else’s headache.
It’s time to batten down the hatches. We are either sailing straight into a month-long referendum on the immeasurable talent of Drew Bledsoe or a full-blown, Nor’easter quarterback controversy.
It’s gonna get bumpy either way but at least we’re gonna find out.
Lloyd Carr, Michigan head coach, to the Metrowest Daily News, Sept. 30, 2001: I fully expected New England to tie the game up (against the Jets) because I’ve seen that so many times. The people of Boston, before this is over, are going to find out the same things I know about Tom Brady.
Metrowest Daily News, Sept. 30, 2001; column under headline 'Ready To Lead': (Brady) now takes over as the starter for a team that’s 0-2 and he stands in for a nine-year veteran who’s been to three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl. The list of Bledsoe’s accomplishments in the Patriots’ media guide consumes 25 pages. Brady’s are confined to three-fourths of one page.
And yet there is optimism. Optimism that Brady could do what Bledsoe has not been able to -- move the Patriots offense and score points. Optimism that his preparation, dedication, toughness, leadership and talent will make a difference today against the most potent team in football over the first two games of the season.
“If Tom Brady comes out and has a big game it’s because he’s paid attention to all the details,” Brady’s personal throwing coach, Tom Martinez, said. “Tom Brady is always part off the solution. Never a part of the problem.”
Editor's Note: Stay tuned for Part III of Tom E. Curran's three-part series revisiting the rise of Tom Brady from sixth-round pick to seven-time Super Bowl champion.