Read an Excerpt
Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New England Patriots
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from New England Patriots History
By Sean Glennon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Sean Glennon
All rights reserved.
SUPER BOWL XXXVI: THE IMPOSSIBLE MADE REAL
No matter what ever happens, no matter what anyone ever says, the greatest day in New England Patriots history will always be February 3, 2002. And the greatest moment in Patriots history will always be the moment when Adam Vinatieri's last-minute field goal split the uprights and turned the Pats into NFL champions for the first time.
In many important ways, the best years — even 2003 and 2004, when the Patriots would emerge as the first (and perhaps only) dynasty of the salary-cap era; even 2007, when the Pats dominated most of their opponents while pursuing a perfect season — can never truly compete with that single, incredible day, or with that one, perfect, unbelievable moment. Because that day was never supposed to happen. And because that moment, even as it took place (and for the slowest second in history just thereafter) was never what anyone, anywhere expected.
Super Bowl XXXVI was supposed to belong to the St. Louis Rams. And everyone knew it.
Everyone had known it since September 2001. The Rams were a team of destiny, a dynasty in the making. They'd been league champions two years earlier, beating the Tennessee Titans in a hard-fought Super Bowl XXXIV, a game most remembered for the fact that St. Louis stopped the Titans from forcing overtime with a defensive stop at the Rams' 1-yard line as time expired.
The Rams took a slight step back in 2000, when defensive issues conspired with injuries to quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk to hold their record to 10–6. They'd also taken an early bow in the playoffs, falling to New Orleans in the wild-card round. But the Rams had still managed to lead the league in scoring that season, posting 540 points.
The Rams began the 2001 season as a common favorite among experts to prevail in Super Bowl XXXVI. Their fast, efficient, and productive offense, dubbed the "Greatest Show on Turf," was back to full health. Their defensive problems appeared to be solved. It seemed nothing could stand in their way.
St. Louis hadn't disappointed during the regular season, either. The Rams won 14 games (including a week 10 victory over the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium that wasn't nearly as close as the 24–17 final score) and again led the league in scoring, putting up 503 points and becoming the only team in NFL history to score 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons.
The Patriots, on the other hand, had impressed no one heading into the season.
The Pats had finished the 2000 campaign, their first under head coach Bill Belichick, with a record of 5–11. And although Belichick clearly had set about remaking the team, there were significant questions about the way he was handling the project. Nearly one-third of the 2001 team consisted of unrestricted free agents and castoffs from other squads who had joined during the off-season (many of them willing to come to New England and sign on the cheap because their services weren't in high demand around the league).
It's fairly easy four Super Bowl appearances later to look at the 2001 season in retrospect and recognize Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli's master plan coming together (easier still when you see it all spelled out in Christopher Price's book The Blueprint). But at the time, from an outsider's perspective, it appeared the team had a very long way to go. In fact, it looked as if Belichick, then known mainly for having compiled a record of 36–44 in five years as head coach in Cleveland, might be just another in the long line of coaches who had led the Patriots to near-mediocrity.
And the Pats didn't start changing minds early on.
They opened the season with a 23–17 loss in Cincinnati. The Bengals, by way of context, were on their way to a 6–10 finish behind one of the worst offenses in the league.
Two weeks later (following a weekend in which all NFL games were postponed due to the September 11 attacks) the Patriots struggled to a 10–3 loss to the New York Jets. Worse still, Drew Bledsoe, who had quarterbacked the team for eight seasons, suffered a serious injury from a fourth-quarter cheap-shot hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. The injury would sideline Bledsoe for several weeks.
And while it might be romantic now to think that Tom Brady stepped in for Bledsoe and immediately turned the team's fortunes around, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the team won in Brady's first-ever start, beating the Indianapolis Colts 44–13, but the triumph was decidedly defensive. Brady mostly managed not to lose. In week four the young QB looked downright awful in a 30–10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, completing 12 of 24 passes for 86 yards and losing a pair of fumbles.
Brady's play remained inconsistent right up through the loss to St. Louis in week 10. But there were enough flashes of brilliance sprinkled in for him to begin building a strong following among fans and in the media. Brady had a presence on the field that Bledsoe lacked. And the stare that shot out from under his helmet made it clear Brady knew where he was going and he wasn't planning to let anyone get in his way.
More importantly, Brady had demonstrated an understanding of Belichick's offensive system and philosophy that Bledsoe had not. That spurred the coach to continue starting the second-year signal caller even after Bledsoe was cleared to play again starting in week 11, effectively benching a quarterback who'd signed a record-setting 10-year, $103 million contract extension the previous March for a player who'd been a sixth-round draft pick (an afterthought as far as fans were concerned). The team's record at the time was 5–5. It appeared as if Belichick had decided to start preparing for 2002. It looked like the 2001 Patriots were going nowhere.
Then the unimaginable happened. The Pats went on a six-game winning streak to finish the regular season, edging Miami for the division title and grabbing the number two seed in the AFC.
The Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders in an incredible nail-biter playoff game in which Vinatieri nailed a pair of clutch kicks — one to tie the game and another to win it in overtime — in a driving snowstorm. Then they traveled to Pittsburgh and beat a Steelers team that had made a show of booking its hotel rooms in New Orleans for the Super Bowl even before winning the conference championship.
The Pats won both playoff games through huge defensive efforts. They scored just one offensive touchdown in each contest. No one believed a team with that little offensive output could hope to keep up with the Rams.
So, of course, the Pats were 14-point underdogs going into the Super Bowl. In fact, the outcome seemed such a foregone conclusion that Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl announced to NFL Films before the game, "Tonight, a dynasty is born."
Though Proehl had things turned around a bit, his statement proved prophetic.
The Pats came out tough and played aggressive, physical ball on defense, checking the Rams' speedy receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupting their timing and their rhythm, dulling the razor edge St. Louis had used all season to slice opposing defenses to helpless bits.
The Patriots defense held the Rams to three points in the first half while putting seven on the board for New England. Halfway through the second quarter, cornerback Ty Law picked off a Warner pass intended for Isaac Bruce and returned it 47 yards to put the Patriots ahead 7–3.
Then a turnover just before halftime set up a Brady touchdown pass to David Patten. The Pats went into the break with a 14–3 lead over the best offensive team in football.
The Pats continued to shut down the Rams through the third quarter. Toward the end of the period, veteran cornerback Otis Smith picked off another Warner pass, setting up a short drive and a field goal that put the Patriots ahead 17–3.
It looked like the Rams might be done. But they weren't. St. Louis mounted a 12-play scoring drive to open the fourth quarter. That drive not only brought the Rams to within a touchdown of tying the game but also included a moment of classic Patriots heartbreak. Attempting to score on fourth-and-goal from the Patriots' 3-yard line, Warner coughed up the ball, which was picked up and returned 97 yards for a touchdown by safety Tebucky Jones. But the play was overturned because of a defensive holding call on linebacker Willie McGinest. The Rams got the ball back along with a new set of downs. Two plays later, the score was 17–10.
Just after the two-minute warning, St. Louis started a drive at their own 45-yard line. It took just three plays and 21 seconds of game time for Warner to tie the game with a 26-yard strike to Proehl.
As the Pats prepared to get the ball back with just 1:30 to play, John Madden in the announcers' booth opined that New England should play for overtime. Patriots fans watching the game booed their TV screens.
Overtime could only go the Rams' way. The Pats were getting the ball with time left in regulation, and they needed to do something with it. Right then.
When Troy Brown's kickoff return was stopped at the Patriots' 17, it appeared they might not get the chance. But Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, not to mention the team, knew what fans knew: the only way to salvage the game was to play to win. And that's what they did.
"I don't agree with what the Patriots are doing here," Madden said as Brady brought the offense onto the field and started firing passes.
No one cared what Madden thought.
Operating out of the shotgun, with his deadly laser-beam stare guiding his throws, Brady methodically moved the Patriots down- field, completing five of seven passes for 53 yards. The drive included a spectacular 23-yard strike to Troy Brown that moved the Pats into field goal range with 21 seconds to play. After a final short pass moved New England to the Rams' 30, Brady walked calmly to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball with seven seconds left on the clock.
"What Tom Brady just did gave me goosebumps," Madden said.
Then on came Vinatieri who had never missed a kick in a dome. He boomed the ball from the right hash mark 48 yards down the field and split the uprights. It was the first time a Super Bowl had ever been won on the last play. And the kick ensured that the game would forever be remembered as one of the greatest NFL championships ever played.
Most of the team mobbed Vinatieri. Brady and Bledsoe embraced on the sideline. And long snapper Lonnie Paxton, mimicking his celebration at the end of the divisional playoff win over Oakland, bolted to the end zone, slid onto his back, and made imaginary snow angels.
The crowd in the Superdome erupted. And back home Patriots fans paused in momentary disbelief, waited an endless second, sure it would all be negated by a late-flying penalty flag, then commenced celebrating.
Madden, too, was caught up in the moment.
"That's the way you should win a Super Bowl," he said. "I mean, they come in here against all odds. They were backed up. They had no timeouts. And they drove the ball down and got in field goal position. That was a great, great drive."
It was a great drive.
It was a great game.
It was a great moment.
Not long thereafter Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepted the Lombardi Trophy and declared, "everyone in America is a Patriot." Brady grinned broadly as he was named Super Bowl MVP. And Pats fans, who were just beginning to let what happened sink in, realized that things would never be the same.
No one could have guessed the magnitude of the change that was afoot. But even if they could, they still would have recognized that there would never be a better day or a better moment in Patriots history. Not ever.
BACK-TO-BACK: A DYNASTY CONFIRMED
It all started with a woeful loss. Years later that can be difficult to remember. But at the start of the 2003 season, it seemed like the type of thing that would never be forgotten.
The Patriots had finished the 2002 season, their first campaign as defending champions, with a bitterly disappointing record of 9–7. Their nine wins were enough to land them in a three-way tie with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets atop the AFC East. But the East was sending only one team to the playoffs that year, and the Jets came out ahead in the tiebreaker. The Pats stayed home.
Then, as if 2002 hadn't been frustrating enough, New England opened 2003 with an absolutely brutal 31–0 road loss to the Buffalo Bills, a team that featured former Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe and, more important at the time, former Pats safety Lawyer Milloy.
Milloy had been released by the Patriots five days before the start of the season after refusing to renegotiate a salary that the team had determined was greater than his value. A seven-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl player, Milloy had been popular with Pats players and fans alike. The decision to let him go was not well received. It confused fans and reportedly rankled players.
And the fact that Milloy signed with division-rival Buffalo just before the season started, then proceeded to have an outstanding game against his former team — he constantly brought pressure on Tom Brady, recording a sack and forcing one of the four interceptions Brady would throw on the day — didn't make things better.
Indeed, as the Patriots prepared to play the Philadelphia Eagles a week later, Sports Illustrated's Peter King described the decision to release Milloy as a "dumb coaching move." And ESPN's Tom Jackson claimed damning insight into the mindset of Patriots players. "Let me say this clearly: They hate their coach," Jackson announced on NFL Sunday Countdown.
Pats players denied that there was any truth to Jackson's statement. And they went on to prove they could win without Milloy, defeating Philadelphia 31–10 in a game in which Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was sacked eight times and intercepted twice.
But 1–1 didn't really put the lie to continued assertions by local and national media that the decision to part ways with Milloy was bound to haunt the Pats. And neither did the team's outlook appear overly bright two games later. The Patriots' record stood at 2–2, the team having logged a hard-fought win over the Jets in Foxborough and a tough loss to the Redskins in Washington. Worse still, the Patriots were seriously banged up. Newly acquired linebacker Rosevelt Colvin had been lost for the season with a shattered hip socket. Linebacker Mike Vrabel and run-stuffing nose tackle Ted Washington both had suffered broken bones in the win over the Jets. And cornerback Ty Law, linebacker Ted Johnson, and wide receiver David Patten were on the injury report. It appeared another up-and-down season was under way.
That appearance proved more deceiving than most.
In a week five home game against the Tennessee Titans — a bruising team that had beaten the Patriots handily in a Monday night game in Nashville late in the 2002 season and was off to a 3–1 start in 2003 — the Patriots dug deep, played 60 hard minutes of football, and came away having won and having reacquired the look of a champion.
It all came together late. The lead in the game had swung back and forth throughout the afternoon. Neither offense was making mistakes, and neither had committed a turnover during the first 58 minutes of play. Nor had either defense had much success keeping the opposition off the board. It looked like one of those matches destined to be won by whichever team held the ball last.
With 3:14 left to play, the Patriots scored on a 15-yard run by reserve running back Mike Cloud and went ahead 31–27.
When the Titans got the ball back, quarterback Steve McNair moved his team to the New England 40-yard line. And on the final play before the two-minute warning, McNair fired to wide receiver Tyrone Calico, who was being covered by a gimpy Ty Law. But Law was in better shape than McNair realized. He jumped Calico's route, made the pick, and toughed out a 65-yard touchdown return, cinching a New England win.
Generally, when sports fans tell you with the advantage of hindsight that they had a feeling about a day, a game, or a season, you can write it off as revisionist memory, a product of a strong desire to believe they never had a moment's doubt in their team. On this day it was different. Watching that game, Patriots fans really did know it was a turning point in the season. There was something special about the victory over Tennessee. The Pats played with toughness and ferocity they hadn't exhibited for a very long time, probably not since Super Bowl XXXVI. Watching them pull off that win, there was no mistaking that the team was back on track and headed for something big.
The Patriots never lost another game that season. They moved methodically through their schedule, finding ways to win every week, though never by any great margin until the season finale (a 31–0 win over the Bills in Foxborough). It was a game in which Lawyer Milloy was hardly a factor. It was also perhaps the team's second-most-satisfying win of the regular season, right behind a week 13 road contest in which they held off a second-half comeback by the hated rival Colts, stopping Indy at the goal line in their own building with 11 seconds on the clock to seal a four-point victory.
Excerpted from Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New England Patriots by Sean Glennon. Copyright © 2008 Sean Glennon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.