When the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history made its debut, nobody cared.
On the windy September afternoon in 2001, when the greatest quarterbacks of this generation met on the field for the first time, the eyes of the nation were on a Rams-Dolphins blowout.
When two future Hall of Famers who would lead their teams to seven Super Bowls and combine for six MVP awards first faced each other in Foxboro, neither looked very good. It wasn’t a competitive game. The heroes were running backs and cornerbacks.
The storyline was not Johnny Unitas vs. Bart Starr, It wasn’t even David vs. Goliath, because this Goliath was a likeable, gentle giant, and David didn’t appear to have a slingshot of a chance of winning, let alone someday mounting a throne.
When the matchup that defined the NFL in our era debuted, the fans who tuned in at all expected the Colts, a 12-point favorite led by the league’s brightest young star, to steamroll a bad team that foolishly expected a scrawny former fourth-stringer to replace the mighty Drew Bledsoe.
The greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history, which will be renewed on Sunday when the two meet for the 13th time, had a very humble beginning.
The Week Before
Peyton Manning stood at the line of scrimmage and surveyed the Bills defense. It was the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, and Manning’s Colts had a commanding lead. He may have been looking at Bills defenders, but Manning was more interested in the clock than the opponent: He was doing mental math, trying to determine how many meaningless snap-and-kneel plays he would have to execute before the final gun.
Bills veteran Phil Hansen watched from across the line of scrimmage as Manning mastered the finer points of subtraction. "Do you have a Ph.D. in mathematics, too?" Hansen shouted.
“Do you think we should snap it again?” Manning replied.
Hansen’s opinion did not matter. Little the Bills defense did that day mattered, as Manning completed 23 of 29 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-26 win. Early in the game, the Bills shifted their defensive fronts around at the line of scrimmage, rattling Manning into throwing a pick-six. But Manning watched, learned, and adapted. He used his no-huddle offense to frustrate the Bills, waiting through their shifts and tricks before snapping the ball. “He'd line up with 17 seconds left on the play clock,” Hansen said after that game. “He wouldn't even call a play sometimes. He'd just stand up there and look around.”
Peyton Manning was already Peyton Manning in 2001. All of the elements were there: the Pro Bowl selections, the touchdowns, the no-huddle audibles, the elaborate courtship ritual with the defense at the line of scrimmage. Manning was already a superstar, and even old hands like Hansen had never seen anything quite like him. “Phew. He can tear you apart,” Hansen said.
At about the same time that Manning bantered with Hansen in Indianapolis, the franchise quarterback of the New England Patriots was staggering around the sidelines in Foxboro, trying to recover from a vicious hit and oblivious to the damage that had been done to his body.
“He’s trying to get his bearings,” Tom Brady later said of Drew Bledsoe’s confusion after getting hit by Mo Lewis of the Jets late in the fourth quarter of a 10-3 game. “He couldn’t remember anything.”
Bledsoe was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1993. He had led the Patriots to a Super Bowl and participated in three Pro Bowls. Lewis’ hit collapsed Bledsoe’s lung. He was bleeding internally. He could not remember the Patriots’ play calls.
He stayed in the game.
After a not-so-stringent medical consultation with team trainers, Bledsoe returned to the field for a short, wobbly series: two handoffs, a pass, a punt. When the Patriots got the ball back, Brady replaced him. Many fans in attendance believed that Bledsoe, who had played poorly in the game, had simply been benched. Even after the game, when Bledsoe left the stadium on a stretcher, there was a decided lack of sympathy for the former superstar who gamely tried to lead a comeback while his abdomen filled with blood. “Drew Draws Questions: Franchise’s Performance Not Enough,” ran the headline of a story in the Boston Herald, which led with a note about Bledsoe’s hospitalization, followed by hundreds of words about his poor performance.
While doctors rushed Bledsoe to the hospital, one of the most obscure quarterbacks in the NFL trotted onto the field. He completed a few short passes. He scrambled for nine yards. The Jets were in a prevent defense, but with the score 10-3, Brady had time to try to be a hero in nine-yard chunks. A 21-yard pass to receiver Charles Johnson got the Patriots to the 29-yard line with 14 seconds left. It was time for the Jets to get serious, and they did. Brady threw three passes into the end zone. All three fell incomplete.
The Patriots fell to 0-2. Their superstar was hospitalized. They were poised to fall off the radar. New England had gone 5-11 the previous year. Its second-year head coach, Bill Belichick, had flunked his first trial as a head coach and was considered a gruff, down-market version of Bill Parcells, his former mentor.
With Manning’s Colts next on the schedule, the Patriots were supposed to sink back to the bottom of the AFC East, especially with Tom Nobody at quarterback.
The Colts knew a little bit about Brady, but not much.
Colts tackle Josh Williams was Brady’s college teammate. “He does a little bit of everything,” Williams said before facing the Patriots. “Whatever he feels is necessary, he’ll do.”
Manning had met Brady once at a promotional event, but his midweek analysis of the second-year pro betrayed an obvious lack of first-hand knowledge. “Check out where the guy played college football when he's about to make his first NFL start,'' Manning said. “Tom has been in the big games playing in front of huge crowds at Michigan. It's a different game and different team, but playing big-time college football will help his cause a little bit.''
Manning only knew slightly more than the informed fan knew about Brady: He played at Michigan, backed up Brian Griese on their 1997 championship team, went 20-5 as a starter, was drafted in the sixth round in 2000 and clawed his way from fourth to second on the Patriots’ depth chart. The Patriots also had journeyman Damon Huard on their bench, but Belichick was comfortable with Brady, as were the offensive players. "When he's in there he takes control, he takes charge," fullback Patrick Pass said. "He's most definitely a leader ... He has the fire in his eye to be a great NFL quarterback."
The fire in the eyes. The leadership. The guy who does whatever is necessary. Those things were said about Brady from the beginning. Those things are said about nearly every unknown quarterback before his first start. They are boilerplate compliments: “He isn’t the best athlete, but …” Brady had a reputation as one of the hardest workers on the roster, but the fourth-string quarterback had better be a hard worker if he ever hopes to have any reputation. Brady added 15 pounds of muscle after college, but only because it was necessary.
His arm also appeared stronger in the 2001 preseason than it had in college, but we don’t talk about the fire in a guy’s belly unless we're trying to change the subject from the velocity of his fastball. "I think his arm is good," Belichick said, the praise audibly faint. "I don't think we're talking about John Elway here, but I don't know how many of those guys there are. I think he has an NFL arm."
The Colts knew nothing about Brady, but the Patriots knew plenty about Manning. The teams were still in the same division in 2001, so Manning had already faced the Patriots six times in three seasons, winning twice, losing three times in Foxboro. Manning threw three interceptions against the Patriots in Foxboro in 2000, and he was developing a reputation as a player who could not outsmart defensive-guru Belichick and did not play as well in cold weather as he did in a dome.
Manning was already burdened with another label, one he carried with him from college. He was the guy who “could not win the big game,” who could never beat Florida, who had already played poorly in two playoff losses in his young NFL career. The stereotype of the statistical giant with feet of clay was as much a cliché as Brady’s fiery-eyed, any-means-necessary unknown. They had always been football’s yin and yang, and always will be, and facts will never be allowed to get in the way of the enduring story.
But for a few years, Manning and Brady played their roles in the morality play perfectly, Brady nurturing the mythos of the underdog, Manning powerless against his greatest rival, Brady becoming Starr to Manning’s 1960s Unitas, Manning finally answering back with his own victories and championships. It’s a story that played across the decade and continues on Sunday, the fiery nobody now a crowned prince, the clay-footed hero now a battered legend trying to build a new legacy.
And it all started in a forgettable game on a forgettable afternoon in September of 2001.
Not many eyes were on Foxboro on Sept. 30. The national CBS early game pitted Kurt Warner’s Rams against the turnover-happy Dolphins defense (the Rams rolled, 42-10). Fox had the Cris Carter-Randy Moss Vikings against Tony Dungy’s Buccaneers (the Vikings won, 20-16). No one watched Colts-Patriots except folks in New England and Indiana, some satellite-savvy fans, and the people in the stadium.
Brady’s older sisters were in the stadium, one wearing a Michigan jersey. “Tom Brady looked up, saw the Michigan football jersey, and knew where to turn for reassurance,” wrote Mark Murphy in the Boston Herald.
Bledsoe was also in the stadium, on the Patriots’ sideline in street clothes after a four-day hospital stay. "Drew said the most important thing was to go out there and have fun, because you're as prepared as you're going to be at that point," Brady said, calling Bledsoe “such a help” in the moments leading up to the game.
Brady did not have much fun on his first series. He was sacked on the opening play from scrimmage. On third-and-long, he overthrew David Patten. "The ball just jumped," Brady said. "He was wide open.”
Manning was not having much fun, either. Official sources list the stadium conditions at 59 degrees, with 20-mile-per-hour winds. Newspaper reports described the conditions more icily. “The Colts were a dome team playing on what felt like a December day in Foxboro, with the wind swirling the entire day,” wrote the Hartford Courant. Brady said that passes dipped like baseball sliders.
Belichick’s defense also gave Manning early fits: The quarterback kept calling audibles, but nothing the Colts tried worked. "The coaching staff knows what they are trying to accomplish," Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox said after the game. "It was conveyed very well to the players."
After several punts, Patriots running back Antowain Smith burst untouched through the Colts line for a 39-yard run, adding a four-yard touchdown on the next play. Then, more punts. The greatest quarterback rivalry in history started out as a punting contest between Lee Johnson and Hunter Smith.
Midway through the second quarter, Patten drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty to put the Patriots in Colts territory. The Patriots handed off five times and kicked a 47-yard field goal. The Patriots led 10-0. Their future Hall of Famer could not quite be trusted to do more than draw defensive flags just yet.
Manning began one of his classic marches down the field before halftime: dinks, dunks, audibles, draw plays. Just before the two-minute warning, New England’s Otis Smith stepped in front of a deep pass along the right sideline, hauled it in, raced upfield, weaved behind the block of cornerback Ty Law until he reached the opposite sideline and, finally, arrived in the end zone for a 78-yard touchdown.
Smith said he ran so far on the play that his legs were tired. "You get depressed, try to make a play," Manning said of the throw. "You either make the play or get burned."
The Colts got burned again when they could neither move the ball nor the clock on their next possession. The Patriots got the ball back near midfield, and with the help of two runs for 19 yards by Kevin Faulk (and one four-yard pass by Brady) they got into range for another field goal. It was 20-0 at halftime. The Patriots had already rushed for 141 yards. Their defense had provided a touchdown. Brady was 6 of 12 for 52 yards.
The Colts turned the ball over two more times in the third quarter, leading to five Patriots handoffs, one incomplete Brady pass and a field goal. Manning was battling the elements, a great defensive game plan, his own misfires and now the clock. Manning finally led a scoring drive late in the third quarter, one that ended with a 10-yard touchdown scramble, of all things. But Brady answered, with more than a little help from his running backs: a 38-yard screen pass to Antowain Smith and a 17-yard completion to Patten set up a Faulk touchdown.
A 30-7 fourth-quarter lead against Manning, even a decade ago, was not absolutely safe. A 37-7 lead was. Two plays after Faulk’s touchdown, Manning looked for Ken Dilger but found Law instead. Law intercepted the pass, fell down, got up before being touched and raced to the end zone, Otis Smith returning the favor from earlier in the game by throwing a key block.
Garbage time ensued. The final score was 44-13. Manning did not even finish the game; journeyman Mark Rypien led the Colts’ late, meaningless drives.
Brady finished the game 13 of 23 for 168 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and that lone sack on the game’s first play. His longest completion was the screen to Smith. It was no performance for the ages, though it was better than Manning’s. “Brady played, as they say, within himself,” wrote the Hartford Courant. “He did a real solid job,” Belichick said.
Brady himself gave credit where it was due. "That was our offense," he said. "We're looking to throw the ball and run the ball. As a quarterback, you're looking for situations where you don't have to throw the ball every down. Believe me, I like seeing Antowain bust down the left side."
That was that: a lopsided upset, kudos for the team effort, game ball for the running back, great job managing the game, son. There was no reason to think that the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history had just begun.
The Colts lost their next two games after that windy Foxboro meeting, including a rematch with the Patriots in Indianapolis made famous by Patten’s performance: The receiver caught a touchdown, rushed for another and threw for a third in a 38-17 win. After a few victories, the Colts embarked on a five-game losing skid, and questions began swirling around Manning, who was among the league’s interception leaders. Had the NFL figured him out? The Colts finished the season with a 6-10 record, their star of the future having apparently reached his plateau as a guy who racked up big stats in a dome but could not -- wait for it -- win the big games.
New England, meanwhile, geared up for a quarterback controversy. “The Yahoos are out there already,” wrote Kevin Mannix in the Boston Herald after Brady’s debut, seeming to mock the talk-radio banter. “Get rid of the overpaid statue who's been clogging up the pocket for years. Give the exciting, energetic young kid a chance. See if Brady can be the updated of version of Steve Grogan to Bledsoe's Jim Plunkett.”
“You know what?” Mannix concluded. “The yahoos are right.”
Brady became the quarterback with “it.” The magic. The swagger. The bullsnot. Dozens of unheralded quarterbacks have had “it” after winning a game with the help of hundreds of running back yards and some defensive touchdowns. The archives are full of magical moxie reports after debut starts, most of them rushed to publication in the heady hours just after that first victory, before reality sets in, the magic fades, and we remember that quarterbacks who specialize in dumping screen passes and handing off don’t win very often.
But for once, the kid really had “it.” Or, more appropriately, Brady had more talent than expected, a better arm and body than the ones he left college with, outstanding teammates, a great defense, a great system, realistic expectations and yes, the work ethic and will to succeed. Brady kept leading the Patriots to victory. Bledsoe returned to health, but his immobility had become a true liability for a team with a mediocre offensive line. Brady remained the starter, and he became more of a passer and less of a handoff specialist. A dozen wins and some postseason controversy later (that’s a whole other long-form essay, folks), Brady was a champion who climbed over the back of Manning to get there.
And the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history was born. Brady and Manning would meet three times in the playoffs, Brady’s Patriots winning twice, Manning’s Colts finally turning the tide in a third meeting that chased away the champ-versus-choke demons. Brady currently leads Manning 8-4, postseason included, but their annual regular-season matchups -- nearly every one a high-scoring, hotly contested classic -- became the Continental Divide of each NFL season. There was what happened before Brady-Manning, then the turning point game, then what happened after. More than a decade later, the game is still a referendum, this Sunday it's on the Patriots’ worthiness to remain among the league’s contenders and the Broncos’ wisdom in trying to build around an old, injured warrior. The story of Brady and Manning is the story of 21st century football.
But in September of 2001, that story didn’t look like much, and no one can blame you for watching Kurt Warner instead.