After the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, a debate raged around New England: should the Pats keep upstart Tom Brady, who had gone 11-3 as the starter that year, or cash in the asset and stick with three-time Pro Bowler and established franchise QB Drew Bledsoe?
Knowing Bill Belichick as we do now, gleefully severing ties with a highly-paid veteran wasn’t shocking. But let's not forget that he lost his job in Cleveland in part because he ran beloved veteran quarterback Bernie Kosar out of town in favor of the immortal Todd Philcox. It would have been at least somewhat understandable if Belichick had decided that he didn't want to repeat that mistake and chose job security instead.
In that spirit, prepare to enter an alternate reality that begins on April 21, 2002. Instead of Bledsoe, the Patriots send Brady to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for their 2003 first-round pick. Here is what could have followed...
2002: The Pats go 9-7 and miss the playoffs, which is exactly what happened in real life, too. The real Bledsoe and Brady put up virtually identical numbers that season, so this is one time the trade actually looks OK.
2003: The Pats had an amazing defense (fewest points allowed in the NFL), and Brady’s clutch gene really took over that season as he posted four fourth quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. Considering they had the decidedly less clutch Bledsoe, the alt-Patriots go 10-6 rather than 14-2. Sorry, no Super Bowl; they make the playoffs and lose a wild card round game. The whispers begin:
"Is Bledsoe over the hill?”
“Have we made a huge mistake?"
Belichick uses the late first round pick they got from Buffalo to nab the QB of the future: former Heisman Trophy runner-up Rex Grossman.
2004: The defense allows them to go a respectable 10-6 again. But you know how Brady has his thing about pliability? Bledsoe is the basically the opposite, gradually becoming more tinman than quarterback.
2005: Bledsoe has a decent season, despite the fact that he moves in the pocket like Rickety Cricket. Unfortunately, the defense takes a step back and the Pats go 7-9. It turns out to be his last with the Patriots.
2006: Let the Sexy Rexy era begin! Grossman looks competent as Bledsoe’s heir, but the Patriots go 7-9 and Belichick is fired due to: 1. Failing to win a playoff game following the victory in Super Bowl XXXVI; and (more importantly) 2. Trading Brady.
For those keeping score at home, that's a 99-157 record over 15 seasons with three playoff appearances, no playoff wins, eight quarterback changes, and seven head coaches—WITHOUT TOM BRADY.
2007: The Patriots win a bidding war with the Falcons for hotshot Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who will use his high-octane offense to bring the best out of Grossman. He can't. Petrino quits mid-season, Grossman is benched, and the Pats go 5-11.
2008: Oh good! The Pats are going to get a high draft pick, and BC's own Matt Ryan is ready to be the franchise QB of the future. Crisis averted.
Wait...Spygate happened before this alternate reality began, so the Patriots still lose their first round pick. Sorry.
New head coach Charlie Weis wins a bidding war with San Diego, the Pats bring in playoff hero Billy Volek to compete with Grossman for the starting QB job. They go 2-14 but thanks to a winless season by Detroit still manage to miss out on the No. 1 pick.
2009: With the No. 2 pick, the Pats draft the QB who will fix everything: USC starlet Mark Sanchez. Sanchez actually shows some signs of life and the Pats go 6-10, just good enough to save Weis' job and offer some hope.
2010: In their best season in five years, the Pats are basically the 2010 Jets but with an inferior defense. They go 9-7 and make the playoffs on a tiebreaker, win a wild card game, then get smacked around in Orchard Park by NFL MVP Brady. But hey, playoffs!
2011: Hello darkness, my old friend. Sanchez returns to earth and the Pats go 6-10. Weis is fired and the Patriots decide to go with another ex-coordinator as head coach: Josh McDaniels.
2012: Unconvinced that Sanchez is the long-term solution, the Pats trade into the first round to grab a guy who can immediately challenge Sanchez: Brandon Weeden. With the Sanchez-Weeden duo, they go 5-11. The present and future look very bleak.
2013: McDaniels jettisons Sanchez in the offseason, somehow figuring that the 30-year-old Weeden is almost ready to blossom. A 2-14 season follows and McDaniels is locked out of his office before the last game even ends.
2014: The Patriots swoop in and grab QB whisperer Mike Shanahan to be their new coach. He immediately makes his mark, cutting Weeden and using the No. 2 overall selection to grab UCF QB Blake Bortles. The Patriots go 3-13. But hey, since they missed the playoffs at least they avoided DeflateGate!
2015: Bortles is fully unleashed. This is not a good thing, and Shanahan gets fired mid-season. The Pats go 4-12 but a two game winning streak to end the year causes fans around New England to desperately spend the offseason trying to talk themselves into Bortles.
2016: New coach Chip Kelly looks to make a splash and blows most of the Pats' cap room on the top free agent QB in the league: Brock Osweiler. Led by Osweiler, the Patriots muster an 8-8 season and the beleaguered fans rejoice. At this point, mediocrity is a welcome reprieve.
2017: Osweiler and Kelly both turn out to be terrible. Shocker. Brock is benched and Chip is fired before the season is over, but Bortles manages to win enough games to screw the Patriots out of a top five pick. Inexplicably, the Patriots decide to hire Ben McAdoo as their new head coach for 2018. The losing continues in perpetuity.
For those keeping score at home, that's a 99-157 record over 15 seasons with three playoff appearances, no playoff wins, eight quarterback changes, and seven head coaches. "Wait," you say, "that's totally unrealistic. No franchise is that unstable, wasteful, and generally pathetic for that long."
And you're right. Reality is actually worse.
As for Brady? TB10 (12 is retired for Bills QB Jim Kelly) would arguably have blossomed earlier in Buffalo than he did in New England. Rather than trying to make do with receivers like David Patten and an aging Troy Brown along with running backs like Antowain Smith and Patrick Pass, he would have been throwing to a legitimate No. 1 target in Eric Moulds (three Pro Bowls, two-time 2nd Team All-Pro) and handing the ball off to 1000-plus yard rushers Travis Henry and Willis McGahee. Given how good those early-2000s Buffalo defenses were—No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed for both 2003 and 2004—it's safe to say Brady would not have had to wait long to get back to the Super Bowl.
And just like with those 2003 and 2004 Patriots teams, a coming-into-his-prime Brady and a stout defense means only one thing: championships. Lots of championships. Those four consecutive Super Bowl losses for Buffalo back in the early 90s? Remember "Wide Right" against the Giants? Zero playoff victories since 1995? Brady's 24 post-2001 playoff victories just might belong to Buffalo, and the Bills would conservatively have won at least two or three Lombardi Trophies by now. Rather than laughed at, the Bills Mafia would be a fearsome, table-smashing testimony to the power of our footballing overlords in Western New York. The NFL would still have its multi-decade dynasty, but the seat of power would reside in the Empire State and not New England.