Saturday, January 26, 2019

Alternative History: Pointless but Still More Fun Than the Pro Bowl

Last night a friend e-mailed me a link to a video of Drew Bledsoe in the 2001 AFC championship game, where Bledsoe replaced an injured Tom Brady, throwing a touchdown pass in New England's 24-17 victory over the Steelers. It was the last time Bledsoe played a down in a Patriots uniform.

Ahh, but what if it wasn't? I covered that game, and afterwards Brady's ankle was wrapped in enough ice to handle every mint julep at the Kentucky Derby. I ended that day convinced he wouldn't be able to play in Super Bowl 36, which due to the schedule changes caused by 9/11, was only a week, not two weeks, away.

In the event, Brady proved a fast healer, and we all know the story from there. So for an idle off weekend speculation, let's change the Pats' tale of dynastic success. Let's imagine that on February 3, 2002, Brady's ankle was still roughly the same size and color as an ABA basketball, and that he could not play against the Rams. Bill Belichick's decision to start Brady was announced the previous Wednesday night, inconsiderately ruining my dinner plans. What if he had said, "Tom's hurt, so Drew starts"?

Since this is MY alternative timeline, let me make the following bold pronouncement. The Pats would've won the game, at the time considered a huge upset, anyway. They were the better team that evening in every aspect of football, especially the crucial aspect of violence. The Pats were the sluggers, the Rams the boxers, and while boxers occasionally win prizefights against sluggers, slugger football teams always, always beat any boxer they encounter.

There's one exception to that blanket statement. Oddly enough, it's quarterbacking. Brady did nothing in Super Bowl 36 Bledsoe couldn't have done unless you believe that Brady is supernaturally destined to win games and Bledsoe to lose them. Uf you do, please take your alternative timeline to some corner of the Internet where they argue about the endings of Marvel films, because you believe in comic book reality.

Truth is, of all the eight Super Bowls he has played, his first one remains the one in which Tom Brady did the least. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. I daresay that if those are his stats come THIS February 3, the Pats will lose Super Bowl 53 and it might not be close.

Brady did not have a turnover in Super Bowl 36 and that really was his most important statistic, the prime directive he received from Belichick prior to the game. His job was to avoid error and let New England body punch its way to victory through defense and the running game. Only in New England's final drive, when the Rams' defenders were gassed and spitting cotton between plays, was Brady allowed to throw caution to the winds and just throw.

(Brady was voted MVP by the quarterback centric fans of America, an honor he did not deserve, which he said himself after the game. He still should four Super Bowl MVPs, however, since the one given to Deion Branch in Bowl 39 was rightfully his).

I believe Bledsoe could've executed that game plan. He did in the AFC title game, completing 10 of 21 passes for a TD and no turnovers. He managed a game the Pats won on special teams, Troy Brown turning in a punt return TD and part of a blocked field goal TD return. Bledsoe was nowhere near the quarterback Brady became, but he was anything but a stiff. Hey, Wally Pipp was a pretty good first baseman. Nobody remembers that, either.

So I say Bledsoe does just enough to set up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal and New England's first NFL championship. There's a parade and everybody's happy. Well, everybody except Belichick, who's now both on top of the world and a coach with an unpleasant personnel decision. He's got a QB who's a Super Bowl hero and now he's got to get rid of him.

Much of the history of the Belichick era Pats remains classified by him, but this much we know. Brady replaced Bledsoe when Drew was injured after two games of the 2001 season. After 10 games, Belichick announced Brady would remain the starter for the rest of the year, because, as assistant coach Charlie Weis explained several seasons later, "it was on the if not broke don't fix it concept."

This is speculation on which I'd bet money. By the time the Pats were midway through the six game win streak with which they finished the regular season, Belichick had decided Brady was his guy for keeps. And that meant Bledsoe would have to go as soon as was possible. This was the opposite of the Eagles' current situation with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. The former backup was going to be the man. The high priced veteran made too much money to ride the pine, and as we have subsequently seen, Belichick wants backup QBs who NOBODY thinks should the starter.

To think Belichick would change his mind on such a crucial decision because of the outcome of one game, even a Super Bowl, is to ignore everything we know about him. The only difference in my timeline for the 2002 offseason from what really happened is that with a Super Bowl win, Bledsoe would've drawn a higher price when the Pats traded him (and he brought a first round draft choice as it was).

And after that, what happens to the protagonists of my little fantasy? I suppose my imagination only goes so far, for try as I might, I can't think of any post Super Bowl 36 timeline for Brady, Bledsoe, Belichick and the Patriots than what actually has happened and is still happening. Brady wasn't going to change because he missed one game. He still would have been the fanatically competitive guy wholly devoted to self-improvement on the football field as he is now. Belichick wouldn't have changed, either. He'd still keep on drawing up the game plans and making the personnel moves which  have made New England the NFL's most historic success. Perhaps Bledsoe the Super Bowl winner would've done a little better post-New England than he actually did, but there's a limit to how much redemption helps a man when he's on the Bills.

One thing would've been different, guaranteed. The howling of and arguments between New England fans and media after Bledsoe was traded would've been loud and long if Drew had been the winning QB in that long ago Super Bowl. I believe I would have contributed my share of the noise, although what I would've thought I cannot say. But "controversy" would have been the Pats' constant companion in the 2002 season. That season, lest we forget, is the only one of Brady's career where he started every game and New England didn't make the playoffs, finishing 9-7. Brady did lead the league in touchdown passes, but he wouldn't have the Super win halo to protect him from the inevitable cries of "he's no Bledsoe."

The brouhaha, while good for the likes of Herald columnists, wouldn't have bothered Tom much. He's always known how good he can be. It's why he works so hard to get and stay there. It's been a reachable goal, not pie in the sky.

Needless to say, the "controversy" would have bothered Belichick even less. One of the coach's greatest strengths is that if you cannot help him win football games, he truly does not give a shit what you think. About anything, from quarterbacks to US trade policy. Is that healthy self-confidence, twisted self-containment, or both? I've never figured that one out. Maybe no one has.

So at fantasy's end, we're left with a past that looks about like the one we had, except Drew Bledsoe's a little happier, which is nice, and the Patriots' dynasty would have had a little more drama in its early years, which would be harmless and probably forgotten by now, especially by the folks who've howled the loudest about dumping Bledsoe.

Not much of a fantasy, you say. Can't be helped. When historical fiction strays too far from history, it tends to suck.

Besides, history says the Pats have played in eight going on nine Super Bowls starting with 36, and all but one of them came down to the last minute of the game. Four of 'em came down to the last play. That ought to be enough drama for anyone.


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