September 23, 2001. That’s a day all Patriots fan will never forget.
It was the first day of football following the 9/11 attacks. The emotion that rained throughout the old Foxboro Stadium was incredible as players and fans alike were excited to welcome some normalcy back into their lives. It was also the day that Mo Lewis knocked Drew Bledsoe from the game late in the fourth quarter, a hit that ultimately ushered in the Tom Brady Era.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock these past 15 years, you know the legend that Tom Brady has become. His success on the football field is virtually unprecedented. 6 Super Bowl appearances. 4 Titles. 3 Super Bowl MVP’s, 2 League MVPs, the list goes on and on. Folks in New England like to throw the word GOAT around when discussing Brady, and the moniker fits. He is the Greatest Of All Time.
But in just a few weeks, we will all be reminded about what life was like without Brady. It will be the first time since his knee injury in the opener of the 2008 season that the Pats will not have TB12 as their starting quarterback. He started 111 straight regular season games after taking over for Bledsoe. He has started 112 straight since his return from that knee injury. When the Patriots open the 2016 regular season in a little over a month, it’ll be Jimmy Garoppolo under center and not Tom Brady.
I hate to wax poetic on you, but isn’t this short hiatus forcing us to wonder what life will be like when Brady finally does call it quits? Sure, it’s only one month of one season. By all accounts, Brady is still remarkably healthy and there’s no real evidence to suggest that his career is coming to a close. He still claims he wants to play into his 40’s and who’s going to take issue with that, or doubt his commitment? That said, won’t it be awfully different watching the Patriots play in a meaningful game without Tom Brady? How could it not? This has nothing to do with how well, or how poorly, Jimmy G plays, but most of us are a lot older and a lot grayer than we were the last time Tom Brady missed a game. I am anyway, and for me, the Sunday night opener in Arizona will be unusual to say the least.
The beauty of sports is that anything can happen in any game at any time. Tom Brady is a living example of that unpredictability. No one, other than Brady himself, expected his performance to be as stellar as it’s been over such a long period of time. And it’s impossible to imagine that Garoppolo’s efforts in the first four games of the year will vault him past Brady on the depth chart, even if he blazes a trail of four straight wins and throws for 5 touchdowns and 350 years in every game. Bill Belichick has confirmed as much, but you never say never. So as I look out on the horizon of the future for this team, what these games will provide is a glimpse into the next evolution of Patriots football.
Whether Garoppolo is the quarterback or not, the New England Patriots without Tom Brady is equivalent to peanut butter and jelly without the peanut butter, steak and eggs without the steak, lox and bagels without the lox….you get the idea. Let’s not forget that Drew Bledsoe was a Pro Bowl quarterback. A former No. 1 draft choice. He led the team to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1986. Had he not gotten hurt…? Well it makes me think back to that scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown explains to Marty what the space time continuum was all about.
Boston has certainly seen its share of superstar players, but none of them, not in the modern era anyway, have left a mark like Brady has over such an extended period of time. It’ll be easy to recall where you were or what you were doing the day the tuck rule became a household word. Or Brady’s incredible performance in the ’04 AFC title game against Pittsburgh when he threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns after having been treated with an IV due to a fever of 103 the night before the game. Or his 65-yard TD pass to Randy Moss, the 50th of his first MVP season in 2007, that broke the record at the time for most touchdown passes by a quarterback in a single season. What might be harder to remember is his comeback performance against San Diego in his third professional start where he led two scoring drives in the final quarter to force overtime, which eventually led to a Patriots victory. It would be the first of his many 4th-quarter comebacks. Or that special September night to start the 2009 season, when he led the Patriots back from 11 down with five minutes to go to nip Buffalo in the opener on Monday night. Or his 517 yard, 4 touchdown performance to begin the 2011 season in Miami. And of course, there are his countless contributions off the field, led by his unbridled support for Best Buddies.
Years from now, a new generation of Patriots fans will flock to Gillette Stadium every Sunday, and hopefully, they’ll be rooting for a team that will enjoy as much success as the Brady-led Patriots have had. But these last 15 years have been incredibly special, and even the haters, if forced to tell the truth, would have to admit that Brady, simply put, played at a higher level than his peers. A much higher level. Tom Brady has delivered more memorable moments for New England football fans than any other Patriot ever will.
So as Brady sits for the first four games of the season, take a step back and reminisce about his inauspicious beginning and how it led to his meteoric rise to the top, because as the weeks slowly pass, and the reality of what Patriots football might look like in the years ahead becomes clearer, one thing is for certain: A crack in the armor is coming to Foxboro. It won’t be this year, and probably won’t be next year, but it is coming. Remember that and appreciate what you’ve witnessed since that rainy September afternoon back in 2001 as we pass the time until his suspension ends.