Sign up for Patriots updates🏈
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox during football season.
In the intro for the second episode of “Man in the Arena,” the newly-released ESPN documentary series about Tom Brady, the 44-year-old offered some general insight into how he tries to “realize his potential.”
“You have to put people around you that are going to help you be the best you can be,” Brady explained. “And if those aren’t the people, then you have to move on. I realize that the toughest things that I’ve faced in my life have been the best things for me.”
Episode 2 is fittingly titled, “The Toughest Things,” and in the context of what it covers (the Patriots’ second Super Bowl run), Brady’s quote alludes to some of the harsher aspects of the business of the NFL.
The newest chapter of the documentary, produced by Religion of Sports (of which Brady is a co-founder), digs into the controversial decision made by Bill Belichick to cut defensive leader Lawyer Milloy prior to the 2003 season, as well as the effect—both perceived and real—that it had on Brady and the rest of the team.
Here are a few takeaways from an episode that featured interviews with Brady, Milloy, and Milloy’s replacement, Rodney Harrison.
Brady has had to evolve his friendships with teammates over the years, given the obvious fact of his longevity. No one from his draft class is still in the NFL.
But even as early as 2002, the newly-crowned Super Bowl champion was confronted with the reality that friends from his rookie year were increasingly gone from the team.
“I connected with different guys in my rookie year that were kind of in my class, but by the time I was in my third, fourth year, a lot of those guys had moved on,” said Brady.
This led to a budding friendship with Milloy, who at that point was one of the team’s mainstays. As Milloy noted, Brady was a “sponge” when it came to soaking up knowledge about how to deal with fame, and how to balance newfound success with on-field demands.
“We lived five houses down from each other, so he was really one of my close friends on the team,” Brady recalled.
Coming off the Super Bowl win, New England experienced a hangover season in 2002. It didn’t appear that way over the first few games, however, as the Patriots began the title defense with a 3-0 record.
“I was telling [them], ‘Guys, I mean we’re going to go undefeated this year,'” Brady remembered telling teammates. “‘That’s just the way it’s going to be.'”
But events turned when the Patriots lost in Week 4 to the Chargers, 21-14. San Diego’s defense was led by Harrison and Junior Seau.
“They ended up kicking our ass,” Brady acknowledged.
From there, as the documentary alludes to in a quick montage of losses, the season bogged down in inconsistency, with the Patriots finishing 9-7 and not in the playoffs.
“It ended up being a bad year,” Brady said. “That was tough.”
One of the building blocks for the team’s return to success in 2003 was signing Harrison.
The hard-hitting safety remains unapologetic about his mentality and style of play, though he admitted a few imperfections.
“There’s times there that I went above and beyond because I was immature and I was really trying to prove a point,” Harrison noted.
He addressed the accusations that followed him throughout his career of being a dirty player.
“Yeah I crossed the line a few times, but at the end of the day I wasn’t a dirty player,” Harrison insisted. “I was not a dirty player. I was a hell of a player.”
As for why he signed with New England following his unexpected release by the Chargers, Harrison recalled a conversation in which Belichick impressed him with his memory of a particular pregame moment.
“I remember I was warming up and hitting one of my guys and knocking his helmet off,” Harrison said. “Coach Belichick when I was sitting in his office, he sat down and said, ‘I remember in warmups, you hit that guy and knocked his helmet off.’ And I said, ‘You remember that?’ That little attention to detail, that was the key moment that made me sign with the Patriots, because I said, ‘This guy sees everything.’ If he saw that, if he remembered that, this is where I want to be.
“I looked at my agent, I said, ‘Let’s work out a deal,'” Harrison added. He eventually agreed to join the Patriots.
While it’s no secret that Brady—and most of the team—was shocked and upset by Belichick’s decision to cut Milloy prior to the start of the 2003 season, the documentary offers a few more candid thoughts on the matter.
“For me, that was the one that hit hard,” Brady said of Milloy’s release. “I remember driving home after that happened and I drove right over to his house. I didn’t even know what to say.”
“It was the first time that I really recognized this was a really tough business,” Brady added.
The experience from Brady’s standpoint was a lesson (from Belichick) in the harsher side of roster management.
“I didn’t know they brought Rodney in to replace Lawyer. I thought they brought Rodney in to complement Lawyer,” said Brady, who was upset with the move. “I just was so mad that we let him go, and I couldn’t understand why we let this guy go who had meant so much to the team. That was kind of a welcome to pro football moment.”
Milloy’s comments on the time period were succinct.
“That was a rough two days,” he recalled.
Later in the episode, he offered a more profound quote about his disappointment at being cut from New England just as the team was settling in for its back-to-back year Super Bowl run.
“I knew what I was leaving because I helped build it.”
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Brady said of the 31-0 loss to Milloy, Drew Bledsoe, and the Bills in the 2003 season opener.
Since it was a debacle coming on the heels of Milloy’s release, it caused many in the media to point the finger at Belichick for apparently unsettling the team.
In actuality, Harrison said that the defeat “made us forget about Lawyer.”
“I said, ‘Look at Lawyer, he’s out there celebrating, he’s sacking our quarterback, getting up and going crazy for the fans, he’s gone,'” Harrison told teammates. “‘We have to focus on what we have to do in this locker room.'”
Yet the outside reaction to the game—the “hype machine,” as Brady labeled it—was to conflate the team’s struggles with Belichick’s decision to cut Milloy.
The documentary (as others telling the story of the 2003 Patriots have done before) prominently features a quote from then-ESPN football pundit Tom Jackson, who said after the Patriots’ loss to the Bills that the players “hate their coach.”
What’s interesting about how the documentary handles Jackson’s quote is in the media commentary Brady provided looking back at the moment.
“[Jackson] said that going into our [Philadelphia] game in Week 2,” Brady remembered. “He said that on NFL Countdown, which was a big show, probably the only show.
“That kind of rocked the locker room for a little bit,” Brady acknowledged, though he maintained that he “didn’t believe” that the team hated Belichick.
Harrison illustrated a twist on the Patriots’ famous process of trying to “ignore the noise” of outside media. On one hand, Harrison claimed that it “didn’t matter what Tom Jackson said,” though later in the episode he “thanked” Jackson for what he said, given the motivation it provided.
Brady, on the other hand, stuck more to the traditional idea of simply blocking out the exterior commentary.
“The reason why we win is not because someone insults us,” he offered. “The reason why we win was because we ignore everything that everyone says and we actually focus on the tactical things that matter.”
“That was early on in my career, but it’s just another sense of bulls***,” Brady added. “More people who have no idea, who aren’t in the arena, who can’t influence anything, where it’s just another example in life, ignore the noise. No one knows. Believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, believe in your process, believe in your teammates. These are the things that are important. These are the things that matter.”
One of the famous games from 2003 was a Week 13 matchup between the 9-2 Patriots and 9-2 Colts. Brady said that he knew the game would have major postseason implications.
“If you see them again in the RCA Dome at the time, that’s different than seeing them at Gillette Stadium,” said Brady. “So it wasn’t a playoff game, but it was going to go a long way to determine who was going to be in the playoffs and where that game was going to be played.”
With the regular season contest at the RCA Dome—ideal conditions for Peyton Manning and the high-powered Colts offense—the game proceeded to script. Both teams piled on points with big plays, culminating in a desperate fourth down at the Patriots’ one-yard line.
The Colts, trailing by four points with just 14 second left in the game, needed a touchdown. In the critical moment, New England stopped Colts running back Edgerrin James on the goal-line for the win.
“You have to think about it. If [Indianapolis] wins that game, maybe they have home-field advantage,” said Harrison.
“That play changed the course of our future,” he added. “I really believe that.”
Later in the episode, in discussing the Patriots’ eventual win over the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, Harrison noted that New England “played the game that we wanted to play.”
Part of that, in both his and Brady’s view, was the environment.
“You think about the regular season game,” Brady explained, “had that been at the RCA Dome, could’ve ended up being a different story. But we played on our terms in our climate.”
“When I look back at that time, it was really a growth-stage part of my career,” Brady recalled of the 2003 season.
Even after the anger he felt following the unexpected release of Milloy, Brady genuinely appeared to appreciate the supportive structure that Belichick created around him, something that many young quarterbacks lack amid frequent roster turnover and coaching changes.
“Even today I look at some of these young players and they’re like, ‘What do you think of this guy in his third year or fourth year?’ In my mind I’m thinking, ‘Okay, he’s talented, who’s going to teach him how to evolve and grow?'” said Brady.
“I had Coach Belichick there to teach me,” he continued. “Every Tuesday we would meet and go through the entire defensive starting lineup, and their strengths and weaknesses, what we could attack, what he was watching and how I could see the things that he saw, so I could gain confidence and anticipate.”
With the score tied 29-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Patriots got the ball with time for one final drive against the Panthers as a potential overtime scenario loomed.
Just as they had done two years earlier, the Patriots went for the win, but it almost cost them dearly.
According to Brady, a heads-up play from wide receiver Troy Brown saved him from a potential turnover.
“I rolled to the left,” Brady said of the play. “We had Troy Brown, and then I had an in-cut coming from the backside. Well, I was throwing the in-cut, and Troy Brown comes out of nowhere, reaches up, and catches the ball between two guys. And I was like, holy shit! Where did that come from?
“In the instance of ‘rather be lucky than good,’ I was definitely lucky,” Brady acknowledged, “because there was no way I was completing the in-cut.”
The drive continued, with Brady eventually finding Deion Branch to put New England in field goal range. And just as he had done in Super Bowl XXXVI, Adam Vinatieri drilled the winning field goal.
Reflecting on the Super Bowl win, Harrison shared an emotional moment towards the end of the episode.
“To be able to win that for my mom,” Harrison explained, “all the sacrifices that she made, just being laughed at for the car that she had, growing up not really having a nice house, that drove me.”
“My mom was my inspiration,” Harrison added, “she’s passed away now, but she was my inspiration. I get my strength and my toughness from her. And everything I set out to do in football, I did it because of her.”
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox during football season.
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.