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The first episode of “Tom Brady: Man in the Arena,” released on ESPN+ earlier on Tuesday.
The multi-part documentary series, which will unveil new episodes each week, began by focusing on the Patriots’ 2001 season.
While many New England fans are obviously familiar with the overall track of the story — the Patriots, led by the unlikely emergence of Brady, triumphed as underdogs to win the team’s first Super Bowl championship — the episode is sprinkled with new details that were either lesser known or altogether unrevealed until now.
Here’s a recap of observations from Man in the Arena, Episode 1:
In the intro, Brady discussed the title of the series itself.
“We had different working titles for it, and I always thought [Man in the Arena] was a really cool name for a show,” Brady explained. “That particular quote was a Theodore Roosevelt quote, and that was in the weight room at Michigan when I first got there. And I saw it every day.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, in so many ways you become that man in the arena,'” Brady added. “There’s always the eyes focused on you as a player, and all these microsecond decisions you’re trying to make and it takes a lot to be put in that position, to deal with a lot of intense scrutiny over a period of time. I thought it fit very perfectly with what the purpose of this project was really supposed to be about.”
Unsurprisingly, given the arc of the 2001 season, the focus of much of the episode is on the relationship between Brady and Drew Bledsoe.
Bledsoe, as he has discussed before, didn’t view Brady as a potential threat to his starting job prior to 2001.
This, of course, made him similar to essentially everyone outside of possibly Brady himself (given Brady’s unheralded NFL origin as a sixth-round pick). On top of that, as the episode shows, was the Patriots’ decision to give Bledsoe a then-record contract prior to the season, which appeared to ensure the former No. 1 pick’s status as the franchise quarterback.
Yet following Bledsoe’s injury early in the season — and Brady’s ensuing success as starter — the two maintained a working relationship. Brady credited Bledsoe for “never creating any distractions that made it more difficult for me.”
“When Drew got hurt, no one would’ve wanted that. No one hoped for that,” Brady noted later in the episode. “And I think what I respect so much about him is he never let any of those emotions negatively impact me in any way. And I love Drew, and I respected Drew for everything that he had done.”
Still, Bledsoe candidly admitted his surprise at not being given his starting job back right away when he was able to get back onto the field at midseason.
“It didn’t occur to me that not having my job there when I got back was a possibility for probably four, five weeks,” Bledsoe acknowledged. “At that point, it sort of dawned on me like, ‘Maybe that seat’s not going to be warm when I got back.'”
Prior to falling to the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady described his interest in trying to understand where he might end up.
“By the time the draft came around, every night I was checking updated mock drafts,” Brady recalled. “Every night I was going and looking at where am I slotted.”
As the draft progressed, Brady slowly began to realize his stock wasn’t where he thought it had been.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be picked on the first day,” said Brady. “And after the fifth round I would look and go, ‘Oh my God, these teams don’t pick again for like at least another two hours before I even have a chance.”
Eventually, New England came calling at the 199th pick. Brady’s father celebrated by opening champagne.
Looking back at his performance in the early part of the 2001 season, Brady credited other parts of the team for helping him succeed.
“Our defense really dominated the day,” Brady said of his first career start against Peyton Manning and the Colts on Sept. 30, 2001. New England prevailed, 44-13 despite Brady completing just 13 passes for 168 yards and not throwing a single touchdown.
“On offense, we had to recognize what we had,” Brady explained. “Bill always used a line, ‘You can’t win until you can keep from losing.’
“That was a good lesson for us,” said Brady. “If we could keep from losing, I think our defense was going to keep us in every game.”
“We just kind of scrapped together these wins,” Brady said of the team’s turnaround.
Given the timing of the documentary’s release, amid a current Patriots’ winning streak under rookie quarterback Mac Jones, Belichick’s line, “You can’t win until you can keep from losing,” has probably taken on new significance as his team rediscovers a familiar “formula” from the past.
While it wasn’t something he would’ve ever openly discussed at the time, Brady explained in his commentary that he was afraid during the Patriots’ matchup against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
“That was the first game that I was scared,” Brady admitted. “The moment was definitely bigger than I was ready for.”
“They were a damn good football team,” former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest remembered of the 2001 Steelers. “We knew that it wasn’t going to get any easier for us.”
Playing in Pittsburgh against the 13-3 Steelers, Brady offered insight into the confusion that he felt facing a swirling series of blitzes being thrown at him.
“From the start of the game, I was confused,” Brady said of facing the Steelers’ defense. “I didn’t know what was coming.”
Brady ultimately exited the game after a hit on his lower body left him limping. Bledsoe entered and guided the Patriots to a Super Bowl berth, a fact which Brady was entirely okay with given the circumstances.
“For as much as my ankle was hurting, I was scared too,” said Brady. “Coach [Belichick] recognized that in me too. I think he probably looked at me and said, ‘Okay, Tom we’re going to let someone else play the game.'”
“Thank God Drew was there,” Brady added, “to come in and ended up playing basically the last two-and-a-half quarters of the game.”
During Super Bowl XXXVI, McGinest — one of the team’s veteran leaders — committed a costly penalty that undoubtedly would have been remembered differently had the Patriots ultimately faltered in the fourth quarter.
Leading the Rams 17-3 in the fourth quarter, New England’s defense was confronted with a critical fourth down at their own three-yard line. St. Louis decided to lean on its potent offense and go for it.
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, not finding any open receivers, scrambled to the right, but was sacked by Patriots linebacker Roman Phifer. In the process, Phifer knocked the ball loose, and safety Tebucky Jones scooped it up before proceeding on what appeared to be a joyous 97-yard return for a touchdown.
Had Jones’ touchdown stood, it would have all but ended the game, giving New England a commanding lead.
But, as McGinest explained, one of the reasons Warner couldn’t find an open receiver was that he had decided to illegally hold Rams running back Marshall Faulk on the play.
“They hiked the ball, Marshall starts to go outside, which is [my assignment], then he goes inside, so I hit him,” McGinest recalled. “I grab him. I’m not giving up a touchdown. I’d rather get a penalty.”
“All of a sudden, a late flag comes out,” McGinest continued. “I turn around, I look at the flag, I already knew what it was.”
The Rams made the most of a second chance, scoring (and eventually tying the game later in the fourth quarter). Still, McGinest kept his composure and committed himself to try and make up for his penalty.
“I got to the sideline like I’m heated,” said McGinest. “I’m hot. I’m beside myself. I got to do something to make up for this play. Something’s got to happen.”
True to form, McGinest came up with a clutch sack of Warner on the Rams’ next drive, knocking St. Louis out of field goal range in the process.
Though he was able to keep his outward expressions professional, Bledsoe discussed his inward feelings following the Patriots’ Super Bowl win.
“I remember being excited for our guys but at the same time kind of internally a little disheartened,” Bledsoe revealed. “Like, man, battled through a lot of stuff to try to get to this point and now arrived here, but the other guy got to play.”
After the Super Bowl, Bledsoe revealed an emotional private moment.
“By about 11 o’clock the next morning, I was sitting on a chairlift skiing in Whitefish, Montana. And I remember I got on the chairlift and I was by myself. I put my goggles on, my helmet, and I sat there. I was all by myself, and I just cried,” Bledsoe recalled. “I just sat there and it was the first time I just kind of let it all come crashing down on me.”
For his part, Brady still credits what Bledsoe taught him in 2001.
“When I look at what Drew went through, I look at someone who was very unselfish. I think that lesson’s embedded in me,” said Brady. “There’s nothing you can accomplish in football without everyone else, without the team, without the coaches, without the fans, without your families. It’s the ultimate team sport.”
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