The NFL’s Last Great Quarterback Controversy

The last decade of the NFL has hinged on one big decision by Bill Belichick in 2001. posted on

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Folks in the Bay Area have been saying good-bye to Alex Smith for weeks now, and it came as no surprise for any Niners fan from Modesto to Half Moon Bay to hear that Smith had finally been traded. What was surely the most surprising bit of information was the early word on how much the deal might send back — a 2013 second-round pick and a conditional third-rounder next year — from Kansas City, where Smith will be the No. 1 guy once again under new coach Andy Reid. Colin Kaepernick, who nearly led the team to a historic Super Bowl comeback win three weeks ago, is SF’s undisputed starter for the foreseeable future, unless something unexpected happens.

It was fitting, then, that news of Smith’s inevitable exodus leaked just a couple of news cycles after we learned of Tom Brady’s new contract extension, the one that helps the team stay competitive, gives him a raise, and guarantees that he retires as the greatest New England Patriot of all time and one of the top five quarterbacks in NFL history. And the only reason that sentence doesn’t solely reside in some fantasy world penned by a 13-year-old Mainer writing NFL fanfic until 3 a.m. every night is because something unexpected happened in Foxborough on Sept. 23, 2001. In the same way that Alex Smith lost his starting job this past season to a concussion, New England’s Drew Bledsoe lost his job late that afternoon to a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, an unheralded sixth-round draft pick from Michigan and one-time chubby kid from San Mateo, California, came on in relief and never relinquished his position. Brady went on to lead the team a Super Bowl win that season, never mind the four more appearances (and two wins) that subsequently followed.

There was some middling, healthy debate in San Francisco about whether it was right that Smith lost his position last season through little fault of his own, though fans had seen enough of Smith and been underwhelmed by six-plus seasons of mediocrity. The Patriots faced a much more delicate midseason quarterback controversy in 2001. In many ways, football fans haven’t seen such a great QB battle like Brady/Bledsoe since it occurred. (And no, Tebow/Sanchez in New York doesn’t count. For it to be a great controversy there should be at least one decent quarterback.) Furthermore, there’s a chance we may never see one again that has such far-reaching implications. Because matters shook out the way they did, Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and some others will be NFL Hall of Famers one day. But it almost never happened that way, and Bostonians were torn for weeks.

As an intern in the Boston Globe’s sports department during the Patriots’ 2001-02 season, I was prone to saving certain section covers that caught my eye. For reasons that escape me even in hindsight, I kept two that pertain to Brady. The first came from the days that followed Drew Bledsoe’s clearance by the team’s medical staff, when Belichick and the rest of the organization had to make the call as to whether Brady, who’d gone a respectable 5-2 since stepping in as the starter, would continue in that role or whether Bledsoe, who’d suffered his “sheared blood vessel” thanks to New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, might return as the main man in Foxborough. As you can see from the Globe-conducted polls at the left, public opinion was certainly in Brady’s favor, but the consensus was not unanimous. Belichick, who was still fairly unproven in his own right as a head coach at that point, had to make a decision that, no matter what, would be unpopular with some segment of his team’s fan base.

He stuck with Brady. The following week, the Patriots lost to the team they would later meet (and beat) in the Super Bowl, the St. Louis Rams, and public opinion had started to turn the other way.

I don’t think this is the time to get into a big personnel evaluation, but I don’t see any changes. It was the classic standoffish-and-aloof Belichick that we’ve come to accept over the years, but it was a real, honest-to-God decision he had to make at that time. And the day after the loss to the Rams, the Globe did another poll of fans, even doubling the sample size to nearly 13,000 respondents. Whereas 78 percent of folks picked Brady the week before the game, only 65 percent did so in the wake of that defeat. Public opinion was slipping, a healthy quarterback with a proven track record lay gathering dust on the sideline, and the future of a franchise hung in the balance of whatever course Belichick chose.

Of course, people like then-Globe columnist Ron Borges, just a few years before a plagiarism scandal effectively ended his tenure at the paper, tried to work the concern-trolling beat, implying that Brady’s flash-in-the-pan was fleeting, that the more reliable (read: smarter) option would be to stick with the proven commodity in Bledsoe. Here’s what Borges wrote for this Nov. 20, 2001, sports section you see:

As I recall the argument, Brady is far more mobile than the lead-footed Bledsoe and hence makes things happen in the pocket while avoiding the dreaded sacks that have killed the Patriots’ offense the last two years. Doesn’t that just about sum up the argument for Brady?

Of course, if that’s true, why has Brady been sacked 14 times in the last four games while throwing seven interceptions, which happens to be the same number of touchdown passes he’s thrown during those games?

The allegedly “far more mobile” Brady has been dragged down 22 times in his first eight starts, which projects to 44 sacks in a 16-game season, which is almost exactly the number Bledsoe suffered in 16 games a year ago (45). Mobile? I don’t think so, except perhaps when compared with game film of Bledsoe on the run.

Borges continued, unabated and unconvinced:

In his last four games, Brady has thrown more than half as many interceptions as Bledsoe threw all last season (Bledsoe had 13, Brady has had seven in four weeks after going 162 straight throws without one).

In those four games, Brady has been sacked more than a quarter as often as Bledsoe was all last year (14, which would project to 56, which would be 11 more than Bledsoe).
So what are we talking about here?

More than likely, we’re talking about the unraveling of a young quarterback.

There were other doubters, as well. Boston Herald columnist Michael Gee wrote a flippant, sarcastic take, declaring that Belichick had created “yet another needless quarterback controversy” by standing decisively by Brady. Gee’s conclusion: “If the Pats aren’t at least in the AFC championship game two years from now, Belichick will again be unemployed.”

The Herald beat writers sure did their part, penning the obligatory pro-Bledsoe piece, since no QB controversy is worth its salt unless one of the parties is mad as hell and isn’t going to take this anymore:

A visibly angry Drew Bledsoe said yesterday he “was told” that he’d have an opportunity to compete for the Patriots starting quarterback job once he was cleared by doctors. According to sources close to Bledsoe, that assurance came from coach Bill Belichick.

However, a team source said last night that no promises were given.

Unnamed sources! A “visibly angry” Bledsoe! It’s no wonder even the paper’s gossip mavens weighed in, quoting a source close to Patriots owner Bob Kraft as “Deep Backfield.” (And the accompanying photo of Brady with his arms around two young women at a nightclub? Nice touch.) Even Kevin Mannix, who offered a more nuanced, good-cop take, concluded his piece with an ominous and (it turns out) myopic prediction from an unnamed source:

One general manager was curious about the rationale behind Belichick’s announcement.

“If they’re giving Brady the job because Bledsoe isn’t medically ready to play, it makes sense,” he said. “If they think that Brady gives them a better chance of winning than a healthy Bledsoe, that’s another story.

“If that’s the case, they’re in trouble. It will be a while before they’ll see the playoffs.”

About one of the only measured, insightful takes that followed that loss to the Rams came from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. Perhaps it’s the healthy distance away from the Boston tabloid bubble, but King nailed the legacy of that Week 10 loss in its immediate wake:

They are two of the most interesting teams in the league — the Rams because anything can happen on the field where they play at any time, the Patriots because of the quarterback controversy (Joe Theismann, how can you sit there with a straight face and say, “There is no quarterback controversy here,” when it’s all the Boston talk shows and columnists are filibustering about?) and because of Bill Belichick’s penchant for giving great quarterbacks a great game and because of the unknown.

And by midnight, the Rams and Patriots hadn’t let anyone down.

[…]

The game, and the weekend, actually illuminated much about the playoff race. The game told us that the Rams, with their last dangerous grass game out of the way, should win NFC home-field, and the Patriots, even at 5-5, should be able to muster up enough wins to go 9-7 and win a wild-card berth.

Sunday also told us the following: … Tom Brady could be a playoff quarterback, and Peyton Manning might not be.

Of course, Belichick made his decision and stuck by Brady. Now, both men will be in the Hall of Fame one day.

Rob Carr / Getty Images

My only thought was, This man is going to die. Brady and the New England Patriots had shocked the sports world, defeated the Greatest Show on Turf with a last-second field goal, and brought a Super Bowl win to Boston, and I was walking along Commonwealth Avenue back to my dorm room. Men, no doubt heavily intoxicated, kept walking into the street to be one with the vehicles. One guy, in particular, thought it fun to skip along the lane dividers and high-five cars’ side-view mirrors as they carefully inched around him.

Boston and the greater New England area was in a state of enhanced delirium and for good reason. Patriots fans had nearly torn themselves apart during the regular season. Sure, the rationalization became easy to stomach as Brady piled up the wins, but Boston was at a weird time then. The city had few star athletes that held undisputed reverence. The Bruins had already said adieu to Ray Bourque, who had to be shipped west to find his championship groove. The collective Red Sox were still second-fiddle to the Yankees, and the Celtics hadn’t made the NBA playoffs in six years. For all these reasons, the Patriots were able to seize on this void and claim a place in the sports landscape they may never relinquish.

Elsa / Getty Images

History is written by the victors, and Tom Brady’s collected works, after 11 full seasons and three Super Bowl wins, would make Gibbon blush. He is now the worthy recipient of a contract extension that, despite all the lauding of his generosity and team-first attitude, will actually see him net a nice profit when all is decided. No one denies that he deserves every penny.

Sometimes, though, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering that before the Super Bowls and the supermodel wife, before the endorsements and the endless magazine profiles, there was a time when it almost didn’t happen for Brady. As for Bledsoe, he got his Super Bowl ring, played five more seasons, and still ranks 15th in career TD passes (251), 10th in passing yards (44,611), and 10th in game-winning drives (31). Today, he owns and operates a thriving vineyard in southeast Washington. And the Boston sports media survives, unable to tear itself apart despite all its best efforts.

Almost makes you wonder what Mo Lewis is up to these days.

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