Super Bowl XXXVI: The Start of the Patriots Dynasty

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Super Bowl XXXVI: The Start of the Patriots Dynasty
JEFF HAYNES/Getty Images

You’ve heard it before, possibly straight from the mouth of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Or maybe from one of the many players and coaches who have marched with him over the past 16 years.

It feels like more than a cliche now. Three words when put together represent the ultimate in Belichick football language from a man who says little. But to those who occupied the same sideline as Belichick while he created the NFL’s most recent dynasty, there’s nothing to roll your eyes about.

Say them with me then: "Do your job."

That’s the guiding principle for everything the Patriots have accomplished since 2001. When you speak to Belichick’s former players, they say those words unprompted. It’s not a robotic response but rather a mental muscle twitch, as though merely speaking about their time with the Patriots conjures up memories of a driven and singular mindset.

Each man on the four championship teams under Belichick had a job. From first-teamer to fourth-teamer and from punter to quarterback, an intense focus on execution was firmly ingrained.

As Super Bowl 50 approaches, it’s an appropriate time to look back on the dynasties that have collected a good chunk of the 49 championships so far. And with the Patriots, it’s a time to reflect on how the winning began, how the division and conference titles started to pile up and how a new culture was installed.

Before we do that, let’s define a dynasty in the modern NFL, where parity rules the land.

That label may irk some when it’s attached to the Patriots, especially after two controversies ending in “gate.” But no matter how much you repeat creative nicknames like “Cheatriots,” they just keep on winning.

Beyond the four championships, New England has won the most regular-season games by a wide margin since Belichick came aboard…

Most regular-season wins since 2000
Team Wins
New England Patriots 187
Indianapolis Colts 168
Pittsburgh Steelers 164
Green Bay Packers 161
Denver Broncos 155

Source: Pro Football Reference

And ditto for playoff games…

Most playoff wins since 2000
Team Wins
New England Patriots 22
Baltimore Ravens 15
Pittsburgh Steelers 13
Indianapolis Colts 12
Seattle Seahawks 12

Source: Pro Football Reference

The Patriots’ only losing season under Belichick was his first one as Robert Kraft’s newly hired head coach back in 2000. Since then, they’ve missed the playoffs just twice, and one of those seasons was an 11-win year in 2008 when quarterback Tom Brady played 15 snaps before suffering a torn ACL.

Even more remarkably, a team not named the Patriots has won the AFC East just three times since Belichick’s tenure began.

That includes seven straight division titles going to New England and five straight conference championship appearances. Of the 15 Super Bowls played since 2000, six have involved the Patriots. They came within three points of yet another Super Bowl appearance this year, even with Brady getting hit 20 times by the Denver Broncos—and even with injuries to several key players (running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount missed significant time, decimating Brady's run support).

So, how should we define a dynasty? It’s safe to go with sustained dominance over a prolonged period.

We can trace the beginning of that excellence back to more than just Belichick. The Patriots’ dynasty started with two massive bodies colliding.

 

A new quarterback

There were five minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a Week 2 game in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe rolled to his right. The Patriots trailed the New York Jets by seven points, and the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback at that point was trying to keep a potential game-tying drive alive as he clawed for every yard.

In this case, he needed 10 of them, with the Patriots backed up on their own 19-yard line. To put it politely, Bledsoe wasn’t exactly known for his speed. Throughout a 14-year career, he ran for 764 yards, a meager average of 54.6 yards per season.

The eight yards he gained on this run would have franchise-altering consequences.

How many times have you watched and re-watched that replay over the past 15 years? Maybe 25 times? Fifty?

And can you watch it without wincing after Jets linebacker Mo Lewis lowers his boom? The clash of pads has that effect. The sound is something between brakes squealing for mercy while trying to halt an 18-wheeler and the thwack of a toe stubbed on a failed late-night trip from bedroom to bathroom.

But although Lewis—a three-time Pro Bowler himself—made a career out of boom lowering, Bledsoe was in part victimized by an unfortunate turn of events.

“I was chasing him, and I remember diving at him and trying to hit the ball out,” former Jets defensive tackle Shaun Ellis told Bleacher Report. Ellis had the backside pursuit as Bledsoe rolled out. He pushed him toward the sideline and into Lewis’ crosshairs.

As Lewis closed in, Ellis grabbed Bledsoe’s left arm and then poked at the ball.

“I just remember diving, hitting the ball and trying to get him down around his leg,” Ellis added. "Then I heard the crowd go ‘Oooooh!’ like it was a big hit.”

“You can see that he’s starting to lose the ball. He went to re-grip it, and that’s when Mo hit him.”

For a fleeting millisecond, Bledsoe was distracted while instinctively trying to maintain possession. Did that tiny beat prevent him from properly bracing for the oncoming train?

“I don’t think he really saw it,” Ellis said.

A cosmic football dance was also initiated in that moment.

Bledsoe would eventually make a full recovery from a serious chest injury after being rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding. In medical language, he suffered a hemothorax, which results when the chest cavity fills with blood.

He was cleared to practice by mid-November, though by then Bledsoe's replacement had led the Patriots to a 5-2 record in his absence. Ellis would come to know the name of that replacement well, as we all have.

“I tell myself all the time: Maybe if I didn’t pursue so hard, [Bledsoe] would have just run out of bounds, and then we probably wouldn’t have heard about Tom Brady for a little while.”

That seems like a near certainty. Sure, in a talent-scarce league at quarterback, Brady would have been discovered eventually without Bledsoe’s injury, possibly after a trade. But Bledsoe was 29 years old at the time, and he had signed a 10-year, $103 million contract extension the previous March. Brady, meanwhile, was a sixth-round pick who hadn't taken a truly meaningful snap before 2001 outside of garbage-time cleanup duties.

It’s not hard at all to imagine an alternate football universe where without Lewis, without Ellis and without Bledsoe scrambling then tumbling, Brady doesn’t rise in New England.

Although the familiar football mantra of “next man up”—a close cousin of “do your job”—soon took over, there was some initial shock among Bledsoe’s teammates, even though he came back into the game at first.

“It was like, ‘Where do we go from here?” said tight end Jermaine Wiggins. “This is Drew Bledsoe, our star quarterback who had just signed a big contract and he was the face of the franchise. We were trying to figure out what’s the next step.”

Safety Lawyer Milloy watched Bledsoe crumple on the sideline. His first thoughts weren’t pleasant either, but his optimism was quickly restored. Milloy already had personal experience with Brady’s brilliance after getting burned by him in training camp.

“One time in training camp, I remember vividly he looked me off and I went in the direction he was looking,” said Milloy, who spent seven seasons in New England after being a second-round pick in 1996. “Then he completed a pass down the field when I was at the free safety spot. I went over to him afterward and said, ‘Hey, you’re getting better, kid. Just don’t do it again.’”

JOHN MOTTERN/Getty Images

Brady did do it again. And again, and then again to opposing defenses. Remember, we know who he is now: a perennial All-Pro who’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Upon his retirement, Brady will simply wait for his first-ballot ticket to Canton.

But back then, he was a scrawny nobody, and none of his teammates could have predicted just how quickly the then-24-year-old would rise. His work ethic was clearly evident, though, along with his desire to be a sponge by learning from legends.

“He stayed late in the offseason and watched old films of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Phil Simms and all these guys from back in the day, trying to learn different aspects of the game,” said former guard Joe Andruzzi, who blocked for Brady from 2001 to 2004. “He really pointed himself in the right direction, learning the offense from front to back.”

Brady joined a team mixed with longtime core players in the prime of their careers (like wide receiver Troy Brown), castoffs from elsewhere (like linebacker Mike Vrabel) and veteran leadership that had just been added (like linebacker Bryan Cox).

A recipe for success was already in place, but something was still missing.

“Just like anything you’re trying to build, a lot of times you can have all the ingredients you want,” said Milloy. “But if you don’t have that extra dash of salt, it still doesn’t taste right. Nobody knew Tommy was that last ingredient for us to not only be successful that year, but also giving the Patriots a legacy over the last 15 years.”

The Patriots lost only three regular-season games with Brady as their starting quarterback in 2001. His sizzling streak kept Bledsoe relegated to backup duties even after he healed. As the wins mounted, so did a newfound confidence.

The season's turning point, however, didn’t come with a win. No, it came after a loss.

 

A new confidence

Even after early success under Brady, the Patriots still had a hole to climb out of. They had started the 2001 season with two losses. Heading into Week 10, their record was a mediocre 5-4.

Their Week 10 opponent? The St. Louis Rams, the same St. Louis Rams who produced a weekly offensive carnival ride famously dubbed The Greatest Show on Turf.

“We thought we were gaining an identity,” said Milloy, who cited Week 10 as one of his turning points in the season. “And what better way to go out and advance that by going up against the Greatest Show on Turf?”

Powered by quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, the Rams offense was in another galaxy while sitting atop the league. The Rams would go on to average 418.1 yards per game throughout the 2001 regular season, which was 46 yards ahead of the second-place team.

So outscoring a Patriots offense led by essentially a rookie quarterback would require just taking the field, right? Nope.

DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

The Patriots were set to either take the lead or at worst tie the game with just over two minutes left in the second quarter and the score 10-7 in favor of St. Louis. Then running back Antowain Smith fumbled on the Rams’ 4-yard line, and because Warner was at his early-career superhero peak, he trotted onto the field to casually lead a 97-yard touchdown drive.

Just like that, there was a 14-point swing, and a Patriots team still without Bledsoe should have been down on the mat after taking a vicious haymaker. But New England crawled back to keep the game tight against a recent champion it would eventually meet again in the Super Bowl.

The Patriots still lost by a touchdown, dropping the game 24-17. But strangely, the loss felt like a win, though not against the opposing team. In this case, they had defeated adversity.

“That was the first game I ever played in the NFL where I felt like even though we lost, we still felt great about the progression of our team,” said Milloy. “We went out there and gave them hell and saw it in their faces that they were in a dogfight.

“They set the bar high, and we felt like we matched it. Our team became stronger and stronger after that.”

How strong? The Patriots didn’t lose again.

After that infusion of confidence in Week 10, the Patriots won nine straight games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl. During that stretch, their defense allowed just 13.8 points per game, while an offense still led by an inexperienced quarterback gutted out four wins decided by a field goal or less, including Super Bowl XXXVI.

“It got us to see that if we do what we’re supposed to do, execute and don’t turn the ball over, we could play with any team,” Wiggins said of the Rams game. “From that point on, that’s when we ran the table. Then when we saw the Rams again in the Super Bowl, we knew we could hang with them.”

Linebacker Willie McGinest recorded six of the Patriots’ 41 regular-season sacks for a defense that ranked sixth overall in points allowed. He said there was a heightened drive during the late-season run and the opponent was anonymous.

“We didn’t really care who we were playing, because we just looked at them as numbers,” he said. “We had the mentality that we prepared so well during the week that we would be ready for the game, so we didn’t think anyone was going to out-tough us or go in and push us around.”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“The worst feeling for our defense was when we gave up a big play, or if you had a mental error. We held each other accountable. When a guy didn’t perform or execute, you had to face the other guys, and that was the worst feeling for us.”

There was a fresh aura around the Patriots, complete with rebuilt confidence after Bledsoe, a franchise icon, went down.

But believing in yourself is only the first step. Getting the league’s respect is another matter.

A new respect and a new champion

The obstacles kept coming after an 11-5 season, which was the AFC’s second-best record. Following a first-round bye, New England hosted the Oakland Raiders.

Massachusetts weather in mid-January usually makes you want to hide under many blankets for days. And on this particular evening, there was an Antarctic feel to the proceedings.

The game was played in a snow globe. At kickoff, the mercury had dropped to 25 degrees, with heavy snowfall creating a sloppy, field-goal-filled mess. Brady still managed to pass for 312 yards against the Raiders in an environment more suited for the Iditarod than a football game.

A handful of playoff games or plays within them are known only by a simple name. In just a few words, you know exactly what happened, and depending on your fan affiliation, there’s either an immediate nostalgic joy or a cringe as fist meets table.

There are The Immaculate Reception, The Drive and The Ice Bowl, among many others. The Patriots and Raiders added another one: The Tuck Rule Game.

“It was a dual protection play,” Andruzzi said, reflecting on what led to the tuck rule call. “If they brought two guys, it was a hot read. They both can’t be picked up. They brought the middle linebacker and cornerback, two guys off the right side. I stepped out, and Charles Woodson ended up getting to Brady.”

We can all agree that, with the benefit of hindsight, the tuck rule needed a much quicker death. The rule was still in use until 2013.

The non-fumble created by Woodson wasn’t the first or last time an arcane item buried at the back of rulebooks caused confusion and rage. But it was the most significant dusting off of the tuck rule, one that often overshadows everything else from the Patriots’ overtime win.

Take Wiggins' contributions, for instance, as he's still an unlikely snowstorm hero. Throughout the regular season, he was used sparingly and finished with only 14 receptions for 133 yards. But on that day against the Raiders with white stuff swirling, he served as a short-passing source of comfort for Brady, catching 10 balls for 68 yards.

“I didn’t have massive numbers throughout the regular season,” Wiggins said. “That wasn’t my role. My role was to make a play when I had an opportunity. I did my best to make sure I was doing my job. Whatever my role was, I was trying my best to make sure I was executing.”

There it is again: Do your job.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the Patriots arrived in Pittsburgh the following week for the AFC Championship Game, something a little premature greeted them.

“It was a situation where no one gave us a chance to win,” said Milloy. “When we walked into the corridor right before the game, we saw a room with all the Steelers’ bags labeled with their names and spouses' bags to go down to New Orleans after they won the game.

“It was the same thing when we got down to New Orleans. They were taking down some Steelers stuff. Everyone predicted a Steelers-Rams Super Bowl. So it was the ultimate disrespect.”

Respect was hard to find for the Patriots, even on the game’s grandest stage. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas were especially disrespectful and set a final betting line on Super Bowl XXXVI that favored the Rams by 14 points.

The Rams’ point total at halftime? Three points, a minuscule output from an offense that had averaged 31.4 points per game throughout the regular season. After two quarters, St. Louis produced only a loud thud because of the Patriots' defensive focus on two key elements: winning with physicality over finesse and eliminating Faulk from the passing game.

“We needed to take them into a world that they weren’t accustomed to being in,” McGinest said. “We had to be physical and hit everything that moved. They were a finesse team and probably way more talented than we were. If we played that type of finesse football, we couldn’t keep up with them, and we knew it.”

Faulk finished the 2001 season moving along briskly with 153.4 yards from scrimmage per game. He finished 23 yards below that average in the Super Bowl, and Milloy remembers visible frustration.

“There was a focus on Faulk releasing out of the backfield,” he said. “If he was on your side, as an edge-rusher you were to stop what you were doing and chip him. That created a three-man rush, but Faulk was not going to get the ball. I think that really frustrated him, and you saw him throw his hands up a few times. That was the minor adjustment we made.”

But safe leads just weren’t a thing against the Rams, which the Patriots discovered when their 17-3 buffer heading into the fourth quarter quickly evaporated. A 26-yard game-tying touchdown pass from Warner to wide receiver Ricky Proehl with 1:30 remaining in the final quarter seemed to seal history.

The Super Bowl was about to get its first overtime. Or maybe not?

The Patriots were out of timeouts, and after Troy Brown’s short return on the ensuing kickoff, they took possession on their own 17-yard line.

Up in the broadcast booth, John Madden had some advice that, thankfully, Belichick didn’t follow.

“I’m glad John Madden wasn’t our coach, because from what I heard, he said we should take a knee and go to overtime,” Andruzzi said.

In fairness to ol’ John, he wasn’t wrong, and his words are only a source of comedy now because we know what comes next. Every possible obstacle—from the clock that read 1:21 to the 53 yards ahead for even reasonable field-goal position and the zero under “timeouts” on the scoreboard—was severely slanted against New England during a season-deciding moment.

But beyond simply wanting to, you know, win the Super Bowl, there was another motivating factor influencing Belichick's decision: the overtime coin toss and that perilous dance with luck. Like most head coaches until the overtime format changed a few seasons ago, Belichick surely felt better putting the game’s outcome in the hands of his offense rather than invite a date with the overtime coin and the power it held over a sudden-death situation.

Even if that meant making his quarterback be painfully precise when he had to work the boundaries, which narrowed Brady’s throwing options and increased the possibility of an interception.

If the exact same scenario played out today, we might be robbed of late-game excitement. The head coach involved would be more likely to follow Madden’s advice, because now during overtime you can't lose the game on a field goal without your offense getting an opportunity.

But maybe Belichick had even further and simpler motivation to plow ahead. He had planned for this situation, just like he plans for pretty much everything.

“The way he coaches, our practices were situational practices,” said running back Kevin Faulk, who spent 13 seasons in New England and was a pass-catching pillar in the backfield on three championship teams. 

“He makes practices harder than game situations, so just in case we get into a game when a situation comes up, we know how to handle it. That was just another one of those situations we went through so many times in practice. So then it became another situation, and we thought, Let’s just go do it.

The drive started innocently enough, with two short gains on completions to running back J.R. Redmond for a total of 13 yards. Then, with 41 seconds left, Brady hit Redmond again, this time for 11 yards. Now, the Patriots were at their own 41-yard line, and a glimmer of hope was shining just a little brighter.

That's when Brady connected with Brown for 23 yards. The Patriots were on the edge of kicker Adam Vinatieri’s range but not quite there. They called upon a lumbering, seldom used tight end once again for the final push.

“I knew the ball was going to be coming to me because of the route I was running,” said Wiggins, who caught the six-yard pass that gave Vinatieri 48 yards to go for his game-winning field-goal attempt. “I had the inside route, and Tom had mentioned in the huddle to me, ‘Hey, get open on this play, because I’m going to try to get you the ball quick.'”

The way Wiggins explains what followed sounds so routine now. About as routine as setting the table for dinner or taking out the trash.

“So it was like all right, I’m going to get open, Tom is going to throw me the ball, I’ll catch it, get what I can then get up, give the ball to the official, we’ll spike it and then Vinatieri will come out to hopefully put it through the uprights.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

STAN HONDA/Getty Images

The 2001 season started with a catastrophic collision for the Patriots and ended in triumph. That year functioned as something much larger, though: a springboard to multiple pieces of Super Bowl jewelry, each a bit shinier than the last.

 

A new culture

Belichick offers only glimpses behind the curtain of his creation. He’ll gladly give you an 820-word soliloquy on some obscure rule…

But giving up even a hint of access to show how he’s installed a winning culture is rare. Which is why I find myself flashing back to when NFL Network’s cameras followed him around for his special two-part turn on their documentary series, A Football Life.

Plenty of fascinating nuggets emerged from the backstage pass Belichick surprisingly granted, including his emphasis on game situations even during the early hours of training camp in late July (3:49 mark of the video linked above). He’ll rifle through them rapid-fire style, expecting not just an immediate response but also the correct one.

“They have no timeouts and the ball is on the 1-yard line,” he’ll yell out. “Tell me what’s going to happen here.

“Forty seconds, no timeouts and we need a field goal.”

Maybe that’s not particularly out of the ordinary, and maybe you can see a similar scene at many practices. But what’s striking is the contrast between the coldly calculating coach who has plotted every imaginable scenario and the teacher who keeps minds sharp by mixing ancient philosophy into his team meetings.

The same guy firing off those game situations in practice also posted a quote from Sun Tzu in a Gillette Stadium hallway. It reads, “Every battle is won before it is fought.”

And the same coach who can be a hollow, emotionless bore during press conferences urges his players to celebrate and express pride after a good play.

“There’s nothing wrong; in fact, you should be excited when you make a play,” Belichick told his team prior to the 2009 home opener, per A Football Life. “Hell, look at all the work you’ve put into it. All the time you spent and practice you put into it. And then to go out there during a game competitively and execute well to make a play. You should be excited about it. And your teammates should be excited, too.”

Those two elements—pride and an intensely honed attention to detail—form the foundation for a carefully crafted winning culture. Installing his ideal environment has been a painstaking process for Belichick, one that began 16 years ago.

“He changed the way we practiced, he changed the way we prepared, and he changed the way we watched film,” McGinest said. “He changed everything. He kind of put his stamp on the way we did things as a team.”

There’s been a focus on the individual and then the collective throughout the Patriots’ success. As an individual, you do your job. Then as you go, the team goes.

“The ones who were able to adapt to that kind of creed are the ones who did well under Bill,” said Milloy. “What ‘do your job’ means is everyone is held accountable. No matter what your paycheck looks like or what position you think you’re in, we’re all going to compete.”

The process is beautiful in its simplicity. The job comes first, and doing it means winning, and then winning leads to championships.

Always live by those three words—do your job—and you’ll fit in just fine. 

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