Even the most talented players in the NFL need the right opportunity to shine. The difference between an NFL draft bust and a superstar can come down to playing time or scheme fit. Even the greatest players in history, like Tom Brady, needed the right opportunity to start their careers.
Mac Jones, the young quarterback tasked with replacing Brady in New England, is also starting his career behind a seasoned veteran. His opportunity might have come sooner than Brady’s did.
Tom Brady‘s first opportunity for the New England Patriots came from starter Drew Bledsoe getting hurt
When a QB is drafted No. 199 in the NFL draft, they don’t usually get the starting job right away. Even Brady is no exception.
The former Michigan Wolverine sat behind Bledsoe his rookie season, only throwing three passes and completing one for six yards. He started year two as the backup again, but that changed in Week 2 when the Patriots faced the New York Jets.
Down 10-3 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bledsoe scrambled out of the pocket to his right. As he was about to go out of bounds, the Jets’ Mo Lewis blasted the Pats’ starter. The hit left Bledsoe with a collapsed lung, concussion, and internal bleeding.
Brady would eventually replace Bledsoe, although the older QB played one more series with his injuries. The team dropped the game to go 0-2 but would finish the season 11-3 with Brady at the helm.
New England beat the then-Oakland Raiders in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game and got past the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs to make the Super Bowl. In the Big Game, the Patriots upset the then-St. Louis Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf” offense to give Brady his first Super Bowl and start him on his path to GOAT status.
Mac Jones may get his opportunity with Cam Newton’s injury
Former Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jones was drafted 184 spots ahead of where Brady was, but, like Brady, Bill Belichick isn’t just handing the keys of the offense to the rookie passer.
Jones will most likely start the year No. 2 on the depth chart. Incumbent starter Cam Newton is the presumptive No. 1 going into the season, and Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer are also on the roster.
In June, the team is participating in offseason OTAs, and the reports about Jones’ performance have been largely positive. He’ll likely get more reps for the remainder of camp due to a hand injury suffered by Newton.
The former Carolina Panthers QB’s injury is reportedly minor, according to ESPN, but the organization isn’t taking any chances with the veteran. He will likely not return until training camp.
This gives Jones (and young Stidham, pick No. 133 overall in 2019) more chance to impress coaches and solidify their spot leading into training camp.
NFL history could be very different if Bledsoe never got injured to give Brady his big chance
The hit Lewis put on Bledsoe is arguably one of the most history-altering plays ever in the NFL. After winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots traded Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills. He started 70 more games with Buffalo and the Dallas Cowboys, producing a 35-35 record before retiring in 2007.
What happened to Brady after that is much more well-known. Over the course of a 21 season and counting career, Brady’s thrown for 79,204 yards, 581 touchdowns, made 14 Pro Bowls, and won six Super Bowls with the Patriots and one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Bledsoe didn’t get injured, but the possibilities are fascinating.
Brady could have replaced Bledsoe later in the season for injury or ineffectiveness but, by that time, New England may have been too far out of the playoffs to make it, and Brady wouldn’t have won his first Super Bowl.
There is also the chance Brady never got a shot in New England. His rookie deal would have run out after the next season, and he could have signed with any other team. Bills fans can dream about the “what if” of getting a young free agent Brady instead of Bledsoe.
The final possibility is that Brady never gets a chance. He’d have been pigeonholed as a sixth-round career backup and the only reason we would remember him is that he is the answer to the sports trivia question, “who split time with QB Drew Henson at Michigan?”
While these scenarios are fun to think about, they didn’t play out because Brady got his opportunity and seized it with both hands. Time will tell if Jones can do the same.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference