Many people know the story of the emergence of Tom Brady as a second year QB coming in to replace the injured Drew Bledsoe after the hit by Mo Lewis while New England played the New York Jets. They also know all about the heroic kicks from Vinatieri and the eventual upset of the favored St. Louis Rams in the 2001 Super Bowl that garnered Brady an MVP award.
What many people don’t realize is just how dramatic the turnaround was on the entire team and that it wasn’t just Tom Brady who helped revolutionize this team into arguably the team of the decade in the 2000’s.
2000 New England Patriots
What went wrong? Well for starters, the team was incredibly unbalanced in terms of play selection on offense. Despite being a team that has largely favored the pass in every single season through 2009, the team was incredibly pass happy in 2000 with 565 pass attempts and 48 more if you add sacks to that total. The Patriots threw the ball 57% of the time throughout the season, again higher if you include sacks in pass attempts.
As a result of those pass attempts, Drew Bledsoe did not protect the ball well enough with 13 interceptions and 9 fumbles on the season. Although that was bad, even worse was his inability to throw the ball away or simply check down and avoid the critical sack. Bledsoe was sacked 45 times on 531 pass attempts for an average of 1 sack every 11 pass attempts, a woeful number to be certain. On the other hand, he threw 17 touchdown passes but again, that was a fairly low total for such a number of pass attempts.
The offensive line was not able to block at all for the running game and the running game suffered, resulting in more pass attempts than necessary since that was the only other option. The Patriots used a familiar method with two main running backs in Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond receiving the lions’ share of the carries. Together, they combined for 289 carries but only amassed 976 yards for a yard per carry of 3.38 and scored 5 touchdowns. Their longest run of the entire season was a mere 20 yards.
With poor quarterback play and running game, surely the receivers were decent, right? Not necessarily. Terry Glenn and Troy Brown combined for 162 catches for 1,907 yards good for a yard per catch of 11.77 and they scored 10 touchdowns. Unfortunately the Patriots had no depth and thus Kevin Faulk was relied upon as the third receiving option and had 51 catches for 465 yards but only 1 touchdown. The three tight ends were largely invincible, combining for 51 catches and only 458 yards.
One bright spot was the punt return game with Troy Brown, who averaged 12.9 yards per punt return on just 39 returns and scored 1 touchdown. Kevin Faulk only averaged 21.5 yards per kick return on 38 returns, a number that would have to be improved upon the next season.
Another bright spot was the kicking game of Adam Vinatieri and punter Lee Johnson, who averaged a very good 42.7 yards per punt and only had 1 punt blocked on 89 attempts. Adam Vinatieri showed he could kick for distance as he made 7 of his 8 field goal tries between 40 and 49 yards, as well as his incredible accuracy as he made 27 of his 33 total field goals for a success rate of 81.8%.
The defense showed flashes of potential but like the wide receiver position, simply did not have enough depth. The team totaled 29 sacks with Greg Spires and Willie McGinest combining for 12 of them, almost 50% of the team total. The defense also struggled to make the big play on turnovers as they had 10 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, and 12 fumble recoveries.
Along with their troubles on turnovers, the defense could not stop the passing game as they ranked 21st in yards allowed and 17th in touchdowns allowed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t get off the field either. They ranked a good 6th in yard per carry but ranked 21st in total rushing yards allowed. The defense let teams pass and run on them at will and it proved too much.
2001 New England Patriots
Well, all of that was horribly wrong in 2000 so what happened so good that turned around the team in a single season and resulted in a memorable Super Bowl upset?
The play selection was much more balanced as the offense had a perfect 50% balanced between pass plays and run plays called not including sacks as part of pass plays. Part of this was that Tom Brady was so young in terms of experience and part of it was that they had an actual feature back.
Tom Brady himself, despite being 24 years old, was remarkably efficient where Drew Bledsoe had not been although issues from the 2000 season still remained. Brady was unable to avoid being sacked and was sacked 41 times in only 413 attempts or 1 sack for every 10 pass attempts, a step down from Drew Bledsoe. He also threw 12 interceptions, just 1 fewer than Bledsoe in far fewer pass attempts. The one big advantage Tom had? His ability to make touchdown throws. He threw 18 touchdowns, 1 more than Bledsoe the year prior despite throwing 118 fewer pass attempts on the season.
The Patriots also had a running game thanks to the acquisition of Antowain Smith, which allowed Kevin Faulk to be utilized in his more familiar 3rd down role where his ability to block and catch the ball were more beneficiary. Smith had 287 carries, just 2 fewer than the combo in 2000, but ran for 1,157 yards good for a 4.03 yard per carry and 12 touchdowns. The improvement along the offensive line also carried over to Faulk who ran for 169 yards and averaged 4.12 yards per carry.
Unfortunately the lack of depth at the receiver position again appeared in 2001. Troy Brown largely carried the entire receiving group on his back despite the addition of David Patten who would give the Patriots 51 catches for 749 yards and 4 touchdowns. The running backs and fullback again played the role of third receiver, combining for 87 catches and just 679 yards. Once again, the tight ends were rarely used with Jermaine Wiggins and Rod Rutledge combining for 19 catches and 168 yards.
Once again, the return game was up and down. Troy Brown was extremely impressive as the punt returner averaging 14.2 yards per return on just 29 punts and scoring 2 touchdowns. Kevin Faulk on 33 returns actually regressed down to just 20.1 yards per return on kickoffs though.
Adam Vinatieri and Ken Walter, who replaced Lee Johnson after 5 games, were both solid. Vinatieri made 24 of 30 field goals although his accuracy from 40-49 yards dropped making just 7 of 12 kicks. Walter averaged 40.1 yards per punt on 49 attempts but it also was a drop off from Johnson who had a 43.5 average on just 24.
The biggest difference was the aggressiveness and depth on defense, however. The team had 39 sacks, 10 more than the previous season. Bobby Hamilton, Willie McGinest, and Anthony Pleasant combined for 19 sacks, just 10 shy of the total throughout the 2000 season. The defense also had 22 interceptions, an improvement of 12 largely thanks to the addition of Otis Smith who had 5, half of last year’s total. The team also forced 12 fumbles and recovered 13.
The defense showed gradual improvement although like in other areas of the team, there were still some flaws that carried over. They were 24th in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards allowed. The big key, however, was that they ranked 6th in pass touchdowns allowed and 4th in rushing touchdowns allowed. The Patriots scored 36 offensive touchdowns but allowed their opponent to only score 22. Compare that to 2000 where the offense scored 27 but allowed their opponents to score 35. The 2001 Patriots defense managed almost a complete inverse of that.
Also the Patriots were extremely good down the stretch. Aside from winning 9 straight including the Super Bowl, the defense allowed an average of just 13.78 points per game. They did not allow an opponent to score more than 17 points and had a 4 game stretch where they allowed their opponent to score 13 points or fewer. They also won the turnover battle down that stretch with a +17 by having 8 turnovers themselves and 25 takeaways from their opponents.
Although Tom Brady was a small improvement over Drew Bledsoe in some areas, the turnaround of the 2001 New England Patriots should largely rest on the shoulders of the improvement at offensive line, the addition of a running back who could solely handle the workload, and the opportunistic defense that locked down in the red zone and capitalized on the turnovers they got.
Yes, the Patriots did get extremely lucky with the correctly called Tuck Rule in the Oakland game but blame Oakland for not remembering they had to actually play defense in overtime and that they still had a good chance to win that game.