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Debunking the “If Not for Mo Lewis Argument”

Tom Brady - Mo Lewis

You’ve heard this one a million times before. If Mo Lewis doesn’t hospitalize Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady never sees the field, and the Patriots never win a Super Bowl. People who are trying to minimize Brady’s Hall of Fame career, after they’ve screamed “Tuck Rule” and “Deflategate” and are looking for one last barb, will undoubtedly come back with this one.

“If it wasn’t for Mo Lewis, we never would have heard of Tom Brady.”

This one almost makes sense. The Jet’s Calvin Pryor repeated it before a game in December of 2015, ““Blame Mo Lewis, if (he) didn’t get that hit on the sideline, they might have somebody else at quarterback.”

It has nothing at all to do with the facts, but to your average uninformed Jets player, this one makes sense. After all, the Patriots had just signed Drew Bledsoe to a 10-year $103 million contract in May of 2001. He was Bob Kraft’s favorite. He was also a really good NFL quarterback.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll let Robert Littal make the argument. But it’s been made in many places, like Sports Illustrated. I could’ve gone after this gem, with the nonsensical premise that Mo Lewis “made” Tom Brady, but Littal’s article is much, much better.

“A couple of things should be noted. First, Drew Bledsoe was a good quarterback who had led the Patriots to the Super Bowl and if not for Desmond Howard going crazy on Special Teams, they might have beaten the Packers. By 2001, the Patriots were a struggling team, but he wasn’t in any danger of being benched.”

Except that Bledsoe really was in danger of being benched. It was only a matter of time.

Here are Drew Bledsoe’s statistics in the years leading up to 2001. Looking at these numbers for an NFL quarterback at the time, they’re not that bad. But that’s not the issue. You need to look at them like Bill Belichick would. Bledsoe’s interception rates approaching 3.0 and his completion percentages under 60%. That’s not how a Belichick offense operates.

Statistical Comparison

Drew Bledsoe 1996-2001
Tom Brady 2001-2005
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/18/2017.

Past is Prologue

Had Littal really thought about it, he’d have realized what Bledsoe should have seen coming. Bill Belichick had gone into Cleveland a few years earlier, with a popular star quarterback running the show, and benched him. With what the Browns are now, it’s easy to forget that they had some really good teams in the 1980s. They were an Ernest Byner fumble away from the Super Bowl. But like the Patriots of 2001, the Browns were a struggling team.

Both Bledsoe and Kosar were 29 years old when they were benched by Belichick. They were both in their second season under Belichick, and both were big, strong armed quarterbacks who threw too many interceptions and making bad decisions with the football.

Cleveland’s Favorite Son

Kosar was an Ohio kid, and extremely popular with Browns fans. But Belichick thought that Vinny Testaverde gave the Browns a better chance to win. And an objective view of the facts proves him to be right.

“Before we get to Brady, we have to talk about Belichick, because he certainly wasn’t seen as a genius back in 2001. Before that year he had coach six seasons (5 with the Browns & 1 with Pats) and only had one winning season to show for it.” – Littal

Of course, this is another really shallow view. It wasn’t the easiest thing to turn around an NFL team in the early 1990s. This was before the salary cap, and before free agency. This was the era when the Bills made four Super Bowls in a row, and the Cowboys-49ers in the NFC Championship game was an annual event. The good teams stayed good, and the bad teams bad. So Belichick took over in Cleveland in an era when it took a couple of years to turn a bad team into a good team – and did just that. He took a 3-13 Browns team, and within four years had them 11-5 and in the playoffs. Had Art Modell not announced he was moving the team to Baltimore during the season, it’s as likely as not that the Browns go back to the playoffs in 1995.

The 6th Round Pick

“Brady was a 6th round draft pick, when you are a 6th round draft pick normally the only way you get your shot is if someone gets hurt and if they do get hurt, you have to make an immediate impact to be considered a viable option to get the job.” – Littal

Of course, from the 30,000 foot view, it’s easy to think the Patriots were still looking at Brady as nothing more than a 6th-round pick by September 2001.

But the Patriots didn’t look at Brady as a 6th round pick when they drafted him. Michael Holley’s “Patriot Reign” (a book every Patriots fan should read) does a great job describing the situation. The Patriots didn’t see Brady as an immediate starter in 1999 – but they did see him as “too good” to be around at 199.

Brady spent the 2000 season as the fourth quarterback on the Patriots depth chart behind Bledsoe, John Friesz and Michael Bishop – and he spent that season working extremely hard, and impressing the Patriots coaching staff.

After the 2000 Season

But by 2001, he’d moved up to #2 on the depth chart, and had become a leader in the locker room. As Holley puts it, “If a group task needed to be done – if twenty-five guys needed to be organized- Brady was the one doing the organizing.”

During the 2001 Bledsoe struggled. Brady did not. In the Jets game in which he was injured, Bledsoe made crucial mistakes. Once again, Holley:

“It was one of Bledsoe’s worst days a a pro. His numbers didn’t dismay his coaches as much as his judgments did. He had a delay-of-game penalty after Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had decided to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Four minutes apart in the first half, he had an intentional grounding penalty and an interception, both in New York territory. He was costing his team points and field position in what was obviously going to be a close game.”

So, what you had was a problem of styles. Brady’s decision making was more important to Belichick than the flashiness of Bledsoe’s cannon arm.

The Brady-Led 2001 Patriots

“The Patriots were only 5-5 and not a lock by any means to make the playoffs when they won 6 games in a row to end the season. They won three of those games by 7 points or less. Once they made the playoffs, more luck to seem be on their side.” – Littal

Again, this is a view of someone who seems to have only a 30,000 foot view of the Patriots. Yes, they were 5-5 after 10 games. But they were 5-3 with Brady, and they gave the consensus best team in the NFL – the St. Louis Rams, all they could handle in prime time. Yes, they won close games with Brady. They had lost close games with Bledsoe.

The 5-11 Patriots lost seven games by a touchdown or less. Still think Tom Brady didn’t make a difference? Still want to give all the credit to Mo Lewis?

As for luck being on their side, the tuck rule was a rule. The ball was incomplete. Showing a video of it doesn’t change this. The fact is that Brady led a comeback from a 13-3 deficit against a much more experienced team in a blizzard, and was completing pass after pass to guys like Jermaine Wiggins, while Rich Gannon was throwing to Jerry Rice.

The AFC Championship Game

“In the AFC Championship game, Brady got hurt and a now healthy Bledsoe led them to a win. Brady was named the starter in the Super Bowl and with the game tied, the Pats could have sat on the ball, but Belichick trusted Brady and he got them in position for the game winning field goal.” – Littal

Yes, Brady injured his ankle in the AFC Championship Game, and a healthy Bledsoe came off the bench. He did throw a touchdown pass to David Patten, but did HE lead them to a win? Not really, touchdowns off blocked field goals and punt returns provided the difference. Bledsoe was 10-21 in the game. Again, we go back to the Holley book, “According to coaches’ game breakdowns, Bledsoe’s statistics were: one mental error, four bad throws, and four bad choices.”

As far as I can figure, Mo Lewis wasn’t anywhere near Pittsburgh at the time. And if Bill Belichick just handed to the ball to the healthiest guy, he would’ve gone back to Bledsoe. But he didn’t do that.

Littal’s Conclusion

“Maybe Brady would have gotten his opportunity later in his career, maybe he would have been Matt Flynn, we will never know. Maybe Bledsoe would have led the Patriots to the Super Bowl and Brady would be a teacher right now and not married to a super model. These are things you forget about sometimes because of how great Brady & Belichick are now.

None of that probably would have been possible if Drew Bledsoe didn’t think he was Kordell Stewart.” – Littal

The basic flaw in this argument is that it starts with a false assumption – that Bledsoe was in no danger of losing his job in the 2001 season. As shown above, that’s not really true. Belichick had shown a willingness to pull the trigger on the exact same move before, and Brady was showing everyone watching behind the scenes that he deserved it. Of course, if you’re just watching the games on Sunday (or more likely, just watching the highlights on ESPN), then you’re not going to know any of this.

The Rebuttal

Here’s the Holley quote that explains it best.

“As much as he respected Bledsoe, he had an idea of what his quarterback should do. The model for that idea was Brady. Brady had shown an ability to stay calm, recognize defensive nuances, and shout out the necessary adjustments for his receivers, backs and linemen. When he coached against Bledsoe in New York, Belichick would often present the quarterback with a “Cover 5” defense. It features man-to-man coverage with two deep safeties to help on the receivers. Belichick would tell his defensive backs to be physical at the line of scrimmage. Then he would play the educated odds, going with scientific and anecdotal research that revealed that Bledsoe would not be accurate enough or patient enough to make the throws to defeat an effective “Cover 5.”

The proof is in the pudding. When you look at what Brady actually became in the offense, it’s ridiculous to think that he’d have ever become Matt Flynn. Brady won the job in 2001. Flynn had one good meaningless game against the Lions in garbage time.

The fact is that had Bledsoe hadn’t tried to get that extra yard and run into Mo Lewis, he was still on the way out. Now you may ask…

What About the $100 Million Deal?

There’s a reason that Belichick has a boat called, “Seven Rings.”

The man is a master of the NFL salary cap. So while that $103 million deal sounds huge, for the Patriots in the salary cap era, it really wasn’t. Spreading an $8 million signing bonus over 10 years is nothing. Football contracts, unlike those in Major League baseball, are not guaranteed. So, the big money contract wasn’t really all that much protection for Bledsoe. The contract actually eased salary cap problems in 2001, while not putting the Patriots in a salary cap crunch in the future.

When the Patriots traded Bledsoe to the Bills in 2002, they did incur a cap hit of $6.7 million. But they wound up saving money against the cap that year; and picked up a first round pick from the Bills that became defensive lineman Jarvis Green.


So, like most anti-Brady arguments, this one makes sense in a meme, or in the abstract to the casual observer. But doesn’t really hold water when exposed to the light of day.

Nothing against Littal in particular, who seems like a pretty good writer. He just happens to be wrong here.

Photo by Mike Lizzi

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Mike Cooney
Mike is a lifelong Boston sports fan. He's got a degree in journalism from Northeastern University, and has been writing about sports in various methods since the mid-1990's. He's gotten to meet Bobby Orr, Luis Tiant, Rich Gedman, Nomar Garciaparra, and once shut out Carlos Pena's two twin brothers in a game of foosball at McCoy Stadium.