With 1:50 left in a snowy game in Foxboro on January 19th, 2002, one franchise was changed forever. Everyone knows that the Patriots benefited greatly from the “Tuck Rule,” but may there be a team besides the Raiders that missed a great opportunity? Sitting in my usual seat in the north end zone, I watched Brady drop back to pass, I saw Woodson coming from behind, and I saw Greg Biekert fall on the ball just before Jermaine Wiggins could get there. The unbelievable run that the Patriots were on was finally over. Then someone amazing happened, the call was reversed. It was an unreal moment, but as we approach the Bills game this week, I started to think about what would have happened if the play had never been reversed, and how both teams playing this Sunday may be drastically different if it did not.
Before we talk about what would have happened if it did not happen, let’s look at some possible scenarios as to why it would not have happened. First, there is the obvious one that Walt Coleman could have decided that it was a fumble and the Tuck Rule would not have been enforced, but this seems unlikely because he has since come out and said that it was an “obvious” call. So what if the play happened a few plays earlier, before the two-minute warning? The Patriots were out of timeouts and would not have been able to challenge the play, and since it was called a fumble on the field, the Raiders would have been able to kill the rest of the clock and send the Patriots packing. What if the music crew had not blasted “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins while Coleman was reviewing the play? I may not be able to prove that it made a difference, but something started happening when that song came on, I felt it, and I would be willing to bet that anyone there that night would tell you the same thing. So what if any of these three things did not happen on the night of January 19th? Clearly, the Patriots would not have won their first Super Bowl against the Rams, but would there have been bigger consequences?
The quarterback controversy had been brewing since Drew Bledsoe had come back to the team from the vicious hit that Mo Lewis inflicted in Week 2. I know that is hard to believe now, but people were split on who should start the Super Bowl after Brady went down in the AFC Championship and Bledsoe led them to a victory. So what if Bill had chosen wrong? What if he decided that he was going to go with the proven veteran over the young kid? What if the Patriots traded Brady to Buffalo instead of Bledsoe? I think that we can agree that both franchises would be very different now. Would Brady have led the Bills to the playoffs, something that Bledsoe or any Bills quarterback has not been able to do since? Would Bledsoe have been able to lead the Patriots to wins in Super Bowls 38 and 39? Would the Patriots have won a Super Bowl at all? What about replacing Bledsoe? Would the Patriots have found a quarterback capable of leading them to two other Super Bowl wins like 49 and 51 that Tom won?
The Bills have certainly had their challenges with quarterbacks. They have started 13 different QBs since 2002, they are: Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcolm, JP Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, and Nathan Peterman. That is a terrible list, not quite Browns level, who have started 24 QBs since 2002, but certainly not good. They have drafted 3 quarterbacks in the first 3 rounds, EJ Manuel, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards, and none of them have panned out. But what about the Patriots? They have actually drafted more quarterbacks, 8, since 2002, then the Bills, 6. You could argue that the 4 they have taken in the first 3 rounds, Jimmy G, Brissett, Ryan Mallet, and Kevin O’Connor are better overall than the 3 players the Bills have selected high, and two of theirs were in the first round. Players like Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel have also played decently in the league after being brought in to be backups for Brady. So there is at least hope that the Patriots would have had better luck drafting a quarterback than the Bills, but there is certainly no guarantee that they would have been good enough to compete for or win any Super Bowls.
The most interesting discussion to me is the legacy of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They are both widely considered the best coach and quarterback of all time, respectively, but is one of them more important? Who would have had more success without the other one? Even as Patriots fans, I think we can all admit that, without each other, they would not be as great as they are with each other. Aaron Rodgers is great, but without a great coach, he has 1 Super Bowl. And Bill will be the first to tell you, players play the game, without a truly great player at the game’s most important position, it’s hard to imagine him winning all 5 Super Bowls during his time here. Personally, the conversation about which of them is more important is akin to the conversation about the chicken and the egg. One is dependent upon the other. They both came to New England in 2000, and although Bill drafted Tom, the story has always been that it was former QB coach, Dick Rehbein, that lobbied for Brady, and was the real reason he was drafted at 199.
There is no telling what would have happened if Brady was in that deal instead of Bledsoe. Maybe he would have never succeeded under Gregg Williams, and with the curse that seems to be hanging over the Bills. Maybe Bledsoe would have been great, and Belichick would have molded him to his system, and then found a competent replacement for him when he retired. Or maybe the fortunes of these two franchises would be flipped. Sometimes people forget what it’s like to be a Bills fan. Let me give you a little history. They are the only team not to make the playoffs since 2000. Yes, that means the Lions and Browns have both made the playoffs and they have not. They have gone through 9 different head coaches, and have had only 2 winning seasons in that time. It is not easy being a Bills fan. Contrast that with the Patriots, who this past Sunday clinched its 17th consecutive winning season, and have won more than 12 games 11 times in that span, including 7 straight, with all indications that they headed for 8. However, for those of you that don’t remember, the history of the Patriots before Bill and Tom came was not exactly rosy. The Patriots had never won more than 11 games, only reaching that mark 5 times, before they got here. In fact, the Patriots have only 47 fewer wins in the 17 plus years since, 235, than they had in the 40 years before, 282. So, based on the history, there are serious questions whether the Patriots would have been able to overcome trading the wrong quarterback, and based on the Bills history, there are serious questions about they would’ve actually been successful, even with Brady. So who knows what would’ve happened if the trade had really gone down that way. All I know is that, as a Patriots fan, I am happy we never had to find out.