It was a Sunday in early February, and a young, still Bundchen-less Tom Brady was in New Orleans. Kurt Warner was there too, and so was Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Mike Martz, and the famed Greatest Show on Turf.
They all thought they were there to play a football game. This was true. But a few years later the enormity of what took place that day would sink in.
A dynasty was born exactly 10 years ago today on Feb. 3, 2002, one that lasted for four seasons. Brady wasn’t quite the Brady we know today in that game after a remarkable year when he replaced Drew Bledsoe and led the Patriots to wins in eight or their last nine games to finish off the 2001 season with an 11-5 record. He completed a solid but still modest 59.3 percent of his passes for just 145 yards during New England’s 20-17 defeat of St. Louis for the franchise’s first championship, one that would also lead to the first of three trips the Lombardi Trophy would make to Boston over the next four years.
Brady looked like a rookie playing in his first Super Bowl at times, because he was essentially a rookie, and he was playing in his first Super Bowl. That season wasn’t technically his rookie year after he sat buried down New England’s quarterback depth chart in 2000, but the 2002 Super Bowl was still only Brady’s 17th career start. For some perspective, Tim Tebow supporters this year throughout Tebowmania have often cited the inexperience of the Broncos quarterback, and including this year’s playoffs he’s only had 14 starts.
In the end, inexperience didn’t matter for Brady, because he did just enough to put his team in a position to win. And he had Adam Vinatieri’s foot…
To set up that 48-yard game-winner, Brady had to quickly return fire against an explosive Rams offense that needed only three plays to get into the end zone after they were given a short field, with Warner connecting on a 26-yard deep ball to Ricky Proehl to tie the game and threaten to force overtime. The Patriots had led 17-3 heading into the fourth quarter, but then 14 unanswered points brought New England dangerously close to a colossal choke.
Brady’s overall numbers may not have been impressive, but five of his 16 completions came during the final drive that started with only 1:30 left, and ended with Vinatieri’s field goal. The key throw was a 23-yard pass to Troy Brown.
So as we sit now looking back on this day from exactly a decade ago, we see a quarterback who’s broken records since that first championship, is a two-time MVP, has been to the Pro Bowl seven times, and at 34 years old he’s the Patriots’ all-time leader in passing touchdowns, with a handful of prime years still left.
We also see Bill Belichick, a coach who’s constantly reshaped his team, and done much more than just conform to an ever-changing league. He’s established trends, most recently with his offense that’s structured around two tight ends.
There were stars throughout the years, but during the championship seasons few of them on offense weren’t named Brady. The interchangeable parts kept changing, but the winning has been nearly constant. After Sunday’s game, five Super Bowls over the past 10 years will have been played with the Patriots on one sideline, a stretch in which New England missed the playoffs just twice. In one of those misses Brady was out for the season, and Belichick still orchestrated an 11-5 year to narrowly fall short.
The Patriots’ legacy since Vinatieri’s kick 10 years ago isn’t entirely clean. No legacy is, and the great Belichick-Brady partnership has Spygate. But to allow that indiscretion to still linger years later and claim that New England’s accomplishments are still tainted is both foolish and stubborn, and it’s the kind of conspiracy theory strictly reserved for those who also believe in grassy knolls.
In two days New England could be celebrating its fourth championship in the Belichick era, and a franchise that’s been around for 52 years will have experienced all of its success in just a 10-year window.