Here we are again at the edge of the volcano. A Patriots player we thought irreplaceable is nearing replacement.
Why are we here? The usual. Age, money, future performance projections, a combination of all three. A legend is poised to be nudged over the edge. After that? Bill Belichick will return to business.
If history is our guide, the loss won’t stop the onward march of the Patriots dynasty. We won't know for a few years if the possible departure of Tom Brady will yield a different result. But there’s no room for sacred cows in Belichick’s empire. Not even sacred GOATs.
Belichick has had the mettle to move on from a long list of players — from very good to legendary — and stoically taken the ensuing hits. Every instance — we've already looked at some of them — is rich in backstory. What happened? Why did it happen?
As Brady approaches free agency, these stories are a reminder we've been here before. Many times. It's just business.
New England Patriots
Mo Lewis might have sped things along but – given the offseason Drew Bledsoe turned in prior to the 2001 season and his performance in the first two games – it was inevitable he was going to get the hook for Tom Brady.
Glossed over and all-but-forgotten in the romanticizing of Bledsoe as a hard-luck figure who may have held his job had Brady not won a Super Bowl?
All the circumstances surrounding the team in 2001, especially the fat contract the team signed him to and the way Bledsoe played over the final 30 months of his Patriots career.
Even though he signed a 10-year, $103M deal in March of 2001, Bledsoe was a quarterback in decline at that point. He took 100 sacks combined in 1999 and 2000. Literally 100. He threw 36 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. His quarterback ratings were 75.6 and 77.3. The Patriots record was 7-19 in his past 26 starts.
Belichick more than anyone knew Bledsoe’s limitations, routinely undressing him when he coached against him with the Browns and Jets. The Patriots were building CMGI Field, set to open in September of 2002. A slumping team with a dour coach needed a recognizable hood ornament to create optimism. That’s really what Bledsoe was.
Think about it, Bledsoe signed the richest contract in NFL history – outpacing the one given to Brett Favre – after two sub-mediocre seasons. He then went out and was a complete dud in training camp and the preseason.
Bledsoe was outplayed by Brady at Bryant College and during games – a 70.7 QB rating to Brady’s 91.9. Anyone paying close attention could see the gap between them wasn’t great. Actually, Bledsoe’s glacial decision-making was even more noticeable with Brady continually getting the ball out on time for positive plays as opposed to pat-pat-patting the ball looking downfield. Brady’s ability to move around the pocket and throw on the run was far superior to Bledsoe’s.
In the team’s final preseason game, Bledsoe played well into the second quarter before a pair of touchdowns before the half got him to the sidelines. Playing a $103M quarterback that long in a meaningless game? It meant something.
So too did the fact the Patriots negotiated options into Bledsoe’s deal, the first coming in November of 2002. The team had a trapdoor. It also hadn’t leveraged itself too badly. Bledsoe’s signing bonus was just $8M. That was spread over six years. Their first payment of $1.3M was paid in 2001. They only had to eat $6.6M in dead money if they released or traded him.
And a trade was what happened. Bledsoe went to the Bills on a manageable deal and the Patriots got Buffalo’s first-round pick in return. That Belichick traded Bledsoe within the AFC East was an added indignity, although the dearth of interest in Bledsoe kind of forced Belichick’s hand.
“We're flabbergasted that there weren't more teams that got involved in it," Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said after swinging the Bledsoe deal. "Everybody talks about the need for quarterbacks. ... All we know is, we're happy to know that we were in that position and had a chance to do this."
Bledsoe spent three seasons in Buffalo, took 103 sacks in his first two seasons there, compiled a 23-25 overall record, threw 55 touchdowns and 43 picks and made the 2002 Pro Bowl. He was as advertised. Strong-armed. Tough. Smart. Good leader. Mobile as a birdbath and decisive as a chipmunk.
The day Bledsoe signed his extension, he said, “I’ve expressed over and over again my desire to play my entire career with the New England Patriots,” Bledsoe said. “It looks like that is a very real possibility.”
Robert Kraft (he was “Bob” back then) said that day Bledsoe had a chance to be remembered in Boston like Ted Williams, Bill Russell and Larry Bird, each having played his career in the city.
It’s surreal to look back and realize that – within a year – Bledsoe would be on the block and the Brady Era would begin. More surreal to realize that, by the time 2020 came, not only would Brady be superior to Williams, Russell and Bird in so many different ways, he’d find himself exactly where Bledsoe was in 2002.