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From afterthought to legend

Not even Tom Brady - whose Hall of Fame inclusion is now certain - was convinced his ascension was imminent.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks to the press during a Super Bowl XLIX media availability at the team's compound in Phoenix, Arizona, January 26, 2015. The Patriots will take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, February 1. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks to the press during a Super Bowl XLIX media availability at the team's compound in Phoenix, Arizona, January 26, 2015. The Patriots will take on the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, February 1. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Sometimes regal lineage isn't so easy to prognosticate.

With the 24th pick of Round 2 of the 1998 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots chose Rod Rutledge, a 6-foot-5, 262-pound tight end from Alabama - making him the fourth selection in a three-round haul breathlessly labeled by the New York Times as "great," "pretty impressive" and a talent "stockpile."

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"The Patriots had the best draft of any team this year, according to five general managers," read an April 20 draft recap penned by Times sportswriter Mike Freeman, under a headline that suggested the team had drafted "superbly."

"One general manager said that the Patriots' draft may have been the best in the last three or four years."

Needless to say, Freeman's next-day assessment of Rutledge and fellow early- rounders Robert Edwards, Tebucky Jones, Tony Simmons, Chris Floyd and Greg Spires inspires little beyond an ironic chuckle these days, as a then-moribund franchise preps for its sixth subsequent Super Bowl participation.

Only Jones, a lanky defensive back, started more than two seasons' worth of games for the Patriots.

And only he and the 6-foot-1 Spires, an undersized pass-rushing defensive end, managed a career whose duration exceeded the six-man group's collective averages of five-plus seasons and 38 games started.

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Spires, though, made just three of those starts with New England before finding a niche in Tampa Bay, where he started 87 games across six years and won a Super Bowl ring under Jon Gruden.

At any rate, though, when kickoff comes on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz., it's the long-since anonymous Rutledge who'll have the most direct link to this year's dynastic personnel.

Though he's not appeared in an NFL game since 2002 and not caught a pass since 2001, the now 39-year-old was on the receiving end of the first completion thrown by the now-veteran quarterback who'll arguably enter University of Phoenix Stadium within 60 minutes of billing as the game's all-time best.

These days, everyone knows that quarterback as Tom Brady.

The guy ex-NFL'er Heath Evans places atop the historic list, regardless of this weekend's score.

"You look at the collection of talent that was consistently around Joe (Montana) - and this is no knock on Joe, it's just the era he played in," Evans said. "And then now, the constant mixing and matching. Tommy's done it with a defense and without a defense. He's done it with a running game and without running games. He's done it without Pro Bowl wide receivers and with Pro Bowl wide receivers."

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Whether he is or isn't better than Montana is undoubtedly a hot sports radio topic now. But back then, in the midst of mop-up duty that wrapped up New England's 34-9 Thanksgiving Day 2000 loss at Detroit, he was just another late-round wannabe (Round 6, 199th overall) trying to impress a coach (Bill Belichick) whose first season on the job was careening toward a 5-11 disappointment.

Belichick's starter that day, Drew Bledsoe, completed 17 throws for 148 yards before an errant toss to Bryant Westbrook with less than five minutes left yielded a 101-yard pick-6 for the Lions' cornerback - and a late-game opening for the Michigan rookie, who, at the time, nobody mistook for a king.

In reality, Brady hadn't so much as taken a snap through the season's initial 11 games while sitting behind the likes of Bledsoe, John Friesz and Michael Bishop, and to say his arrival in Week 13 was instantly interpreted as a sign of Belichick's genius would be an overstatement of mythical proportions.

Not even Brady - whose Canton inclusion is now certain - was convinced his ascension was imminent.

"I wasn't prepared to play my first year. That's all that would have happened, I would've gone out and get beat and lost a ton of confidence in what I was doing," he said. "I was lucky to really have a chance that whole first year to be in a situation where I wasn't forced to play and lose a bunch of confidence."

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While the six-yard toss to Rutledge - Brady's lone completion in three tries - got him on the official stat sheet for posterity, it was only worthy of a space-filler mention in Nick Cafardo's Friday morning post-mortem in the Boston Globe, and a one-line inclusion in the Patriots notebook piece the same day.

"Then came the Westbrook interception, on a pass intended for Glenn," Cafardo wrote. "Bledsoe gallantly fought to make the tackle but had no chance to catch Westbrook, who danced into the end zone. Bledsoe got a handshake from Bill Belichick and was told Tom Brady was taking over."

Brady wound up making no more appearances for the duration of the 2000 season, and his lingering presence on the roster the following fall -- with former No. 1 overall pick Bledsoe still firmly entrenched as starter - generated literally no mention when it came time for James Alder, an occasional blog Times blog contributor and football consultant for BBC Radio, to issue his 2001 season forecast.

Instead, when it came to the AFC East, Alder and others dismissed the whole team entirely.

"(The East) will be a three-team race this season, and one of those teams will not be the New England Patriots," he wrote in an Aug. 10 preseason preview. "They still have Drew Bledsoe running the offense, but this team has a shortage of impact players on offense and defense. If they manage to put together a decent running game, they may win as many as six games this year."

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Needless to say, by the time Alder prepped the next year's follow-up, the horizon had changed.

The frequently-recited version of the Brady legend began in Week 2 of 2001, when Bledsoe was splattered along the sidelines by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis.

The Patriots wound up losing to Vinny Testaverde's Jets and fell to 0-2 as Brady went 5-for-10 for a pedestrian 46 yards, but 11 wins in 14 regular- season starts followed -- as did a Super Bowl win against St. Louis that made Rutledge a trivia footnote, Bledsoe an offseason castoff and Brady a superstar.

"It's fun to watch him. He's poetry in motion," Washington coach Jay Gruden said. "Obviously a Hall of Famer and the best of all time."

[SportsNetwork.com]

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