As Tom Brady prepares to make his NFL-record 10th Super Bowl appearance, obviously his first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, much will be made of the fact that he won six championships with the New England Patriots, more than any other player in NFL history. But everyone knows that.
What many may not remember, however, is that Brady may not have won his first Super Bowl with the Pats had it not been for the man who he famously replaced in 2001, Drew Bledsoe, who helped New England win the AFC title that year after TB12 went down in the second quarter that day against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a leg injury.
Drew Bledsoe was the starting QB for the New England Patriots for eight seasons before his famous injury in 2001
Taken with the first pick in the 1993 NFL draft out of Washington State, Drew Bledsoe had been the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots for eight years entering the 2001 season.
He’d been selected to the Pro Bowl on three occasions and was a Second-Team All-Pro in 1996, the year he led the Pats to just their second Super Bowl appearance, where they lost to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. While Bledsoe consistently had issues with interceptions — he had 136 in that eight-year span — he put up solid-enough numbers during that same time frame, completing 56.2% of his passes for 29,257 yards and 164 touchdowns.
Those stats obviously wouldn’t make him an elite starter in today’s NFL but they were good enough to get the job done back then and the Patriots certainly thought highly of him as they signed him to a 10-year/$103 million contract in March 2001, at the time the richest deal in NFL history.
But as we all know, everyone’s plans changed when Bledsoe went down with an injury in Week 2 of the 2001 season after taking a vicious hit from New York Jets linebacker, Mo Lewis. And it’s here that the legend of Tom Brady began.
Tom Brady went 11-3 in his first year as the starting QB of the New England Patriots
Famously taken in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft out of Michigan, Tom Brady was seen by most as nothing more than a career backup quarterback in the NFL. He’d thrown just three passes as a rookie but was thrust into the starting role following the injury to Drew Bledsoe.
He couldn’t lead the Patriots to a comeback victory in that Week 2 matchup against the Jets but his winning ways began the following week when he led the Pats to their first win of the season, a 44-13 drubbing of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
By Week 10, the week Drew Bledsoe was cleared to return to the field, Brady had amassed a 5-2 record (the five wins actually matched the Patriots’ win total from the previous year) and Bill Belichick decided to stick with the youngster, who would go on to lead the team to an 11-5 record, an AFC East title, and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Brady then led the Patriots to a win, albeit a controversial one, over the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round, a 16-13 battle that would famously become known as the “Tuck Rule Game.” That set up an AFC Championship showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game Tom Brady would start but Drew Bledsoe would finish.
Drew Bledsoe finished the AFC Championship Game that Tom Brady couldn’t
The New England Patriots entered the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers as nine-point road underdogs but given the fact they were never even supposed to make the postseason, they really went into the game with nothing to lose.
But they actually did lose something in the second quarter, their starting quarterback. With the Patriots holding a 7-3 lead with just under two minutes remaining in the first half, Tom Brady went down with a leg injury after taking a hit from Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers and was forced to leave the game. That brought in Drew Bledsoe, who hadn’t seen any game action since his injury in Week 2 nearly four months earlier.
While Brady hadn’t had much success in moving the ball against the Steelers’ defense — the Patriots’ lone score up to that point was a 55-yard punt return from Troy Brown — Bledsoe came in and made a statement. He immediately hit wideout David Patten for a 15-yard gain.
Bledsoe then scrambled for a four-yard gain and actually took a nasty hit from Steelers’ cornerback Chad Scott as he was going out of bounds that looked eerily similar to the hit he took from Mo Lewis. But he jumped right back up and proceeded to hit Patten again for a 10-yard gain. On the very next play, he again hooked up with Patten for an 11-yard touchdown pass, which turned out to be the Patriots’ only offensive score of the game. Four plays. 40 yards. 49 seconds. New England took a 14-3 lead into the half and held on for a 24-17 victory, earning them a trip to Super Bowl 36.
Tom Brady would return for the title game against the St. Louis Rams and won Super Bowl MVP in the upset victory. Drew Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills ahead of the following season and Brady went on to win five more titles with the New England Patriots. But it can’t be forgotten that without Bledsoe stepping in for that AFC title win, the Tom Brady story might look a little different.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference