Here’s what I remember about the first time we saw Tom Brady play an official NFL game.
It was Thanksgiving 2000, the Patriots in year one of the Bill Belichick era stunk, some among us still thought Michael Bishop was an option at quarterback rather than just an option quarterback, and I was pissed off and high.
Oh, not high on anything illicit, mind you. Just that usual buzz from tryptophan on the greatest holiday of all: But during that particular season, the hazy malaise that engulfs you after gorging on too much turkey seemed to affect the Patriots as well.
That might be a tolerable effect during a family game of touch football. But for an NFL team to perform as if it had breakfasted on a meal of white meat and drumsticks, that was wholly unacceptable.
During their 34-9 loss to Charlie Batch and the Lions, the Patriots played with all the intensity and passion of your uncle trying to steal a nap on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner.
It was unacceptable and disheartening, their ninth loss against just three wins, and it was more of the same. I mean, has there ever been a sequence of paragraphs that accidentally sums up the late-career Drew Bledsoe experience better than the following, which are plucked from Nick Cafardo’s game story in the Globe (headlined Thanks for Nothing: Patriots Have No Touchdowns and No Chance Against Lions) on November 24, 2000?
The Patriots came out in a five-receiver set and called nine straight pass plays. Bledsoe was terrific, completing three passes to [Terry] Glenn (two of them for 17 and 21 yards) and scampering 9 yards for a first down on third and 6 from his 20. The Patriots had first and goal at the 3, but three running plays couldn’t get it done.
On third down, Bledsoe tried running to the left but former Patriot Corwin Brown made a touchdown-saving hit at the 1. The Patriots lined up to go for it on fourth down, but as the crowd noise intensified, they were called for delay of game, pushing the ball back to the 6 and bringing on [Adam] Vinatieri.
“The radio system in my helmet went down,” said Bledsoe, “so we went to the hand signals, which means [John] Friesz has to get it over to me. That cost us time, and that was a factor.”
Let’s see: A hot streak of brilliant passing. A drive falling short. And an utter lack of urgency up to and including the excuse of technical difficulties. That’s the Bledsoe Years (post-Bill Parcells) all wrapped up in one tidy little aborted drive.
Little did we know then that we were getting the first glimpse of a future that would be fulfilling beyond what a Patriots fan would have dreamed. The quarterback who would become everything we wanted Bledsoe to be would play that day, and we would barely notice.
Fifteen years ago this Sunday, Tom Brady made his debut against the Lions, the same team he’ll be facing in his 204th career game and 202d career start.
That relief effort was one of just two in his career. The other came the following September, of course, set in motion by a Jets linebacker named Mo Lewis and his car-crash of a collision with Bledsoe’s torso. It changed everything.
It’s a nice piece of symmetry, an anniversary worth acknowledging … and it’s pretty amazing to look back now and remember what an afterthought it was — what an afterthought Brady was.
There had been talk that Brady might start the game because of a lingering thumb injury on Bledsoe’s passing hand. But Bledsoe gutted it out — something Belichick acknowledged as courageous after the game — and so Brady entered with less than five minutes remaining.
The Patriots trailed by the eventual final margin after Bledsoe had just hit a wide-open Bryant Westbrook for a 101-yard touchdown. The problem, of course, is that Westbrook was a Lions defensive back.
Brady’s entrance warranted mention in the 18th paragraph of Cafardo’s story:
Then came the Westbrook interception, on a pass intended for Glenn. Bledsoe gallantly fought to make the tackle but had no chance to catch Westbrook, who danced into the end zone. Bledsoe got a handshake from Bill Belichick and was told Tom Brady was taking over.
Well, not quite in the way he’d be told Brady was taking over a year later …
Brady got one more mention in the paper the next day — he was the fourth line in the second deck of the Patriots notebook, earning acknowledgment after updates on Ted Johnson’s health, Bledsoe’s thumb, and Willie McGinest’s feud with the nightclub Jillian’s.
Tom Brady, who attended Michigan, was the quarterback for the Patriots’ final series, completing 1 of 3 attempts for 6 yards.
When asked if he put Brady in against the Lions because he’d played at Michigan, Belichick kept his answer succinct: “Nope.”
The record shows that Brady’s first official completion was to tight end Rod Rutledge, who would catch five more passes from the quarterback in his career, or roughly what Rob Gronkowski catches in a half these days. He actually had a completion to J.R. Redmond a play earlier, but it was wiped out by a Damien Woody penalty.
“That was a long time ago,” said Brady Wednesday. “It was in the Silverdome. We didn’t play very well, which is probably why I was in there. It was mop-up duty.”
It was a long time ago. The Patriots starters that day included Rob Holmberg — he was a linebacker, in case you forgot — Shockmain Davis and Patrick Pass.
Current Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford — the closest thing there is to a Bledsoe of this era — was 12 years old and wondering whether his right arm was stronger than the left one attached to that Kershaw kid from down the street.
At the time, it was a disheartening day to be a Patriots fan. While we ate turkey, they played like turkeys, again. Belichick was still a mystery. Bledsoe still an enigma.
And when the future of the franchise wandered onto the field with 3 minutes and 55 seconds left, the day’s cause already lost, we had no idea how much we had to be grateful for.