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Belichick, Patriots got lucky and good with Tom Brady

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By SCOTT PITONIAK
On Sports
Rochester Business Journal
January 27, 2017

A trivia question for your upcoming Super Bowl soiree: Who were the six quarterbacks chosen before Tom Brady in the 2000 NFL draft? Answer: Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Spergon Wynn, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger and Chris Redman.

In retrospect, it’s hard to fathom how the football detectives could have been so far off target with Brady, but they were, and that includes the man who ultimately selected him in the sixth round. Although the sartorially and ethically challenged Bill Belichick won’t admit it, he lucked into a shelfful of Lombardi Trophies by taking arguably the greatest quarterback of all time with the 199th pick overall.  

Revisionist sports historians tell us that Belichick really liked Brady after studying film of him at the University of Michigan. But, let’s be honest here, if the coach with the fondness for ragged hoodies really liked him that much, he would have snatched him immediately. The truth is, he had some doubts too. NFL scouts were turned off by Brady’s skinny physique, lack of athleticism (he ran a sloth-like 5.3 40-yard dash) and poor performance at the league’s scouting combine.

The New England Patriots were a shambles at the time. They had just hired Belichick to clean up the mess left by fired head coach Pete Carroll. Interestingly, they weren’t in the market for a quarterback. In fact, that appeared to be an area of strength. Drew Bledsoe had established himself as the greatest Patriot to that point. He had strung together a franchise-record six consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons—including a 4,555-yard effort in 1994—and at age 28 was entering the prime of his career. Behind him were young signal-callers John Friesz and Michael Bishop. Considering the Patriots needed to add a dozen players to fill out their roster, and do so while being $10.5 million over the salary cap, signing another young quarterback seemed a luxury they could ill afford.

But this is where Belichick deserves some credit. After drafting Brady and nurturing his rapid development, he decided to carry four quarterbacks. By midseason, Brady leap-frogged to No. 2 on the depth chart.

Late during the second game of the 2001 season, Bledsoe was rammed in the ribs by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Though shaken by the vicious blow, the veteran quarterback returned for the next series, but wasn’t himself. Brady finished the game, and afterwards it was discovered that Bledsoe was bleeding internally and would be sidelined for several months. Brady’s first two starts—a romp over Indianapolis and a loss to the Miami Dolphins—were nothing special, but after that, he began to hit his stride. He wound up leading the Patriots to their first of four Super Bowl titles. After that season, Bledsoe was traded to the Bills.

It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened had Bledsoe not suffered that nasty injury. Again, he was in his football prime and was immensely popular in New England. You would think that Brady’s talents were so extraordinary that he eventually would have shined either with the Patriots or some other team, but who knows?

Sixteen seasons later, Brady remains at the top of his game. And a week from Sunday the 39-year-old can further burnish his legacy with a fifth Super Bowl title, breaking the record he shares with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

Bledsoe provided the Bills with brief stability, but his skills diminished quickly. He was jettisoned after just three seasons. He is one of 15 quarterbacks to start for Buffalo in the Brady era. It’s no mystery why Bills fans revile Brady. He has dominated them more than any athlete has ever dominated an opponent, going 26-3 with 66 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions, a lofty 101.5 passer rating. Asked how the Bills could snap their 17-season playoff famine, legendary Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly quipped: “Get Tom Brady to retire.” Not that it makes Bills fans feel any better, but Brady also has tormented the rest of the NFL, as evidenced by his 183-52 win-loss record.

In case you’re wondering, the Bills selections in the first six rounds of the 2000 draft were Erik Flowers, Tavares Tillman, Corey Moore, Avion Black and Sammy Morris. It was John Butler’s last draft as Bills general manager, and by far the worst in an otherwise illustrious career that saw him play a significant role in building Buffalo’s Super Bowl rosters of the early 1990s. But you can’t rip the Bills for missing out on Brady. Every team, including the Patriots, were late to this party. New England’s draft picks before Brady weren’t household names even in their own households: Arian Klemm, J.R. Redmond, Greg Robinson-Randall, Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott and Antwan Harris.

That year’s quarterback class was quite weak, and, despite his poor combine, Brady and his family figured he would be selected in the second or third round. When the fifth round finished without his being chosen, Brady was so distraught he briefly left his house in tears. He recently posted his old resume on Facebook and joked that he thought he was going to have to make a career selling insurance.

Instead, he’s wound up paying enormous football dividends. Though his image was sullied by the overblown Deflate-gate scandal and he’s become a polarizing figure, even tortured Bills fans have to give the devil his due. Despite a revolving door of receivers, running backs and offensive linemen through the years, Brady keeps winning. As we learned once more in last Sunday’s romp against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn’t matter if the Patriots line up a receiver who made his name in college as a lacrosse player or one who made his name as an option quarterback, as long as Brady is running the show, it’s somehow going to work out.

Certainly, Brady has benefited immensely playing for Belichick, but this dynasty doesn’t happen without the greatness of No. 12. This is Brady’s Bunch. The Hoodie won the lottery and a handful of Super Bowl rings when he drafted Brady as a project 17 years ago.

Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.1/27/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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