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The Last Bad Patriots Team

When Tom Brady was a nobody, when Bill Belichick’s career record was 36-44, the New England Patriots were … miserable. This is the calm before the storm.

Collage of 2000 New England Patriots Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.

Can you get me in?

For Chris Slade, it was an easy request to fulfill. The NFL veteran linebacker had long since become a regular at Rumjungle, the Mandalay Bay hotel’s 20,000-square foot Brazilian-themed club and restaurant.

So after receiving a call from a desperate young teammate one night in 2001, asking him to help skip the line to enter the Las Vegas hotspot, Slade happily obliged. The Pro Bowler, who had played eight years with the Patriots, approached the bouncer and pointed toward his skinny friend. This is where Tom Brady stood: on the outside looking in.

The unknown quarterback, a sixth-round pick, had recently wrapped an uneventful rookie campaign. That fall, under new head coach Bill Belichick, New England finished with a losing record for the first (and still only) time since 1995. The 2000 season was the franchise’s last prolonged stretch of misery. Defeats piled up, Boston sports-talk radio callers contrived a quarterback controversy not involving Brady, and one of the team’s stars sparked a minor international incident. A Super Bowl run didn’t exactly feel imminent. “Anyone who was thinking that in 2000, God bless you,” said Matt Chatham, then a linebacker with the Pats. “You’re a soothsayer.”

A close examination shows that there were, however subtle, signs of a gestating dynasty. Of course, none of that mattered that evening on the strip. Like most people, the doorman had no clue who this bench-riding kid was.

“That guy over there,” Slade remembered saying, “can you let him in for me?”

For perhaps the last time, someone had to be prompted to lift the velvet rope for Tom Brady.

Lawyer Milloy knew what he was walking into. Or so he thought. The safety, whose 1999 season had ended with an appearance in his second straight Pro Bowl, deserved a big raise. When he met with Patriots owner Robert Kraft in January 2000, Milloy assumed they’d be discussing a fat new contract. He was mistaken.

“Sure enough,” Milloy said of their conversation, “it was about Belichick.” Days prior, in the immediate aftermath of the Patriots losing six of their final eight games and missing the ’99 playoffs, Kraft fired Pete Carroll. “This is a business of accountability,” Kraft said before summing up the downward trajectory of the head coach’s three-year stint in New England. "Two years ago, we won the division. Last year, we made the playoffs. This year, we failed to make the playoffs. We need a momentum change."

Lee Johnson, the Patriots’ punter in 1999 and 2000, agreed with Kraft. “I’ve never been a part of a team that had so much talent that was so unsuccessful,” said Johnson, who played for six clubs over 18 NFL seasons. “That was really weird to me.” New England had Milloy, quarterback Drew Bledsoe, cornerback Ty Law, kicker Adam Vinatieri, pass rusher Willie McGinest, linebacker Tedy Bruschi, and receiver Troy Brown. “They had success and then they slowly lost it,” Johnson said. It was time, he added, for a coaching change.

On-field stagnation aside, the Patriots were stable by their standards. Less than a decade before, the organization was in total chaos. In 1992, advertising executive and Anheuser-Busch heir James Orthwein bought the struggling team and quickly expressed interest in moving it to his hometown of St. Louis. (He did make one good decision as owner of the Patriots: hiring coach Bill Parcells.) Two years later, Kraft purchased the franchise, saving it from relocation.

The local businessman spent much of the ’90s attempting to find a new home for the Patriots, who at the time played in painfully outdated Foxboro Stadium. In 1999, after a quest marked by flirtations with South Boston, Providence, and Hartford, Kraft brokered an agreement to build the Patriots a privately funded new stadium in Foxborough. (The state did chip in $72 million to improve the surrounding infrastructure.)

To replace Carroll, the owner was considering the respected but complex Belichick. Kraft sought feedback from Milloy, with whom Belichick had closely worked in 1996 while serving as New England’s defensive backs coach. “I got a chance to talk about how much I admired him,” Milloy said. “I thought he could be a great coach to lead the organization to where it needed to go.”

Belichick actually had helped do that once already. With Parcells at the helm in ’96, the overachieving Patriots made it all the way to Super Bowl XXXI, where they fell to the Packers, 35-21. Having seen Belichick’s now-legendary methods up close, Milloy pushed for the move, as did Law. According to Law, he and Milloy even attempted to recruit Belichick themselves. “We were trying to call Bill,” Law said. “We put on our full-court press.”

The problem, as any giddy Masshole will still loudly explain, was that the Jets had Belichick under contract. After three years as New York’s defensive coordinator, he was slated to take over for Parcells, who had stepped down as the team’s head coach on the same day as Carroll’s axing. Countless column inches, blog posts, and book chapters have been dedicated to what came next.

First, the Patriots inquired about interviewing Belichick and the Jets denied the request. Then, at what was supposed to be his initial press conference as Parcells’s successor, the defensive guru resigned, citing, among other things, concerns about the franchise’s impending ownership change. Kraft’s offer also happened to be extraordinarily enticing. Accepting it would allow Belichick to escape New York, where Parcells—with whom he had an infamously fraught relationship—was staying on as chief of football operations.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The confrontation escalated a feud that had began in the winter of 1997, when Parcells bolted New England for New York. It took Belichick filing an antitrust lawsuit against both the Jets and the league and a peace-seeking Parcells calling Kraft—“I told him it was Darth Vader,” he reportedly said—before the AFC East rivals agreed to a trade. New England sent three draft picks, including that year’s 16th overall selection, to New York for two future late-rounders and Belichick.

On January 27, 2000, New England’s new head coach introduced himself to the Boston media. “Hopefully, this press conference will go a little bit better than the last one I had,” he said with a smile before thanking everyone for being there. The mini-burst of humor unsurprisingly failed to charm all of the Knights of the Keyboard. Ian O’Connor, then with suburban New York paper The Journal News, even wrote a column headlined “Patriots will regret hiring Belichick.” Last August, Hayden Bird of dug up the article and later interviewed its author, who called the piece his “version of Pete Carroll throwing the ball at the goal line.”

As bad as it looks now, bashing the Patriots for bringing on Belichick wasn’t quite a ghost-pepper-level hot take. After all, as head coach of the Browns from 1991 to 1995, Belichick had a 36-44 record. His tenure in Cleveland, while certainly torpedoed by owner Art Modell’s cynical decision to move the team to Baltimore, didn’t seem to foreshadow him transforming into the greatest football coach in history.

But in hindsight, it was clear that Belichick was undaunted by his own track record. Shortly after arriving in Foxborough, he started revamping his club’s roster. That February, the Patriots signed Milloy to a seven-year, $35 million contract. The team also released tight end Ben Coates and left tackle Bruce Armstrong, two Pro Bowlers in their 30s who were both unwilling to take pay cuts.

One local columnist called cutting Armstrong, who re-signed with New England that summer, “dirty,” “shoddy,” and “shameful.” The writer seethed, “So this is how the Patriots are going to do business in the Bill Belichick era.” That assessment of the coach’s philosophy, which persists to this day, was accurate. To Belichick, there was—and still is—no room for sentimentality.

Slade still remembers the time early in Belichick’s tenure when linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer slipped into a team meeting late. Another head coach might’ve cut the former Ohio State phenom and first-round draft pick some slack. Not Belichick. Journalist and sports radio host Michael Holley recounts the scene in his book War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team. “Katzenmoyer!” the coach is quoted as saying. “Who in the hell do you think you are? Get your ass outta here.”

“He called him out in front of the whole team,” Slade said. “Right then I knew things had changed.”

In May 2000, three months after he hired Scott Pioli as New England’s director of pro personnel, Belichick fired Bobby Grier. Since Parcells’s departure, the longtime Patriots executive had served as the team’s vice president of player personnel. “This,” Belichick said in a statement, “is an unpleasant thing for me to do.”

Before departing, Grier laid the groundwork for a move that altered the course of football history. If that sounds like an overstatement, consider this: There is a 48-minute documentary about the transaction. The Brady 6, named for the six quarterbacks taken ahead of Tom Brady in that April’s draft, premiered on ESPN in 2011. In the film, the future Hall of Famer’s coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr, claims that a single league executive called him to ask about his signal caller: Grier. The Patriots ended up stealing Brady, whom then–New England quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein also endorsed, with the 199th pick.

At that point, the organization into which Brady and the rest of his unhyped rookie class entered was under construction. While Belichick was busy reassembling the team, work began on what would eventually become Gillette Stadium.

In those days, the Foxborough experience was a tad more rustic than it is now. When New England signed Chatham 17 years ago, he flew into Logan Airport. For one night, the Patriots put him up at a nearby Hilton. The next day, he drove 30 miles south and checked into slightly less luxurious team-provided lodging: the End Zone Motor Inn. In 2000, the club still housed rookies and fringe free agents at the small Foxboro Stadium–adjacent motel. Chatham said that when he stood in the hallway, he could spread out his arms and touch both walls. Inside his room, he could hear conversations in the downstairs bar.

“You’re kind of looking around going, ’Where the hell am I?’” said Chatham, who went undrafted out of South Dakota in 1999. When I asked running back J.R. Redmond about the End Zone, he laughed. “I thought it was the end of the world,” said the onetime Arizona State star running back, whom the Patriots took in the third round of the 2000 draft. “They had me in some truck stop. There were hairy dudes coming in and out. It was funny.”

The players’ workplace was just as unrefined. Built for all of $7.1 million and opened in 1971, Foxboro Stadium was a shoddy concrete husk lined with metal bleachers. Prime-time games there devolved into such drunken, violent events in the ’70s and ’80s that for a lengthy stretch the town of Foxborough banned the Patriots from playing on Monday Night Football. In the second quarter of the AFC championship game in January 1997, a power outage caused an 11-minute delay. The home locker room was comically cramped. While getting dressed, New England’s linebackers often had to filter out ambient noise. Only a thin wall separated their corner from the toilets.

“It was a high school stadium,” offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi said.

“It was uncomfortable,” Milloy said.

“If it rained outside, it rained in there, too,” Redmond said.

But to a man, the Patriots players interviewed for this story said that they enjoyed playing at Foxboro. “There were no bells and whistles,” Slade said. “Kind of hardcore.” To Milloy, the old stadium was a symbol of how far the organization had to go. For the Patriots, he said, “it was the perfect place to build a foundation.”

Part of that foundation was aesthetic. In May 2000, the Patriots announced that they were shelving their cartoonish royal blue uniforms for a sharper look. WBCN, the now-defunct rock radio station that used to broadcast New England’s games, put on its annual River Rave on May 27 at Foxboro Stadium. During the festival, Bledsoe—resplendent in his best pair of dad jeans and a skull capMilloy, Slade, Vinatieri, and linebacker Ted Johnson took the stage with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones sporting New England’s brand-new navy jerseys. The sellout crowd of 50,000, maybe unspoiled by the trophy ceremonies and unfurling banners yet to come, went wild.

Soon the fun stopped. The first training camp that Belichick presided over in New England was a slog. “He was anal about every single thing,” said Willie McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst. “That’s because he was trying to implement his system and get us to understand how things were gonna be.”

On July 16, the first official day of practice, four players failed the team’s conditioning test. One was Tony George. The second-year safety, like the rest of his position group, was required to run each of a series of 60-yard sprints in eight seconds or less. Midway through the drill, his vision blurred. “I started conking out,” he told me. In the moment, George wasn’t surprised. He has type 1 diabetes.

On the 13th of 20 sprints, George jumped the gun. As a result, he had to run a bonus leg. By that 21st lap, he was in a low-blood-sugar-induced daze. “I finished the test,” he said at the time, “but I wasn’t able to finish that extra one.” Because George didn’t complete the task, Belichick held him out of practice. Afterward, George asked Belichick if he’d have to retake the test. The answer was yes.

Yeah, George remembered thinking to himself, this is gonna be a long season. Still, he doesn’t recall being offended. If anything, he said, the situation helped him understand his new coach’s uncompromising style. “Nobody,” George said, “was getting any slack cut.”

After the first day of camp, Belichick publicly tore into his team. “We have got too many guys who are overweight, too many guys who are out of shape, and too many guys who just haven’t paid the price they need to pay at this point of the season,” he said, channeling the caustic Parcells. “You can’t win in this league with 40 good players when the other team has 53.”

Two weeks later, the Patriots opened the 2000 preseason with a 20-0 win over the 49ers. The result was meaningless. But one plot line in the game managed to distract Boston fans from the Red Sox and their dinosaur-denying, power-hitting outfielder Carl Everett, who’d just been suspended for a confrontation with an umpire.

Against San Francisco, second-year reserve quarterback Michael Bishop threw a 25-yard touchdown pass and ran for a 22-yard score. The former Kansas State star, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1998, suddenly became the favorite among callers to sports radio station WEEI to replace Bledsoe. “He was the only one who could throw the ball as far and as hard as Drew,” Law said. “I’ll tell you that.” The Bishop chatter prompted prickly Boston Globe football columnist Ron Borges to churn out two articles urging readers to tamp down their excitement. After Bishop found the end zone on a dizzying 1-yard option run in New England’s final exhibition game that summer, Borges sneered, “It was a touchdown. It was excitement. It was fun. It was not a play that’s going to take this team to the Super Bowl, but who’s worrying about that these days?”

Bledsoe, who’d struggled in the second half of the 1999 season, wasn’t truly in jeopardy of losing his job. At least not yet. Back then, Brady was still on the margins. “He wore pants that looked like they were 10 years older than they should’ve been,” said Lee Johnson, whose locker was right next to Brady’s. “He was just this guy. He almost looked lost.”

Milloy admits now that he didn’t know what the Patriots had in Brady. “Nobody knew,” he said. “He was really easy to overlook because he wasn’t even getting reps on the scout team against the defense.” Slade recalled the rookie asking him for the chance to work as a counselor at his football camp at Bridgewater State University. “I was paying him 500 bucks,” Slade said.

But when Brady made the roster along with Bledsoe, John Friesz, and Bishop, his teammates noticed. “Bill definitely saw something in him,” said Andruzzi, who played for New England from 2000 to 2004. “You never hear of teams keeping a fourth-string quarterback.”

By now, those who know Brady well have shared hundreds of anecdotes that illustrate his hypercompetitiveness. Chatham, for one, likes to point to the time he and rookies Chris Eitzmann (an undrafted free agent) and David Nugent (a sixth-round pick) spent hanging out with the quarterback during their first year on the Patriots. In 2000, Brady bought a condo in Franklin, Massachusetts, from fellow Michigan Wolverine Ty Law. “I had just signed a big contract,” the cornerback said, “and I took 100 grand off the damn price.”

The place was less a swanky bachelor pad than it was a private rec center, where athletes essentially played out a real-life version of the ping-pong scene from Everybody Wants Some!! over and over.

When Brady couldn’t yet get his desired fix on Sundays, he and his buddies shot pool, battled in Tecmo Bowl and Mario Kart, and occasionally raced actual karts at indoor track F1 Boston. As the sleekest member of the crew, the quarterback had quite an advantage. “If you’re bigger,” Chatham said, “you get your ass kicked.” Brady often took the checkered flag, although at that time winning didn’t earn him any adulation. “Shit,” Chatham said, “nobody knew us then.”

From the outset, the 2000 regular season was a struggle. Starting with an opening-game loss at home to the Buccaneers in which Bledsoe was sacked six times (tying his career high at the time), the Patriots dropped each of their first four games by eight points or fewer. Belichick didn’t notch his first victory as New England’s head coach until October 1, when his team beat the Broncos in Denver.

The next week at Foxboro Stadium, Bishop finally had his moment of glory. With three seconds left in the first half and the Patriots on the Colts’ 44-yard line, he entered the game for Bledsoe. On his only passing attempt of the afternoon, he rolled right and lofted a throw toward the end zone. Receiver Tony Simmons came down with the ball for a touchdown. “I have been playing football since seventh grade,” Bledsoe said after his team secured a 24-16 win, “and I have never completed a Hail Mary in my life.”

Andruzzi remembered practicing the play repeatedly. “You’d never think that we would use it,” he said, “but we did.” It’s become a cliché, but it’s hard to talk about Belichick’s success without mentioning his ability to prepare his players for any possible situation. “I just really feel like we won games during the week,” Milloy said. “On Sundays we were out there like we were in The Matrix, like we had already been there before.”

Patriots offensive guard Joe Andruzzi
Joe Andruzzi
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the tiny blast of euphoria that Bishop’s prayer generated was fleeting. “It was just one of those moments,” Law said. “You look for a spark. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t that significant.” After winning two games in a row, the Patriots lost their next four in increasingly ugly fashion.

On November 12, they traveled to Cleveland, where Belichick was greeted by boos and a sign reading “You still stink.” Hampered by a sore right thumb that he’d smashed into Bills linebacker Sam Cowart’s helmet the previous game, Bledsoe threw an interception and lost three fumbles. That day’s 19-11 loss to the Browns continues to stick with Milloy. “It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my NFL career,” he said.

Two weeks later, the Lions destroyed the Patriots, 34-9. At the end of the Thanksgiving blowout, Brady made his professional debut. In relief of Bledsoe, he completed one of three passes. It was one of the last remotely positive developments of a dreary season, which soon took a surreal turn.

On December 17, after the Patriots defeated the Bills, 13-10, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Brown, Terry Glenn, and Law requested permission to not board the team charter. It was snowing and the three flying-averse players wanted to wait out the storm. To pass the time that night, they visited a nearby Canadian strip club. Early the next morning, Glenn and Brown made their way back to the Buffalo airport. Law later followed in a car driven by a person he described as a friend. At the border crossing in Niagara Falls, customs agents reportedly noticed that the driver’s license didn’t match the vehicle’s registration. That prompted a search, which led inspectors to Law’s luggage. In it, they found a few pills containing ecstasy. The amount of the drug was small enough that Law faced only a $700 fine. He paid it fast and left to meet his two waiting teammates. The trio then booked a 12:15 p.m. flight to Boston. Their odyssey ended in Foxborough that afternoon, when they arrived late to a team meeting.

At a press conference the next day, Law apologized for his involvement in the incident but emphatically said that the ecstasy wasn’t his. “I had no idea that it was in the bag,” explained Law, who said that he had never purchased or used illegal drugs. The duffel that he’d taken to Buffalo, he claimed, belonged to a cousin who’d left it at the cornerback’s house. “I know this sounds stupid and maybe a little bit unbelievable,” Law said, “but that’s the honest-to-God truth.” He even offered to take a drug test to “give you guys peace of mind.”

Today, looking back at what happened causes Law no agita. “I made my case,” he said. “The coaches, they understood. I told them I never did anything like that in my life. That’s all that mattered. The team had my back.”

And if they hadn’t?

“Hey,” Law said, “I’ll be playing against you sometime.”

In reality, Law didn’t walk away from the adventure scot-free. Belichick ended up suspending the cornerback for the season finale against the Dolphins. The coach’s public reaction to the episode foreshadowed how he’d address future controversies. He spent a session with the media stonewalling questions about his decision to discipline Law. “It is a closed case,” Belichick said. He also twice referred to it as “an internal matter.” And when one reporter asked if Belichick was concerned for Law’s well-being, he deadpanned, “I am not a doctor, I am a coach.”

For the Patriots, the year ended as miserably as it began. After Olindo Mare hit a 49-yard field goal to give Miami a 27-24 lead with nine seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, New England lined up to attempt a miracle. As Bledsoe dropped back, Jason Taylor stripped the ball from the quarterback’s hand and time expired. For the next 35 minutes, the game was over. It was only then that the officiating crew deemed Bledsoe’s apparent fumble an incomplete pass. At that point, the referees put three seconds back on the clock and called the teams back onto the field. With the Foxboro Stadium stands empty and freezing Miami players wearing towels and division championship caps on the sideline, Bishop came in to try one more Hail Mary. This time, all that he could muster was a wobbly throw that fell limply to the turf.

After the loss, which left the Patriots with a final record of 5-11, Bledsoe sounded exhausted. “It was the most frustrating season of my career,” he told reporters. “I’m worn out mentally, physically, and emotionally.” That year, Bledsoe was sacked 45 times, tied for fourth most in the NFL. He quarterbacked the seventh-worst scoring team in the league. The offense needed a massive jolt. Where it would come from was still a mystery.

The defense, on the other hand, already had Bruschi, Law, McGinest, and Milloy. Belichick wanted to strengthen that core (which improved even more when New England grabbed future All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour with the sixth overall pick of the 2001 draft) with veteran free agents. “Guys that he knew spoke his language,” Milloy said.

Saints v Panthers X
Former Patriots linebacker Chris Slade, who closed out his career with the Panthers
Getty Images

Learning Belichick’s language, Milloy added, was difficult. But as the 2000 season wore on, New England’s players slowly began to appreciate their coach’s exacting approach. “After maybe getting burned a couple times, with him saying, ‘I told you so,’ you start buying in,” Milloy said. “Then that’s when the magic ultimately happens. It wasn’t the first year.”

Like Milloy, McGinest believed that Belichick would become a transformative figure. Before the 2001 season, McGinest recruited linebacker Roman Phifer, who was choosing between the Patriots and the Raiders. “You should probably come here because we’ve got something special brewing and you’re gonna help this team win,” McGinest recalled telling Phifer. “It took some convincing, but he listened to me. He ended up winning a few Super Bowls.”

Slade would’ve enjoyed being part of that, too. But he never got the chance. In February 2001, the Patriots released the linebacker. He wasn’t shocked. The former All-Pro had just turned 30. His peak had long since passed. In 2001, the Panthers signed Slade. He played one more season before retiring.

Now a high school football coach in Georgia, Slade still asks himself the same question about the good-life-seeking 20-something he helped in Vegas 16 years ago.

“Do you think he’d still remember me if I stood in line at a nightclub?” Slade said with a laugh. “Do you think he’d let me in?”

During a press conference last fall, Tom Brady was asked about the great linebackers with whom he has played over the years. He mentioned Chris Slade. In some small way, Brady was returning a favor.

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