FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Inside a flag-waving stadium that celebrated the nation’s resilience while mourning the loss of thousands, coach Bill Belichick was in a grumpy mood.
His New England Patriots were 0-1, preparing to face the New York Jets, the franchise he had departed by awkwardly resigning as “HC of the NYJ” at a news conference on Jan. 4, 2000.
He was 5-12 as the Patriots’ coach, and the fan base was restless. This was Sept. 23, 2001, the first game after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Foxboro Stadium was thick with myriad emotions. Fans cried and cheered.
Patriotism was bigger than football.
But for Belichick, it was red, white and gloom.
During the pregame, he chatted up Jets coach Herman Edwards. Alongside them was Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, who recalled the conversation this way:
“I’m walking out on the field and Belichick is walking out with Herman, and they’re talking. He’s standing right next to me, and Herman said, ‘How ya doing?’ Bill said, ‘We’re horrible, we f—ing stink.’
“He said, ‘The quarterback [Drew Bledsoe], I don’t know [about him].’ They lost their opener to Cincinnati and I’ll tell you his exact quote. Belichick said, ‘I’m not going to make it through the year. He’ll f—ing fire me before the year is over.’ That’s what I heard.”
Everybody knows what happened a few hours later and for the next 19 years. Bledsoe was injured, Tom Brady was the anonymous relief pitcher who became the GOAT and the Patriots built a dynasty that includes six Super Bowl championships.
That part of the story is well-documented. The forgotten part is what led to Sept. 23, 2001, how Belichick — now considered the greatest coach in NFL history — was so down on his prospects that he was convinced he would be fired by Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
As Belichick prepares his current Patriots (2-5) to face the Jets (0-8) at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, this is the story of his lost season in 2000 when the Patriots played losing football but managed to change the direction of the franchise under their hard-driving coach.
How it started
Details of the Patriots acquiring Belichick in a trade from the Jets, his background as a defensive assistant in New England in 1996, and prior tenure as Browns’ coach from 1991 to 1995 have been well covered. He arrived with a plan that sent shock waves through the locker room and coaching offices. Here is what players and staff who were on that 2000 team recall:
Damien Woody, offensive lineman: “The first night we had training camp, Bill comes in front of the team and he’s just like, ‘Look, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t ask for any breaks because there won’t be any breaks. Just put your head down and go to work.’ And then he just leaves. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what is about to happen?’”
Charlie Weis, offensive coordinator: “It was [to] get people indoctrinated into the way Bill does business.”
Ty Law, defensive back: “[Former coach] Pete Carroll had a different energy, was always upbeat. A lot of people didn’t take to it, but I loved it. … So when Bill comes in, everything was different. It wasn’t as free as it was.”
Belichick, on the first day of 2000 training camp: “I know everyone comes to camp with their own personal expectations and team expectations, but there’s going to have to be a significant price we’re going to have to pay to get those things done. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears ahead. That’s what players need to focus on. The dessert comes later on.”
Scott Pioli, vice president of player personnel: “That year was about installing a culture. If you weren’t all-in, you were out.”
Brad Seely, special-teams coach retained from Carroll’s staff: “It really was one of those feeling-out situations. We had a lot of new guys as coaches together, so we had to figure out how to work with each other, what everybody wanted from each other.”
Chad Cascadden, a former Jets linebacker who signed with New England that spring: “The conditioning test; there were a number of different guys that did not make it. The punishment was you couldn’t practice until you passed it. You had guys having to retake the test every day until they passed. It was like, ‘Wow! Come on!’”
Tedy Bruschi, linebacker, on the first day of 2000 training camp: “Vacation’s over. It’s time to win games.”
Woody: “Let me tell you, it was the hardest training camp I’ve ever been a part of. It was brutal, like BRUUUUTAL! We were just slugging it out. It seemed like every night a guy was retiring, a veteran guy. Bill would address the team before the night meetings and he would say, ‘Such-and-such person retired,’ and he’d move on. Like a recurring theme.”
Matt Chatham, linebacker: “That was one of the hardest years of my life. It was a test of attrition. Monday practices during the season. Incredibly stressful. You didn’t go home and say ‘Wow, I’m in the NFL!’ It was more like, ‘Holy s—, how much longer am I going to be doing this?’”
Otis Smith, cornerback: “Everybody had to abide by the same rules. If [quarterback] Drew [Bledsoe] screws up, Bill would get on him just like if Otis screws up. He would put it on the big screen and say, ‘This is why we’re not winning, because we’re not performing at the right time. When it’s your time to make a play, make that play.’ That was the culture he was trying to set and it didn’t matter who the player was.”
Cascadden: “The practice field was a half-mile down the road from the locker room and we’d pile in cars to get there. It was crazy. You’d see guys in pickup trucks with 10 guys hanging out the back. ‘How is this remotely safe?’ I remember Bob Kraft almost hit me with his car one time.”
Woody: “He was just weeding people out. We had a very veteran team, and it was a way of shedding dead weight, guys who had been in the league a long time. His method was, ‘You know what? I’m going to put these guys through hell and there will be people who fall by the wayside. The guys who survive, those are the guys we’ll ride it out with and see how they do.’”
Belichick, on the first day of 2000 training camp: “The main things I’ll ask of them, and be pretty firm on, are that they be on time, that they are attentive, be in condition, and give 100 percent effort. If they do those things, it will run pretty smoothly, and if they don’t, it’s very difficult to manage a group this size when we don’t have that type of cooperation and conformity.”
Chatham: “If I remember correctly, and maybe I’m exaggerating, they cut down to maybe 47 players. Generally teams will cut down to 51-52, and then add a couple players from other teams. There were several of us who weren’t with the team in camp, and then showed up, practiced for three days, and lined up to play against Tampa in that first game. My head was spinning.”
Pioli: “The salary cap was a disaster. When we got there, we were $10.5 million over the cap and we had only 41 players under contract. Think about that. There were some weeks where we had only 51 guys on the roster, but some of that was a message. One of the things we wanted to eliminate was entitlement. You weren’t handed jobs, you had to earn them.”
On Jan. 4, 2000, Bill Belichick resigned as head coach of the Jets just a day after it was announced that he would succeed Bill Parcells.
Woody: “We had to dig ourselves out of the salary cap and we were a team in transition. We were a bad team but you could tell the way he taught. He didn’t let any detail go. I’ve always said I’ve learned more about the game of football from Bill than anyone I’ve ever been associated with.”
Curtis Martin, Patriots and Jets running back: “What I also think was good for him was he had his stint in Cleveland. Then he came to New England and went to New York. He’s one of those mad genius-type of guys who will just recognize all his mistakes that he made when he was at Cleveland and come back and be able to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s that he realized he may not have been able to do the first go-round.”
Smith: “I don’t want to say a sacrifice year, but it was kind of like that. It took us a while. We were trying to make a cake, and trying to make it taste good. We were stirring and blending, using different ingredients, trying to figure out the right recipe for us. It was a tough year, man, until we figured it out.”
Woody: “The one thing I took away from 2000 was how brutally awful that camp was. It was relentless. It felt like Bill had his foot on your throat the whole training camp. … I tend to use that year for anything that I have going on in my life. I always tell myself, ‘If I can survive that, there’s nothing else out here I can’t survive.’”
Impressions of Brady as a rookie
While Brady has famously gone from sixth-round pick (No. 199 overall) to one of the game’s all-time greats, there were no indications that would be the case in 2000 (he completed one pass that season in mop-up duty), or even into the start of the next season.
Seely: “The first thing I remember thinking about Tom Brady was that he wasn’t very good. We would have opportunity practice at the end, and we’d have a 7-on-7 drill in the red zone, or 1-on-1s. Whenever Tom was throwing the ball, we’d always bet on the defensive backs.”
Weis: “We had Bledsoe, [John] Friesz, [Michael] Bishop and Tommy all on the roster. Bledsoe was obviously the starting quarterback and behind Bledsoe you had a veteran in Friesz and a talented athlete in Bishop. Michael could make every throw known to mankind, but he was very raw. Even though we were intrigued by many of the things he did athletically, he just wasn’t ready to run our offense at that time. Friesz, he was definitely on the downside of his career, but he really brought a lot to the meeting room, because he was sharp mentally. And Tommy, we drafted, and he was kind of wet behind the ears.”
Cascadden: “I’d like to say I saw it from Brady, but to be honest, I don’t remember much about TB when I was there. He was fourth string. He wasn’t even third string. And they carried him on the roster, which was very strange. … We really didn’t see a ton of him.”
Woody: “We had Drew Bledsoe. He had that big $100 million deal, so Drew wasn’t going to go anywhere that year.”
Law: “I knew him because he was a Michigan guy, so I took an interest in him. Any time you get a guy from your college, you always want to make sure you look out for him. And the thing with Brady, from day one, he came in and put the work in. Everyone knows who the first one was in the building. That was me. I would go run at 6:30 every morning, four-to-five miles down the road before practice, and when I was coming in, guess who else was? The second or third guy — there’s Brady. But at the end of the day, I was going home. Brady stayed. He had that drive and fire and competitiveness.”
Seely: “[Brady] was always the guy we had to yell at on the field, ‘Come on! We’re having a meeting. You’re going to be late.’ Because he always stayed out there and did extra. He was self-made from that rookie year to what he’s become. You would say that’s not the same player.”
Weis: “One of the things he liked to do as the year went on, after practice he would get guys that were at his status and would try to go back and rehash [the] script of that day. It was very interesting to watch, because even though he wasn’t getting to play in our eyes, he was getting ready to play in his eyes. He was treating it like an opportunity to get reps, with guys that were kind of in a similar status as him.”
Smith: “He was always competitive, always talking a lot of s— in practice about scorching us and doing this and that. He was that guy from day one.”
Woody: “The thing about Brady that year was, man, you could see it in him. Those traits that he has displayed his whole career, it was always there.”
Seely: “But at the time, we were thinking, ‘I don’t know if this guy will ever be good enough to play in the NFL.’ Let alone become what he became. You have to give him a lot of credit, just from his work ethic. That’s what I took away from that year with Tom — I didn’t think he was an NFL player, then he became one of, if not the greatest, of all time.”
Weis: “One of the biggest things in history was how the quarterback room evolved from Bledsoe, Friesz, Bishop and Tommy at the start of the year, to having only two people standing at the end — Bledsoe and Tommy. But there was a huge separation between them. [VP of player personnel] Scott [Pioli] and Bill felt they had to get a veteran quarterback to be No. 2. That person was Damon Huard [in 2001].”
Forgettable games along the way
The Patriots lost their first four games before Belichick picked up his first win on the road against the Denver Broncos, 28-19. Notable losses came in Belichick’s return to Cleveland (19-11) and a Thanksgiving clunker at Detroit (34-9) in which Brady completed his first career pass in garbage time.
Law: “I think we had good players, but cohesively we sucked. Any time you go 5-11, and you’re a professional football team, you’re not very good.”
Chatham: “I didn’t even know my teammates’ names. Having s— written all over the tape on my wrists to try to remember what I was doing because I had just gotten there at the end of training camp. I was young. There was several other new guys in the building like me. It was just kind of like wide-eyed.”
Smith: “It was very difficult to go to work, but we had to stay the course and believe in what we were trying to put together. Starting off as slow as we did was very, very difficult.”
Woody: “It was a rough year, man. Bill believed in hitting and more hitting all throughout the year. Even for me, a second-year guy, young, I was even telling my wife, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to last in the league if this is how it’s going to be my whole career.’”
Chatham: “If you go back and look at the roster turnover in 2000, it was an every Monday morning roster bingo type of thing. Guys in and out the door. There were a lot of players that came and went, for a week or two. It was very much Bill and Scott just seeing who would buy in, who could play their way, who was willing to go through this.”
Woody: “0-4 — we were bad. We were at a crossroads. We had a lot of old veterans and Bill cut a lot of those guys. A lot of guys that were really good under [Bill] Parcells. We just didn’t have a lot of talent.”
Smith: “I think our lowest point was losing to the Jets twice. Losing to Cleveland was bad, but losing to the Jets twice was hard because, if you remember, in ’99 we were all at the Jets. They beat us in New Jersey and then we go to New England and the Jets kick our ass. I guess they felt it solidified themselves in terms of what they did, letting some of us go and Bill not accepting the [Jets] job.”
Seely: “The reason I remember playing the Browns was that it was Belichick going back to Cleveland for the first time since he coached there. It was just a bad day for us. I just remember that game, coming back on the plane, getting back in the office and everybody sitting around and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Really there wasn’t anything we could do other than keep working and trying to win more games.”
Law: “I can’t recall that being a big story, because think about it, Patriots-Cleveland. What would Deion [Sanders] say? ‘Ain’t nobody care! Nobody gives a s—.’ I don’t think that was a big deal to the players. It definitely didn’t affect us.”
Seely: “I also remember it was a long Thanksgiving day in Detroit. We couldn’t do anything right in that game.”
Law: “We got our ass whipped on Thanksgiving. I don’t know if we were thinking about the turkey at home. We weren’t used to that.”
Smith: “You get some of your naysayers: ‘Oh, they suck, they need a new team, we need new players, we need a new coach.’ You hear some of that stuff, too. We were able to feed off of that, too.”
Ivan Fears, WRs/RBs coach: “The one thing I’d say about that year, we just couldn’t make enough plays in crunch time. That was a big deal. When you needed somebody to make plays, we just didn’t have enough weapons. That was, of course, our toughest year. I thought we corrected that and got on to a new plateau the next year.”
In the second-to-last game of the season, at Buffalo, three players (Law, Troy Brown and Terry Glenn) stayed behind after the game because they didn’t want to fly in high winds. They took a bus to Canada that night, Law got separated, and they all ended up in the headlines for the wrong reason. The Patriots lost their final game of the season at home to Miami 27-24, which finished in bizarre fashion with referee Johnny Grier calling both teams back onto the field for one final play well after they thought the game was over. It was a strange ending to the season.
Springboard to excellence
Taking lumps in 2000 ultimately led the Patriots to a bumper crop of free agents in the offseason, and after a 5-5 start to the 2001 season, they never lost again, winning Super Bowl XXXVI.
Pioli: “It was critical for so many reasons. The lost season? (Laughs) Those that lived it and became champions, nothing was lost on us that last year. Five-and-11 felt like five years. People don’t understand the magnitude of all the emotion and risk that was wrapped into 2000.”
Law: “It was his second year and I sold Tom my condo. Had to help a Michigan guy, so I left all the stuff in there, the TV, everything. I didn’t take nothing but my clothes. I left him couches, pool tables, beds. I said, ‘Just bring yourself’ because he wasn’t making any money. I gave myself a beating, it was $125 grand less than what I could have got for it on the market. The basement was finished. I had just got the big contract. But I saw how hard this guy works.”
Weis: “By that point, Bill had put his footprint down on, ‘This is the way this organization is going to run.’ The first time, we left with animosity between Parcells, [former VP of player personnel] Bobby Grier and Kraft. We came in the second time and now this was Belichick and Pioli. They were definitely on the same page. It was totally different there. It was Bill’s deal. That’s the way it was going to be. By doing that, things went pretty smoothly.”
Seely: “If you look back at 2001, that offseason we signed a bunch of free agents [guard Mike Compton, linebacker Bryan Cox, linebacker Larry Izzo, receiver David Patten, linebacker Roman Phifer, defensive end Anthony Pleasant, running back Antowain Smith and linebacker Mike Vrabel]. They all seemed to have very good years for us that next year. Guys that were not really high-ticket guys who would cost a lot of money, but I think we signed like 15 guys that ended up being really successful for us. They were all guys that fit the Patriot profile, which has been going on forever — guys that were smart, tough and loved football.”
Law: “He knew what he had in the locker room as far as veterans and the guys he could depend on from a leadership standpoint from 2000. And he added to that. It was all part of the transition. It took a little bit of time. One year. Then the next year we’re in the Super Bowl.”