I am no follower of the New England Patriots. So this article is based solely on what one can gather from old sources that can be found on the internet. With that caveat, it’s an issue worth delving into to see if any lesson can be gleaned for how the Dallas Cowboys should handle the inevitable transition from Tony Romo to Dak Prescott, because based on hindsight, the Belichick move towards Tom Brady has worked out brilliantly.
The Backdrop And Bledsoe’s Injury
Drew Bledsoe was the first player drafted in 1993 by New England. The head coach was Bill Parcells. Bledsoe started right away, and played 12 games that season, going 5-7. He led the team to the playoffs in 1994, and in 1996 helped New England reach the Super Bowl, where they lost to Green Bay. New England made the playoffs again in 1997 and 1998, but not the next two years. After the 1996 Super Bowl, Pete Carroll replaced Parcells as head coach. But he was fired at the end of the 1999 season, when Bill Belichick was hired.
Despite their mediocre record, Bledsoe was signed in March 2001 to a then-record 10-year, $103 million contract. Bledsoe was 29.
In the second game of the 2001 season, Bledsoe was tackled out of bounds and suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest, which was potentially life-threatening. Tom Brady, drafted with a compensatory pick in the sixth round of the 2000 draft (pick #199), was sent in to replace him. The Pats lost the game 10-3 to the Jets.
The Decision To Stay With Tom Brady
Despite the injury, by mid-November, Bledsoe was healed well enough to practice, and Belichick told him he could compete for his starting job. Yet by the following week, it appears as if Belichick had changed his mind.
At the time, Tom Brady was 5-3 with the Pats (Bledsoe had started 0-2), but he was not a world beater. He had some great games, but also some pretty bad games. Still, according to this column in Slate from December 6, 2001, (before the Pats went on their Super Bowl run), the author surmised that the decision for Belichick likely came down to money, and the ability to use Bledsoe as trade bait after the season to fill holes in the Pats roster.
The Bledsoe-Brady controversy is a perfect example of how the introduction of a salary cap has turned NFL conventional wisdom on its head. Indeed, the irony of the situation is that all the Boston talk-radio cranks convinced that Brady is a better quarterback are almost certainly wrong. Sure, the guy has fine mechanics and uncanny poise in the pocket. But despite his torrid start, four teams with solid pass defenses—Buffalo, Denver, Miami, and St. Louis—contained him handily. Brady's rolled up his biggest numbers against the Colts, whose pass defense would have trouble keeping some 1-AA college teams out of the end zone.
Bledsoe, on the other hand, has about as good a stat sheet as you can compile in nine years of professional play. He made the Pro Bowl in his third year and led the Patriots all the way to the Super Bowl in his fourth. In 1995, he became the youngest player ever to throw for 10,000 yards; his current career stats include 136 touchdowns and nearly 30,000 yards. And he's done all this despite an ever-changing roster of coaches that would make George Steinbrenner blush. Belichick is Bledsoe's third head coach; the Pats' current offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, is his fourth.
So if this were simply about which quarterback has more talent, you'd be a fool to choose Brady. But think about what Bledsoe could fetch if the Patriots, a team with gaping holes all over the place, traded him. In April, the Atlanta Falcons gave up a first-round draft pick and a solid wide receiver-kick returner for Michael Vick. Bledsoe would probably claim an even higher bounty: Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated football Svengali, recently suggested Bledsoe would probably fetch a starter plus two first-round draft picks.
Jettisoning Bledsoe would also take his $7.5 million per year contract off the books—Brady makes only $300,000 per year—next season or the season afterward, freeing up money for a desperately needed offensive lineman or two, plus a playmaker at wide receiver. (Because of the complicated rules of the cap, the Patriots could get rid of Bledsoe next year or the year after without taking a debilitating hit, though it depends in part on how they get rid of him.) In other words, you're trading proven greatness at quarterback for four or five starters. Even if Brady turns out to be mediocre, all the extra quality players make the transaction a net winner for the team, and the surest way to turn this year's squad—which is performing far beyond its talents, thanks to good coaching and a bit of luck—into a serious Super Bowl contender.
The author obviously underestimated the skills of Tom Brady, and overestimated the draft picks Drew Bledsoe would bring — he netted one first-round pick from Buffalo, the 14th pick in 2003, who they ended up using on Ty Warren — but otherwise seems on point.
Chris Mortenson of ESPN had this take on the situation at the time, noting that Belichick had also run Bernie Kosar out of Cleveland when he was head coach there (ironically, Kosar ended up in Dallas, helping the Cowboys win the 1993 NFC Championship after Troy Aikman got knocked out with a concussion).
Belichick is basically running Bledsoe off. This is a sure setup for a postseason trade unless Brady falls flat on his face.
Yet for Belichick, his treatment of this situation is not out of character. Call it courage, call it balls or call it arrogance. He is not afraid of the consequences.
Remember Bernie Kosar? The most beloved quarterback of the Cleveland Browns was run out of town by Belichick.
The parallels are slightly different. Bledsoe is not as wildly popular in New England as Kosar was in Cleveland. But Kosar was physically down-sliding fast and in no way possessed the skills that Bledsoe has to this day.
Brady looks like the real deal. Most everyone who scouts or plays the Pats say he processes the game like a seasoned pro. He makes good decisions. He's accurate. He's cool. We now assume that Belichick agrees with all those assessments. We also now assume that Belichick does not see Bledsoe as having some of those Brady traits we described. I'm wondering -- which is it? Decisions? Accuracy? Poise?
Yet there was some second guessing at the time of Belichick’s call. Again, Mark Cannizzaro of ESPN.
Perhaps Belichick should have told Bledsoe he was going to stick with Brady as long as he believes Brady is still the best quarterback to lead the team, and that should there come a time when a change needs to be made then Bledsoe would see the field again.
There isn't a player on the Patriots' roster who's more team-oriented than Bledsoe. And even Bledsoe would have a hard time arguing that Brady should be removed from the lineup right now.
But to be so definitive a week after telling Bledsoe he'd be able to compete for his job back? That was a mistake on that part of Belichick.
Was Brady The Heir Apparent In 2001?
What’s fascinating is this article, quoting offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. He says that Tom Brady had to fight to be the #2 quarterback going into the 2001 season, and that when Bledsoe went down, New England’s first impulse was to sign a veteran quarterback to come in.
There's long been a rumor that Bill Belichick liked Brady so much that he wanted to start the sixth-round pick over Bledsoe, but Weis says that's not true.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Weis said there was no chance Brady was going to start over a healthy Bledsoe. Weis also added that Brady barely hung on to the No. 2 spot.
"Oh no, no, no, no, [Brady] wasn't better than Bledsoe," Weis said. "In fact he wasn't much better than [Huard]. Bledsoe was clearly the starter. The No. 2 spot, that's where the competition was. We really could have flipped a coin to pick the second guy. We ended up picking Tommy -- but it was really close."
The Patriots were so unsure about starting Brady in Week 3 that they actually contacted several veteran quarterbacks who they were hoping to sign. According to the Washington Post, the Patriots were hoping to lure Jim Harbaugh out of retirement, and if that couldn't happen, the team was hoping to add Eric Zeier or Billy Joe Tolliver.
Instead, New England went with Brady, who upset Indianapolis 44-13 his first game as a starter, when the Pats were 11.5 point underdogs.
Once Belichick Made The Decision, The Pats Rolled
At the time Belichick told Bledsoe in late November that the team was sticking with Brady, despite only a 5-5 record, the Pats could not have been certain that any success would come from the switch. Yet once the decision was made, the Pats won their last six games, and rolled into the playoffs. Drew Bledsoe would need to come off the bench in the AFC Championship game to rally the Patriots to a victory over Pittsburgh, but Belicheck went back to Brady in the Super Bowl, which they won 20-17 over the Rams. (One of many games called into question by Spygate.)
In 2015, Gary Myers of Sports Illustrated had this take.
He wound up in the perfect situation in New England. The owner loved Drew Bledsoe. The coach didn’t. Bledsoe was Bill Parcells’s draft pick. Brady was Belichick’s. Belichick learned from Parcells to “go by what I see”—production, not reputation, is the ultimate criterion. Belichick takes it a step further in minicamp: no jersey numbers. Offense in blue, defense in gray. That promotes team-building by forcing the players to learn each other by name and not just by number. And when coaches watch the tapes of the practices, they have to learn the players by their movements, not their number.
This was easy to say 14 years later, and the Charlie Weis quote suggests there might have been more luck than certainty involved. But it obviously worked out, and set the Pats up with Brady and Belichick for an historic run.
What Parallels Might There Be For The Cowboys?
This story is fascinating on a number of levels when looking at the Dak Prescott v. Tony Romo debate. Here are a few things to notice.
- Drew Bledsoe was in his ninth season as starter for New England when he went down in 2001, and had taken New England to playoffs in four of those years, including making a Super Bowl Run.
- Tony Romo has played 10 seasons as starter for the Dallas Cowboys before this year, and helped the team to the playoffs in four of those years.
- Both Tom Brady and Dak Prescott were taken late rounds of their respective drafts with compensatory picks.
- Brady did not start out as the #2 quarterback, but had to fight his way up to that status, and almost lost out to Damon Huard, who was a veteran backup that had played some for Miami.
- Dak Prescott started this season fighting for the third-string job behind a young veteran (Kellen Moore) who had limited experience.
- When Bledsoe went down, New England’s first instinct was to add a veteran quarterback to tide them over. Tom Brady was apparently the second choice.
- After Kellen Moore was hurt, Dak Prescott moved into the backup quarterback role, but not before Dallas considered trading for veteran Josh McCown.
- In 2001, Drew Bledsoe was playing under a huge new contract that had many years to run. Letting Bledsoe go would force New England to absorb a large cap hit, but it would also save money over several years that it could invest in other players.
- In 2016, Tony Romo is playing under a huge contract set to run through 2019. Letting Romo go or trading him would force Dallas to absorb a large cap hit, but it would also save money over several years that it could invest in other players.
- At the end of the year, Drew Bledsoe did net the Patriots a first-round draft pick, but not for 2002. The pick ended up being the 13th pick in 2003.
- No one knows what Tony Romo might bring back in trade if Dallas decides to trade him, but judging by what Sam Bradford netted, it could be significant.
- Observers at the time felt that the cap and trade value provided by Bledsoe was a big reason that Belichick chose to move on from him. Certainly after the Pats won the Super Bowl with Brady that was true, but at the time the decision was made to stick with Brady even though Bledsoe was healthy, New England’s season was hanging in the balance.
- By the time Dallas needs to make a decision between Tony Romo and Dak Prescott, Dallas will have a much better record than New England did, but there will be a great deal of uncertainty about any decision that is made.
- Drew Bledsoe was much younger than Tony Romo, did not have the same injury history, and had helped lead New England to a Super Bowl. Still, Tony Romo’s career stats are much better than Bledsoe’s.
- Similarly, Dak Prescott’s stats have been much more consistent so far than Tom Brady’s were as Bledsoe’s replacement, though Brady had one superb game that Dak has not yet had. Their streak of passes without an interception to start their careers is one commonality. (Dak just broke Brady’s record, then shortly thereafter, had his first pick.)
- Belichick had not drafted Drew Bledsoe, though he was head coach when New England re-signed him. But Belichick had been part of the decision to draft Brady. So any personal allegiances are likely quite different than the Prescott-Romo situation.
- Jason Garrett has been head coach or offensive coordinator for Dallas since Bill Parcells retired after Romo’s first year. He also helped draft Dak Prescott, but it was not with the idea that Prescott would be Romo’s replacement any time soon.
- Bill Belichick almost certainly made the decision to go with Tom Brady, and may have put his coaching career in New England on the line in doing so.
- In Dallas, the decision-making structure is not so cut and dried. Many think Jerry Jones will make the final call, but the Cowboys themselves talk about a consensus process.
In hindsight, Bill Belichick made a brilliant and gutsy call. Bledsoe had a Super Bowl appearance and several other playoff games under his belt. Tom Brady was a sixth-rounder who barely moved up to the backup spot before he was called upon. He had a fantastic opening game, but went only 5-3 as Bledsoe’s stand-in. But this decision helped launched a dynasty.
What do you think? Is there any relevance in this story to the Dak v. Tony debate? What and why or why not?