CANTON, Ohio — This weekend, Ty Law will be the first in what could be a parade of Patriots to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
By 2030, heading to Canton, Ohio could become as routine as going to Canton, Mass. At least a half-dozen Patriots — led by the owner, the head coach and the quarterback — will probably get in. You could make a case for a half-dozen more.
As this Patriots invasion begins and we reflect on how amazing this century’s run has been, it’s inevitable that we look at when it began.
And there’s beautiful symmetry when you realize that the first game for Bill Belichick as head coach of the Patriots was played right here in Canton. And that, in the fourth quarter of that game, the skinny sixth-rounder, Tom Brady played his first NFL snaps, coming in for mop-up duty after Michael Bishop lit it up against the San Francisco 49ers.
When the Patriots took the field on July 31, 2000, Belichick had been on the job six months. He’d extracted himself from his commitment to the Jets, landed in New England, been given great control by owner Robert Kraft and had set about pulling the weeds that had grown in the three seasons where Pete Carroll and Bobby Grier ran the football and personnel.
Looking back at that Enshrinement Weekend, that night, those teams and the players who took the field on both sides, there are so many threads to pull.
The 49ers were the team the Patriots aspired to become, the dynasty that Kraft wanted to emulate. Among the players going into the Hall that weekend was Joe Montana, Brady’s boyhood idol, and Ronnie Lott.
On the field for the Niners that night was not just Jerry Rice — arguably the greatest football player of all-time and a man who’d be on the field against the Patriots again in snowy Foxboro for the Snow Bowl game 18 months later — but also Tim Rattay. He was the rookie quarterback that the Patriots debated selecting instead of Brady until quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein cast his vote for Brady.
“That was an interesting game, because we started out a little bit on the Tim Rattay trail and Dick Rehbein went down there and worked him out at [Louisiana Tech],” Belichick recalled in 2016. “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.”
The Patriots couldn’t be sure of that then, though. They weren’t sure of anything, really, except that they had work to do.
Throughout the 2019 season, we’ll look back at that time in Patriots history when everything was unsettled except for Belichick’s vision for the kind of team he wanted to create. And we’ll share the recollections of the players, coaches and executives who were there the night a dynasty was born.
Our first installment in the retrospective is looking at the cultural shift the Patriots were trying to enact in Foxboro.
Scott Pioli was the Patriots assistant director of player personnel in 2000. In 2001, he became director of player personnel and a year after that was named VP of player personnel. Bottom line, he was on the front line along with Belichick in building the team the head coach wanted.
“It was a unique time because we knew that we had this one group of players that were really, really good,” said Pioli. “And then we had another group of players, we weren’t sure where we were with them at all. Bill had spent a year here as (defensive backs coach) in 1996 so he had some intel on players like Tedy Bruschi, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Chris Slade.
“Bill knew some of those players and we knew we had a good nucleus, particularly on defense. But we also knew some of the offensive players were starting to age. Drew (Bledsoe) was still young so he was in that sweet spot but Ben Coates was getting older, Bruce Armstrong was getting older so it was an interesting time because a changing of the guard was happening.
“We knew what we married into was a solid core of players that could at least be the start of a really good ascension, we hoped.”
Belichick, having been fired by the Browns after the 1995 season, spent that one season in New England in 1996 before going to the Jets with Bill Parcells as defensive coordinator.
His return was met with skepticism by some of the old-guard Patriots.
“There wasn’t buy-in initially,” said Pioli. “It was difficult. Some of the players on the team knew Bill as an assistant coach, and assistant coaches have different relationships with players. So when Bill got here, he had to put some new demands on players. And different kinds of demands. But he did have an understanding of who was going to buy in and who wasn’t.
“We knew there were a lot of players from 1997 to 1999 that we knew we weren’t going to get full buy-in from. It’s not the players’ fault and it’s not the team’s fault. When there’s a marriage that doesn’t work it’s not necessarily one side's fault. There were players who were brought in under different circumstances for a different culture. We weren’t necessarily mixing and matching with everyone.
“Bill’s program is so demanding because it’s so simple. His rule was: Be on time. Pay attention. Work hard. Those three things are pretty simple. But for some young players that have this degree of entitlement, it wasn’t working and it wasn’t going to work. Just like it hadn’t worked in Cleveland with some of the players with Bill.
“One of the great examples of a player who was on the edge, who we knew was a supreme talent but couldn’t figure out was Kevin Faulk. There were a lot of things Kevin hadn’t done in the past that we were asking him to do. He also was a young guy that was a little rambunctious and had a lifestyle that maybe didn’t always allow him to be on time, pay attention and work hard, the three tenets.
“Kevin we knew was talented but he had a willingness. I don’t know what made him flip, but at some point in time he said, ‘I know this group that I’m a part of but I’m gonna be different.’ And thank God for all of us, not just for Kevin but for our football team that it worked out.”
Drafted in the second round of the 1999 draft by Carroll, Faulk realized there was a new sheriff in town.
“Pete was gone,” Faulk said when asked about the culture change from laid-back to hardline. “I had to be a full buy-in guy. No matter what. For me, I’d had a head coach like Bill before so it wasn’t hard for me to adapt to. It was just something to get used to and a lot of guys couldn’t get used to that.”
How Belichick and Pioli went about installing that culture, who would go, who would stay and how the team would get on the track to improvement will be scrutinized in our next installment.
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