LONGSHOTS: After disaster Brady’s bunch won’t pass on season
by Dave Long
So much for the high expectations of Patriots Nation I talked about last week. I was concerned that the expectations it had for its football team could be derailed by the lethargy seen during an 0-4 pre-season. But instead, they were undone by the great equalizer in sports — a key injury.
Unless you have been residing on Mars since about 2:30 p.m. Sunday, you know the kid who has led a charmed life since walking on the field to replace fallen starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, in the waning minutes of Game Two in 2001, himself went down for the count Sunday. It happened to Tom Brady less than eight minutes into the new season and it took the air out of the region when it learned the next day surgery was needed and he would not be walking through that door anymore in 2008.
You have heard all week and will again, injuries like this are part of football and happen every year. True, but inevitable is actually more like it. That’s why Brady’s streak of playing in 128 straight games is remarkable. It’s a testament to his toughness and dependability, which the team and coach have come to count on in the clutch. And now with him gone for the year, they won’t be able to do that and it has the proud team looked upon a lot differently around the country than it was on Saturday afternoon.
But guess what, as bleak as it looks, it doesn’t mean the season is over, even if Vegas has changed the odds on the big board for who they think will win the season’s final game. History shows teams have overcome the enormous loss of their starting quarterback to either win that final game or get darn close. To discuss it, though, we have to go below the Tarrier line, so hold your nose and here goes.
The 2001 New England Patriots: Actually, my friend Pete Tarrier will be happy I didn’t have to go below 1993 to come up with an example of a team overcoming the loss of a QB and still having a better than expected season. The dynasty crowd remembers this one, as the Belichick era run really started when Drew Bledsoe went down with a horrific injury courtesy of a hit by Patriot killer (almost literally) (no) Mo Lewis in the closing moments of a 10-3 Jets win. That left them 0-2, with Peyton Manning and Indy coming up the next week.
The circumstances now are a little different. Today’s Patriots lost the league MVP and arguably the NFL’s best player, while the earlier edition lost a starter who’d played poorly the previous year and a half. But expectations for their replacements aren’t much different, are they? Yes, Matt Cassel comes off a terrible preseason. But after his only being a sometime starter at Michigan, few knew much about Brady in ’01. Yet, as he went 13 for 19 for 159 with, of course, no picks, they toasted Manning and the Colts 44-13 the next week. They went to Miami next, where they always lose, to drop to 1-3 and after losing to Super Bowl favorite greatest show on turf they were 5-5 after Week 10. Then they reeled off nine straight wins with their untested quarterback via stirring (they call it lucky in Oakland) wins over the Raiders in a nor’easter, Pittsburgh when Brady went down and Bledsoe stepped back in and vs. St. Louis in the Super Bowl with a lot less talent than they have on the current roster.
1999 St. Louis Rams: Guess this isn’t going to be an “it’s better in the olden days” kind of lecture after all. This was before they became known as the greatest show on turf. Coming off a 4-12 season newly acquired starter Trent Green went down for the year with his annual injury in pre-season and into the breach stepped a former grocery store clerk and Arena League stiff named Kurt Warner from 1-AA Northern Iowa. The 28-year-old had 11 career attempts prior to 1999 and all he did was throw 41 TD passes and win the MVP as the Rams went 13-3 and beat Tennessee in a thrilling Super Bowl.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins: I’d do anything to not give Mercury Morris anything more to chirp about, but they lost starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Bob Griese in Week Five and didn’t get him back until the playoffs and still became the (gulp) only team to go through the regular season and playoffs undefeated. Their back-up was a good one in 38-year-old Earl Morrall, even with his a Buckneresque stigma attached to him from an earlier day. Still, while there was concern in Miami, it wasn’t the depressed state of affairs projected throughout Patriot Nation the next day in either 2001 or especially in 2008.
The 1968 Baltimore Colts: Yes their biggest claim to fame is losing the Super Bowl to Joe Namath and the Jets in the biggest upset in NFL history. But before that debacle they rolled to the NFL’s best record despite losing Johnny Unitas in pre-season — who people spoke of then with the exact same reverence folks now have for Brady. Filling his shoes was none other than the aforementioned Morrall, who, before spitting the bit vs. the Jets, threw 26 touchdown passes as they went 13-1. They didn’t win the Super Bowl, but they got close after losing the league’s best quarterback — sound familiar?
1965 Baltimore Colts: This is my favorite. They were leading the West when Unitas went out in Week 11. Then the league’s best back-up, Gary Cuozzo, went down two weeks later and they were forced to use halfback Tom Matte at quarterback. He hadn’t done that since 1960 at Ohio State, who threw it up under Woody Hayes less than George Bush the father did on his last state visit to Japan. Still they beat the Rams 20-17 the final week to tie the Packers, but lost to them 13-10 in special playoff the next week.
There are five examples of where certain defeat in the eyes of fans and the media was turned into a very nice season. The last three on this list were coached by Don Shula, arguably the top coach of his era. He adapted to the trouble, changed the strategy three different times and still won. Bill Belichick is the Shula of his time (though with a better record in the big game). He’ll do the same, especially since he’s done it once before. In 2001 they were 14-3 with young Brady starting. If it could happen with that inexperienced group, why not with a just as unheralded QB and the more seasoned and talented team of today?
All is not lost. It just seems that way to some.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.