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Alternate Jersey: Bye Bye Brady

Welcome to the first of two new exciting editions of Alternate Jersey! We’ll be examining ripple effects that led to the current success of our two Super Bowl contenders. In this piece: The New England Patriots

The Patriots are the most successful franchise in NFL history and possibly the most successful in any sport period. With eight Super Bowl appearances from 2001 to 2017, Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick have created a stranglehold on the league the likes of which the NFL has ever seen. Their success has spanned over two decades, a feat no team has been able to pull off while also attending as many championship battles as they have.

During this time span, it’s hard to find a real hiccup in their long history. Tom Brady doesn’t get injured? You never hear of Matt Cassel. Miss on drafting Gronk? They’ve done more with less. Go 19–0? Well, Brady still gets hurt. We went combing through all 17 years of the evil empire’s history and can only point to one crucial turning point that completely changed the entire face of the NFL and the sports world in general.

2001. Week 2. The New England Patriots were facing their rival New York Jets. During a scramble play, Drew Bledsoe bailed out of the pocket after feeling pressure from a typically swift Jets pass rush. Bledsoe gained close to eight yards on the run before he was crushed linebacker Mo Lewis. Bledsoe was immediately done for the season with a sheared blood vessel. This prompted the Patriots to turn to their second-year sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan, Tom Brady. The Patriots lost to the Jets, but Brady led his Patriots to the playoffs and the Patriots first ever Super Bowl win. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what if Drew Bledsoe avoided the hit?

Analyzing the video of the hit, you see a few opportunities for Bledsoe to avoid the wrath of Mo Lewis. So we’re going to say that he steps out of bounds after about a six-yard gain, a full two yards before Lewis and his shoulder come careening in to change the sports world as we know it. “But is there a chance Bledsoe could get hurt again?” Well, sure, but remember that we here work with things like probability based on statistical evidence. Is Robert Griffin III getting hurt in an alternate universe? Pretty likely. Assuming Bledsoe gets hurt again? Not as likely. At least not in the way Mo hit him.

So we’re going to assume that Bledsoe makes it for a good long while. How long? Well, Bledsoe had just signed a record-breaking 10 year, 103 million dollar contract with the Patriots. New England was in for the long haul. The REALLY long haul. For some context, Bledsoe was drafted in 1993. This contract would have guaranteed him to play through 2011. Bledsoe would be pushing a career that Tom Brady now enjoys. But would he be as successful? Would he spend that entire time in a Patriots uniform?

The first thing we have to unravel is the season that Bledsoe missed in 2001. Bill Belichick had just come off a 5–11 season with the Patriots with Bledsoe’s stat line looking not so hot. 17 touchdowns against 13 interceptions for a little over 3,200 yards. Yes, that was worth a ten-year extension to the Patriots. It was a different time.

2001 was not off to a great start. The Patriots had already suffered a 17–23 loss to the Bengals and, before Drew literally almost died on the field, it did not look like the Patriots were going to be able to score against the mighty Jets defense. So Bledsoe is already off to an 0–2 start. Keep in mind that the Patriots didn’t all of a sudden become a force with Tom Brady under center. The Pats’ season with Tom started with a 5–5 record until Brady caught fire and went on a six-game tear through the league. It took about two months and some fresh blood to really get New England moving, but with Bledsoe, you kind of have to work with what you got as he is your franchise guy.

Under Bledsoe, adjusting for his assumed career trajectory, we have to take some wins away from the upstart underdogs. Those losses will include an overtime loss to San Diego and losses to the entirety of the AFC East. This puts the Bledsoe Bunch at 7–9 in year two of the Belichick era. An improvement, but still no playoff appearance. This leaves the Dolphins as the kings of the AFC East and gives the Jets an extra leg up against the Ravens in playoff seeding while opening the door for the Seahawks to sneak in during their final year as an AFC team.

Speaking of:

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers
  2. Miami Dolphins
  3. Oakland Raiders
  4. New York Jets
  5. Baltimore Ravens
  6. Seattle Seahawks

Yeah, this gets bananas. The easiest win comes in Oakland, where the Gruden coached Raiders knock out the Seahawks with ease. The Jets and defending champion Ravens get into a defensive slugfest that just barely favors the better quarterbacked Jets squad, sending Oakland to Miami and New York to Pittsburgh. We erase the tuck rule game and place the Raiders squarely in beautiful Miami where once again stellar quarterback play from Rich Gannon blows them past Miami. The Jets then dispatch the Steelers during a particularly awful game by Kordell Stewart.

Your AFC Championship is now between the Raiders and the Jets. Just like in our real world, the high flying offense of Oakland dismantles the young Jets squad and propels Oakland into the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, a team looking to claim their second title in three years. They do. Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf walk away with yet another Lombardi trophy and a dynasty on their minds.

Drew, naturally, does not get traded to Buffalo. The Bills, having the 4th pick, don’t really have a slew of quarterbacks to look at since David Carr and Joey Harrington will have already been off the board. They dip into free agency and sign a quarterback who is not as good as Drew Bledsoe and still end up with a fourth place finish so who cares? The real treat comes from a revitalized Bledsoe who now has three years of the Belichick experience under his belt and a much better defense to support him as Bill builds up his forces.

When you compare Bledsoe in Buffalo to Brady’s second year as the starter, Bledsoe actually ends up with more yards than the young Brady (fewer touchdowns and more interceptions, but still). Plugging Bledsoe’s increase into the Patriots new and improved squadron…he still comes up short of a playoff berth. Keep in mind that Brady threw four more touchdowns than Bledsoe and still missed the playoffs. Bledsoe, much as he improved, still gets New England to 8–8, allowing the Jets to once again claim the AFC East. The Raiders lose their second Super Bowl in a row, but this time to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Eyes are now turning to Belichick, the supposed guru who was given the keys to the franchise and was snatched away from the Jets in order to lead New England out of mediocrity. What does he have to show for it with Bledsoe? No playoff appearances, and having to watch the team he didn’t sign with go to an AFC Championship while taking the division away from him as well. Similarly, eyes are looking at Bledsoe. He has yet to make the playoffs since signing his giant contract. In the NFL, on average, a coach who fails to make the playoffs during his team’s tenure tends to last somewhere between two and four years depending on the capabilities of the team. Bledsoe, an interception machine in his later career, is clearly becoming a hindrance for Belichick.

This brings us to 2003.

A golden year for the Patriots. A high caliber defense kept fully intact thanks to Belichick, and Brady enjoying his best year so far. Problem is, Bledsoe had one his worst years ever in 2003, going for 11 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Worse still, he started every game that year. It wasn’t even cut short due to injury or benching. Brady threw for 13 more touchdowns than Bledsoe. Now granted, Drew was in Buffalo with a lousy team at the time, so we’ll give him some benefit for having a better coach and team. Bledsoe ends up costing his squad three games, bumping the Patriots from a 14–2 record to an 11–5 record. This is perceived as fine as the defense bails out the aging quarterback, and the Patriots are still able to win the division.

But we do have to scramble up the playoffs accordingly

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Indianapolis Colts
  3. New England Patriots
  4. Baltimore Ravens
  5. Tennesee Titans
  6. Denver Broncos

The Broncos weren’t a huge threat in 2003, so Belichick’s defense is able to do away with their ilk and the Titans still edge the Ravens. The Patriots now go toe to toe with Peyton Manning’s Colts but without Brady to shred the Colts defense. Peyton is instead carving up the Patriots as the Chiefs hold back the Titans. Manning’s Colts beat the Chiefs and send themselves to the Super Bowl for the first time with Manning under center to face Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers! After several simulations, the big winners are the Panthers as Delhomme gets to enter the twilight of his career as a Super Bowl Champion!

With this performance, Belichick saves his coaching job for an extra year, but it’s becoming increasingly evident where their issue lies: Drew Bledsoe. Belichick has proven time and time again how willing he is to trade a player in order to further his football team and in 2004, we have rock solid evidence that the Patriots were interested in moving up in the draft after swapping with the Ravens to land Vince Wilfork.

But this time Belichick has his eyes on a different prize: a quarterback. Tom Brady, having not been able to really play a game behind Bledsoe due to Bledsoe not being injured nor playing bad enough to justify benching, simply sees his rookie contract expire. He gets shuffled around a bit and doesn’t get an opportunity to show what he’s made of. He suffers the fate of so many sixth-round quarterbacks before him despite his college pedigree and promise. Which brings us back to the Patriots.

The Patriots make a dramatic swap with the Ravens yet again, this time throwing in the 32nd pick along with Drew Bledsoe. The Ravens, desperate for any hint of stability at quarterback, take the deal. Who do the Patriots take with the 21st pick in a stacked 2004 draft class? J.P. Losman of course! Confused? That’s okay. During Belichick’s tangos with the oft-maligned Bills starter, you would hear him compliment his arm strength and mobility: qualities he admires. When the 2007 Patriots were on their historic undefeated run, Brady actually named Losman as a potential threat to their record given his performance in narrow games. If Brady is out of the picture and Bill needs a fresh start, the youthful Losman could be just the ticket to getting his team on track.

Losman as a rookie does not inspire right away. We’ll give him some bonus points for being in a Belichick coached system, but even the best systems need the right parts to work. Aided by a championship defense, the young rookie gets some much-needed relief and takes the team to a 10–6 record and a wild card appearance, giving away the division to a now 12–4 Jets team.


  1. Pittsburgh Steelers
  2. Indianapolis Colts
  3. San Diego Chargers
  4. New York Jets
  5. Denver Broncos
  6. New England Patriots

The Pats defense holds off San Diego as the Jets tear Denver apart. Losman gets grossly overpowered by Pittsburgh, and the Colts send the Jets packing with relative ease. This leaves Manning’s Colts to battle with rookie Roethlisberger which immediately books Peyton a trip to his second Super Bowl! This time he wins it as the Colts just manage to edge the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

From here we’ll fast forward. 2005 and 2006 result in a missed playoff year and a Wild Card loss, respectively. Losman and the Patriots have the same issues that have plagued Belichick: great defensive play with average to poor quarterbacks who can’t hang in the playoffs. In 2006, Belichick parts ways with Losman, but his playoff pedigree keeps him as the Patriots’ coach. With not many options in the draft and even fewer options in free agency, Belichick turns inwardly and has a quarterback competition between Matt Cassel and Vinny Testaverde.

Cassel’s youth wins out and the competent quarterback takes over for the no longer legendary 2007 season. Now, under Cassel, the Patriots managed to go 11–5 during his year as a starter. Granted, he hasn’t had Tom Brady to study under, but he has been able to learn from Belichick who we know can get a lot out of Cassel. Thus, while not going undefeated, the Patriots do enjoy their best season yet under the formerly unknown Cassel, going 12–4 under, you guessed it, a strong defense and a big-armed quarterback.

Which mixes up the 2007 season to:

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. New England Patriots
  3. San Diego Chargers
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers
  5. Jacksonville Jaguars
  6. Tennessee Titans

We haven’t done much here, just made some rearrangements in the top seeds. The Jaguars beat Pittsburgh and the Chargers beat Tennessee. Where we differ now is in the divisional round. The Patriots are able to fend off San Diego while Manning continues his reign of terror in the AFC over the Titans. This means we FINALLY have our first Belichick v. Manning battle in the AFC Championship. Advantage: Peyton. He outshines the young Cassel and goes off to do battle with his younger brother Eli in the Super Bowl. Eli’s scrappy Giants fight hard, but after our usual number of simulations, Peyton hoists his second Lombardi in his third Super Bowl appearance.

Belichick now believes he’s struck gold. After reaching the conference championship with Cassel, he has a year of experience to reflect on and comes back as a force in 2008. Cassel gets his two close losses back and the Pats get a  13–3 record. Now instead of missing the playoffs, they grab the top seed out from under everyone’s’ noses. So here we go again!

  1. New England Patriots
  2. Tennessee Titans
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers
  4. San Diego Chargers
  5. Indianapolis Colts
  6. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins don’t really stand a chance against the Steelers so that dump is quick and painful for Miami. The now defending champion Colts are still upset by Philip Rivers and the Chargers, sending Pittsburgh to Tennessee and San Diego to once again get thwarted by New England. Pittsburgh still beats the Titans, of course, putting the AFC Championship, not in Pittsburgh, but in Foxborough. Matt Cassel rises to the occasion in a big way, fending off the Steelers and taking Belichick’s Patriots to the Super Bowl for the first time. And what luck! They’re facing the Cardinals! And by “what luck” I mean, what luck for Arizona as they pull off the upset against Cassel since they don’t have to worry about James Harrison or Santonio Holmes. Arizona brings home their first Lombardi.

Cassel re-signs with “starter of forever” level money and Belichick fully commits. In addition, the Patriots are now hitting that sweet spot where they keep succeeding as their division starts tripping up. Drew Bledsoe has now announced his retirement as the Ravens replace him with Joe Flacco officially. Cassel is good, there is no question, but he is not Brady-level talented. The Patriots will maintain a level of success, but I will let you all know here and now: Cassel does not win them another Super Bowl. We’ll jump ahead to the end of Cassel’s assumed contract in 2013.

Instead of deliberately moving on from him entirely after no Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots opt to franchise tag him in 2013 and bide their time for 2014’s draft class. Once there, Cassel is officially released as the Patriots secure a high enough spot to grab Derek Carr in the first round. This does mean the Patriots miss out on the Super Bowl against Seattle in 2015, their spot instead goes to Andrew Luck’s Colts where the Seahawks win their second in a row. The Patriots with Carr plunge themselves into Belichick’s second Super Bowl in 2016 against the Falcons, but the Falcons don’t blow their 28–3 lead this time and just continue to steamroll the young Derek Carr.

This brings us to 2017. A slow year for Carr to be sure, but with the Patriots weapons, the team still reaches the AFC Championship in a relatively weak AFC. I say relatively because Carr is not getting past the defensive powerhouse of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 4th quarter while down by 10. Instead, your Super Bowl matchup would have been the Jaguars and the Eagles.

Bledsoe taking that shot that fateful week in 2001 changed everything for the NFL. Without Brady, it suffices to say that Belichick could have found himself in quarterback limbo. Without a single Super Bowl win, he could have been forced to watch Peyton Manning rule the league while he settles for doing just enough to stay employed a la Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, or Marvin Lewis. Brady and Belichick together are a dream match. And if Drew Bledsoe had just gotten out of bounds a few yards earlier, we would have an entirely different league.

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