On a day in 2001 when the New England Patriots honored their longest-tenured player in team history, the man who would later shatter that record took the field for his first-ever start.
It was Bruce Armstrong Day at Foxborough Stadium, September 30, 2001. The offensive tackle played 212 games for the Patriots from 1987-2000. As one of only seven Patriots players to have their number retired, Armstrong was immediately inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame following his retirement after the 2000 season.
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It was a ceremonious occasion made somber by the Patriots’ quarterback situation. Star Drew Bledsoe had gone down a week earlier with a sheared blood vessel in his chest, the result of a thunderous hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis.
Instead of Bledsoe under center, it was the second-year backup, Tom Brady. Many felt Brady could’ve been given the starting job coming out of the 2001 preseason, but Bledsoe had just inked a record 10-year, $103 million deal that gave him ownership of the position.
Brady and the 0-2 Patriots faced a daunting task against the 2-0 Indianapolis Colts. New England’s divisional rival had started the season as one of the top offensive teams in the league thanks to young phenom Peyton Manning.
Brady vs. Manning: Part I
It’s incredible that Brady’s first start was also the opening iteration of his competitive rivalry with fellow future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Though the way the two played, it might not have felt like that at the time.
Brady’s first snap was anything but glorious, getting thrown down for a sack and a nine-yard loss. That would be the only time the Colts’ defense got to Brady on the day.
In the shadows of the under-construction Gillette Stadium, the Patriots deployed a conservative, run-heavy offense behind Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. Smith rushed for 94 yards and a pair of scores while Faulk added 48 yards and a touchdown.
Brady utilized his backs in the receiving game as well, dumping off five passes out of the backfield. Smith caught three of Brady’s tosses for 58 yards. Brady missed a chance at his first touchdown pass when a ball was knocked away from tight end Torrance Small in the third quarter and another when Smith was tackled inside the 10 on an impressive catch-and-run.
Brady finished 13 for 23 with 168 yards.
Defense Steals the Show
The true story of this game was New England’s suffocating defensive performance – a theme for the Patriots in 2001.
New England scored two of its touchdowns on interception returns. Safety Otis Smith’s return turned the momentum decidedly in New England’s favor. Just shy of the two-minute warning in the first half, Smith picked off Manning deep in Patriots’ territory, running a serpentine route all the way for a 78-yard score.
The defense struck again early in the fourth quarter. Ty Law picked off Manning in Colts territory, stumbling into the endzone on a 23-yard return.
Linebacker Roman Phifer also picked off Manning and forced a fumble from Edgerrin James, recovered by New England.
But it was Bryan Cox who really made some noise. Wearing his patented neck guard, Cox led the way with 11 tackles, including eight solo and two for a loss. His most memorable came early when he leveled Jerome Pathon on a catch over the middle.
Ironic Television Graphics
During the game which was aired on CBS, the network posted several graphics during the game that, in hindsight, turn some heads.
First, they detailed Tom Brady’s high school, Serra High in California, whose alums include Barry Bonds and Lynn Swann. Bonds had hit 69 home runs at that point in the 2001 MLB season. Brady has turned out to be arguably the school’s most famous alumnus.
Second, the broadcasters discuss which 0-2 teams had the best chance to make the playoffs – without mentioning New England. They ultimately went with Tennessee and Minnesota, both of whom missed the playoffs. Also noted was Washington perhaps being the worst, though the Redskins narrowly missed the postseason at 8-8.