It's hard to remember now, but before the Super Bowls, before the undefeated regular season, before the ascendancy of Bill Belichick and the dominance of an unknown named Tom Brady, the New England Patriots were the laughingstock of the league.
The Patriots began their life in the American Football League and were odd even for a new league. Their owner, Billy Sullivan, had essentially bluffed his way into "The Foolish Club", and never really had the financial resources to compete with other teams—especially after the AFL-NFL merger. They were vagabonds, playing in a number of venues before settling into Foxboro Stadium.
(Calling Foxboro Stadium, aka Schaefer Stadium aka Sullivan Stadium, "cheaply made" would be generous. It was perhaps the most generic stadium ever built, in addition to being uncomfortable and small.)
Time moved on, and the Patriots began to settle into the role of the weaker sister of the Boston franchises. They didn't have the tortured history and high-profile advocates of the Red Sox, nor the tradition of success that defined the Celtics and Bruins.
What's more, they weren't even a Boston team—they were practically situated in Rhode Island.
And so the Patriots existed, ignored except for a few die-hard fans, sparking interest only during short-lived bouts of success (1976, 1985 and the mid-to-late 1990s).
In the beginning of the century, it appeared that little would change that fact. The Patriots were "recovering" from their latest flirtation with relevance—the years in which Bill Parcells had taken the team and performed the type of turnaround that would later become his signature.
The Pats had just ended the tenure of one Pete Carroll, who had overseen the erosion of the team from Super Bowl loser in 1996-97 to 8-8 also-ran in 1999.
(The fact that Carroll has become a de facto god with the University of Southern California, by the way, is reason #46 why I have no respect for college football.)
What's more, the team was entirely reliant on rapidly-aging, onetime franchise hero Drew Bledsoe and the aging nucleus that had taken the team to the Super Bowl three years before.
(For my money, Bledsoe is the franchise's most-underrated figure. He restored respectability to a team that desperately needed it, produced some wildly productive years early in his career and was the best thing about the team for many of his years here. He always gave the Pats a chance, even if it wasn't much of one.
His reputation has become somewhat sullied by his rapid decline, his lack of success with other teams and the revelation that his relationship with Belichick was somewhat...strained.
For those who doubt Bledsoe's value to the team, consider the following: Kraft was considering moving the team to Hartford, Connecticut in 1998. If Bledsoe hadn't come along, how many people would've cared?)
The intervening years of drafts, run by Bobby Grier (who should occupy a Bill-Buckner-esque place in New England sports purgatory), had produced precious little in terms of talent.
The Patriots had just hired a coach who, like the franchise, was down on his luck. Bill Belichick had first caught the eye of owner Robert Kraft during the tenure of Parcells. Parcells, Belichick's mentor, had rehired the coach after a disastrous stint in Cleveland.
(The Belichick-Parcells relationship is worthy of a Greek tragedy. As chronicled in David Halberstam's "Education of a Coach," Belichick at this point had been saddled with the kiss-of-death "good coordinator, but not head coaching material" label, and Parcells never let him forget it.
This was probably what led to Belichick's bizarre one-day tour as head coach of the Jets. Belichick couldn't stand the concept that Parcells would run the team from near-retirement and he would once again be stuck under the big man's shadow. The subsequent brouhaha sent him to the Pats.)
Nonetheless, the 2000 New England Patriots team was one that was going nowhere fast. Aging players, a new system and little young talent consigned this team to a 5-11 record. Only back-to-back wins against the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts (who were starting to make noise as a league power) gave any sign of what was to come.
Indeed, the biggest development for the Patriots that year probably came from off the field—the team picked Tom Brady in the sixth round of the draft, off the recommendation of then-quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein. What's less widely known is the fact that the team made the odd choice of retaining four quarterbacks (Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and the immortal John Friesz) on their roster in 2000 so they wouldn't have to cut Brady.
No one at the time could have possibly known the impact of that move.
(Catch part two on Friday, covering 2001 to 2003)