New England’s 2001 Super Bowl Run

How little can a quarterback do and still get credit?

AFC Divisional Playoff: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT)

We all know about the Tuck Rule. Yet that is just the beginning of the story. Never mind that Tom Brady’s tucking motion might already have been completed when he lost the ball and that the replay rule requires irrefutable evidence. Never mind the insane 45-yard field goal Adam Vinatieri made to complete that drive and reach overtime. Or that New England fumbled three times before the Tuck Rule play yet recovered all of them, all in their own territory. Even one Oakland recovery–say, after Brady got strip-sacked at his own 15 in the third quarter–could have made the 13-3 hole New England reached in the fourth quarter even larger. Or consider New England’s third fumble. With 2:19 to go, Zack Crockett of the Raiders was stuffed on third-and-one. Troy Brown fumbled the ensuing punt but New England recovered, leading to the drive on which the Tuck Rule was enforced. Had the play occurred 20 seconds earlier, it could not have even been reviewed because New England was out of timeouts and automatic reviews of turnovers were still years away.

Just in the final two minutes of regulation of his first playoff game, the Brady legend could have been nipped in the bud by a third-and-one conversion, a fumble bouncing the other way, a knuckleball field goal hooking left. Instead, the Patriots win after scoring 16 points on 14 drives.

Hey, playoff debuts can’t all go like Joe Montana’s. (Montana was 20-31 for 304 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT in a 38-24 win over the Giants.)

AFC Championship Game: Patriots 24, Steelers 17

Whenever someone cites “Brady’s” career W-L record in the playoffs, remember that they are including this game. New England led 7-3 thanks to Troy Brown’s 55-yard punt return when Brady was injured completing a 28-yard pass to Brown in the second quarter. Drew Bledsoe finished the drive with 3 completions and a rush for 40 total yards, extending the lead to 14-3. Brady never returned to the game. New England added another TD on a blocked field goal return in the second half and still won by just a touchdown.

Brady was a bystander for most of this postseason (we’re about to explain the Super Bowl). For about 32 minutes of game time, he was literally a bystander in this game. Pittsburgh could have scored 28 second half points and there was nothing he could have done.

Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20, Rams 17

Now we get to the heart of the matter, a game people pretend began at the two-minute warning in the second half. The New England offense produced 267 yards, 130 of them on non-Brady runs, and 13 points on 11 drives. This game could easily have gone like so many of John Elway’s Super Bowls if the Rams offense had played to the level they were capable of. Instead, the Patriots’ defense held the Rams to 3 points on their first 8 drives and added Ty Law’s pick-six for good measure. Before the final drive, Brady was 11 of 19 for 92 yards. The TD drive he led was set up by a Rams fumble and covered 40 yards. A single field goal drive after a mediocre game–a mediocre 3 games–sets the foundation for the career for the best quarterback ever? It took 178 minutes and several strokes of luck, but the narrative had finally found its footing.

What kind of world is this? The same world in which the Tuck Rule is invented in the late nineties for no reason and abandoned a decade later.

The Stats

Brady completed 60 of 97 passes for 572 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, and was sacked 5 times for -36 yards. That’s an adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) of 5.01. No Super Bowl winning quarterback in the preceding 20 years had done worse than 6.30, which was Trent Dilfer’s mark the year before. (ANY/A requires sack numbers, which I can’t find before 1981.)

QB Year G Att+Sk ANY/A
Montana 1989 3 84 12.14
Simms 1986 3 61 10.36
McMahon 1985 3 70 9.57
Aikman 1992 3 96 9.50
Montana 1988 3 97 9.24
Aikman 1995 3 84 8.65
Rypien 1991 3 79 8.61
Young 1994 3 91 8.60
Plunkett 1983 3 97 8.26
Warner 1999 3 125 8.15
Williams 1987 3 86 8.13
Favre 1996 3 78 7.85
Elway 1998 3 90 7.53
Theismann 1982 4 95 7.09
Aikman 1993 3 89 7.00
Montana 1981 3 95 6.76
Hostetler 1990 3 83 6.46
Montana 1984 3 109 6.44
Elway 1997 4 102 6.39
Dilfer 2000 4 83 6.30

Trent Dilfer did more to earn his first ring than Brady did to earn his first. (By this measure, 26% more.)

Another way of looking at things is by drives. Here are the complete New England drives throughout Brady’s inaugural postseason that he played in full. The length in yards of scoring drives is in parentheses. Downs, Punt, Punt, Interception, Punt, Punt, Punt, Field Goal (62), Punt, Punt, Touchdown (67), Punt, Field Goal (26, tuck rule), Field Goal (61); Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt; Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Touchdown (40), Punt, Punt, Field Goal (14), Punt, Punt, Field Goal (53). That is 29 points on 30 drives in 3 games.

2002

The 2002 season was an interesting one for the Patriots. They started 3-0, during which time Brady played excellently: 7.4 yards per attempt, 9 TD to 2 INT, 115 Patriots points. They then lost their next three games; Brady: 6.1 Y/A, 5 TD to 7 INT, 37 Patriots points. After the bye week, the offense produced another dud as Brady went 15-29 for 130 yards in a 24-16 loss to the Broncos.

According to my pet alternative history theory, in a world without the tuck rule, it is at this point when Belichick grudgingly goes back to Drew Bledsoe, whom he did not trade, at quarterback, leaving Tom Brady to never be heard from again. (The best part is it is an unprovable theory either way!) At the very least, if Brady didn’t have the cushion provided by his team’s gift to him in the prior postseason, Boston’s infamous talk radio would have gone crazy during that bye week.

In Sum

Tom Brady is an all-time great quarterback, no doubt. But in the narrative-driven land of sports media, he got a huge lift from that 2001 season, where a sixth-round draft pick in his second season had the luckiest playoff run in NFL history. He didn’t play well, and every game had multiple moments in which he was totally uninvolved that could have changed the outcome.

The rest is history. We only get one of those. Try not to make a hagiography of it.

 

 

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