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The Path Back To The Top: Patriots 2001-2004 An investigative series examining the Seahawks prospects to repeat

The Path Back To The Top: The 2001 Patriots Brady and Belichick win their first

Just seven teams have repeated as Super Bowl Champs in NFL history. This series will examine how teams similar to the 2013 Seahawks fared the following season. Some flourished. Some failed. We will explore the keys to their success and their failure and look for clues for what lies ahead for this 2014 Seahawks team.
Written by: Brian Nemhauser

The turn of the century Patriots

I set out to write about the 2003 Patriots, and how they were the last team to repeat as Super Bowl Champions in 2004. It became clear, as I started my research, that the story would be incomplete without broadening the scope to include the team that broke through in 2001 for the first Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. Seattle just won their first, so a straight comparison to the 2003 Patriots would be more apples-to-oranges. Adding this first Super Bowl win for that Patriots team gives a more well-rounded perspective on what did, and did not work, for a team that won three Lombardi trophies in four years.

Brady and Belichick win their first

Most football fans think of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as a dominant pairing. Nobody thought that in 2001. Belichick was a below .500 head coach for the Cleveland Browns, and mostly a career assistant. Brady was a 6th-round draft choice out of Michigan. Both were with the Patriots for their first season in 2000, and saw the team end up last in the AFC East with a 5-11 record. That changed in 2001, but not right away.

The Patriots started 0-2, and lost their starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, to injury in the second game. Brady was brought on to replace Bledsoe, who had just signed a new 10-year contract extension, and led the team to an 11-3 record in the final 14 games.

The 2001 Patriots were wonderfully balanced, with the 6th-ranked scoring offense and the 6th-ranked scoring defense. Their offense was run-centric. Antowain Smith had 287 carries for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns, as the team ranked 8th in the NFL in rushing attempts and only 24th in pass attempts.

Brady was a good, but not great, quarterback. He posted an 86.5 passer rating, and had just 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He was sacked 41 times. Where he excelled was in the clutch. He had four 4th-quarter comebacks, and five game-winning drives.

The team scratched and clawed their way through the playoffs. It took the infamous "tuck rule" call in their first playoff game at home versus the Raiders to secure a 16-13 win in overtime. Maybe the Patriots dominance that followed for the next few years would not have happened if that game had ended differently.

The tuck rule was pivotal in Belichick and Brady's first Super Bowl march

They moved on to face the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, and relied on a dominant defensive performance that included four takeaways to beat a Steelers team featuring Kordell Stewart as their quarterback. Brady was 12-18 for 115 yards before suffering an injury and seeing Drew Bledsoe come on to replace him.

Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams were prohibitive favorites to beat the rag-tag Patriots. Brady and company entered the game as 14-point underdogs. The Rams "Greatest Show On Turf" did not even score their 14th-point until 1 minute 30 seconds remained in the fourth quarter. Many expected the Patriots to take a knee and be content heading to overtime after the Rams tied the score at 17-17. They, instead, marched quickly into field goal range and won the game on an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired. Again, a dominant performance in turnovers (a 3-0 advantage), was the key to the Patriots victory.

The Similarities

Brady was in his second season as a pro, like Russell Wilson, when he won his first Super Bowl. Brady, at age 24, is the 2nd-youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Wilson, 25, is now the third-youngest.

New England beat a historically powerful offense for the championship. The Rams scored nearly 100 points more than any other offense in the league that season. The 2013 Broncos scored 150+ points more than the closest team, but the Rams averaged more yards per play (6.6 vs 6.3).

Both teams were built around ball control offenses and stifling defenses. People think Brady, and dominant passing attacks come to mind, but these early Patriot teams were run first. Lawyer Milloy was the intimidating safety and Ty Law was the shut-down corner. Much like Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman were for the 2013 Seahawks.

The Differences

New England got there with a far older team. Their average age of 28.5 years old was over two years older than the Seahawks (26.4).

New England featured only five starters younger than the age of 26, and six starters over the age of 30, while the Seahawks had 13 starters, when counting Luke Willson and Walter Thurmond, under the age of 26 and just two starters older than 30

Wilson, while in his second season like Brady, had already started a full season as a rookie and won a playoff game. Brady did not start a game until the third week of his sophomore season.

Seattle led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed and takeaways. The Patriots defense, while formidable, was not in the same league. They finished the season ranked 6th in points allowed, 24th in yards allowed and 8th in takeaways.

And the offense was not really in the same class as Seattle's either. The Patriots ranked higher in points scored (6th vs 8th), but scored fewer points, and were far less dangerous. Seattle averaged 7.0 net yards per passing attempt (this accounts for yards lost on sacks) versus just 5.9 for New England. And the running games were even farther removed from one another. The Patriots averaged 3.8 yards per carry (24th in the NFL), were 8th in rushing attempts and 13th in rushing yards. Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks averaged 4.3 yards per carry (12th), 2nd in attempts and 4th in yards.

Milloy had a hand in shaping both the Patriots and the Seahawks championship secondaries

Seattle earned the top seed in their conference, and dominated the best offense in NFL history for their rings. The Patriots won their division, and had to fight until the end to beat the Rams.

The Year After

New England crashed back to Earth following their victory parade. The team started the 2002 season 3-0, but would go 6-7 the rest of the way. They returned much of the same team, and did not have any crippling injuries (at least that I could find), but their overall performance dropped in nearly all areas.

That defense and running game that carried the team in 2001, melted in 2002. The Patriots ranked 17th in points allowed, 23rd in yards allowed, 14th in takeaways, 28th in rushing attempts and in rushing yards.

Otis Smith, and his geriatric buddies, struggled in 2002

The only part of the team that stepped forward was the passing offense, which rose to the 4th in pass attempts, 12th in yards and 2nd in passing touchdowns. It made sense that the only part of the team that was truly young and rising in 2001, grew in 2002, and the part of the team that featured a now 37-year-old Otis Smith as a starting cornerback, a 34-year-old Roman Phifer, a 30-year-old Ted Johnson, and a 34-year-old Anthony Pleasant was struggling to sustain their success.

New England narrowly missed the playoffs, losing their spot on a tie-breaker to the Jets in the season's final week.

Where they failed

Belichick attempted to hold onto the team that won in 2001. He re-signed an aging Antowain Smith (30) and Phifer (34) as a free agents. He integrated precious few draft picks. More than anything, though, the Patriots appeared to fall into a similar trap that the 2010 Packers did. They won with a young quarterback, and decided to make him the focal point of the team the following season instead of continuing to feature a well-rounded team on both offense and defense.

As you will see in the breakdown of the 2003 Patriots return to glory, they quickly re-discovered that formula.

Relevance to the Seahawks

The two teams were quite different in both their make-up, and the fashion in which they won their first rings. Seattle was young, brash, and dominant in a variety of aspects. New England was experienced, a big underdog, and not truly dominant in any part of their team.

The formula for winning with a young quarterback was very similar in both cases; surround him with a strong running game and good defense so that he does not need to carry the team. New England seemed to forget that the following season. It is hard to imagine the Seahawks giving up on the running game any time soon.

Fans who want to see Russell Wilson and his new weapons at receiver take a leading role in the offense should pay attention to the lessons through NFL history that discourage that approach. Pete Carroll certainly has.

The Path Back To The Top: The 2003 Patriots The last team to repeat as Super Bowl Champs

Just seven teams have repeated as Super Bowl Champs in NFL history. This series will examine how teams similar to the 2013 Seahawks fared the following season. Some flourished. Some failed. We will explore the keys to their success and their failure and look for clues for what lies ahead for this 2014 Seahawks team.
Written by: Brian Nemhauser

The 2003 Patriots Season

A light appeared to go off for Bill Belichick after the failed 2002 season. Instead of holding onto the past, Belichick started making tough decisions to let popular players go. Lawyer Milloy was shown the door just days before the regular season started in 2003.

Rodney Harrison and rookie Eugene Wilson took over at safety in place of Milloy and Tebucky Jones. Rookies Asante Samuel, Ty Warren, and Dan Klecko were given chances to contribute, in part, due to a rash of injuries the team faced.

Belichick started 42 different players in 2002, which was an NFL record at the time for a division winner. He later bested his own record in 2005 by starting 45 different players.

Tedy Bruschi and his teammates came back angry in 2003

The 2002 defense that did not crack the top ten in rankings for any meaningful statistic, was arguably the best in football in 2003. They led the NFL in points allowed, were 7th in yards allowed, and 2nd in takeaways. No secondary allowed fewer passing touchdowns or intercepted more passes, and the rushing defense was ranked 4th in yards allowed.

Tom Brady had a modest year statistically, with just 23 touchdowns versus 28 the previous year, but he was as clutch as ever. His seven game-winning drives that season are the most he has registered in any single season of his career. The rushing offense was still a weakness, as Antowain Smith was no longer a serviceable starter, and could only must 3.5 yards per carry for a rushing offense that ranked 27th in yards gained.

After a 2-2 start, the Patriots went on to win 15 straight games, including a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.

The similarities

The strongest similarity between the 2003 Patriots and 2013 Seahawks was their strong defenses and great secondaries. Both teams featured young quarterbacks, but this was Brady's fourth season, and second Super Bowl appearance.

New England also benefitted from having a quarterback who had yet to explode on the salary cap side of things. Brady signed a new deal in 2002 that increased his cap hit in 2003 to a still-modest $3.3M. Brandon Gorin ($3.4), Ted Johnson ($3.6) and Ty Law ($8.8) all counted for more against the cap than Brady that year.

A cheap, young, quarterback helped the Pats feature vets like Ted Washington

That allowed Belichick and Scott Pioli to keep still productive veterans like Tedy Bruschi (30), Willie McGinest (32) and Ted Washington (35) around.

The Differences

The Patriots were, once-again, a far older team than the Seahawks. The 2003 Patriot team checked in at 28.7 years old, where Seattle was 26.4 in 2013. New England had started to turn over their roster with young draft picks like Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, Ty Warren, David Givens, and others, but it was largely still a veteran-laden group.

Brady was still not explosive in the passing game as much he was a winner. His numbers, including an 85.9 passer rating, were above average instead of elite. The running game was among the worst in football, ranking 30th in yards per rush.

But most importantly, the psychology of this team was almost incomparable to Seattle. Many players on the 2003 Patriots had already won a Super Bowl in 2001, and had experienced the pain of missing the playoffs the year after. There were some key guys like Harrison that were hungry for their first, and that only helped fuel the team forward, but the overall mentality was quite different than what Seattle exited 2013 with.

The Year After

Belichick and the Patriots were in full stride now. There would be no step back after another Super Bowl. They won their first six games of 2004, to extend their winning streak to 21 games across two seasons, before finally falling to the Steelers. From there, they won 11 of their next 12 games, capped by a 24-21 victory over Terrell Owens and the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.

New England finally addressed their inept backfield by acquiring Corey Dillon, who piled up 1,635 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns to pace what ended up being the 7th-ranked rushing offense that year. This, from a team that had been living in the lower third of rushing totals across the league for a couple of years.

Brady had been part of a passing offense that ranked 4th and 6th in pass attempts in 2002 and 2003, but was able to ease off the gas a bit with the balance that Dillon provided. They dropped to 22nd in the league in pass attempts in 2004, but Brady's efficiency rose to a 92.6 passer rating.

His yards per attempt climbed from 6.3 in 2002, to 6.9 in 2003, to 7.8 in 2004. His touchdown percentage jumped from 4.4% of pass attempts in 2003 to 5.9% in 2004. He was now an elite quarterback that was working with an elite runner, and the offense enjoyed the balance.

After ranking 12th in points scored and 17th in yards gained in 2003, the Patriots were the 4th-ranked scoring offense and 7th-ranked yardage offense in the NFL in 2004. That, paired with the #2 scoring defense and #9 yardage defense made for a lethal 1-2 punch.

Where They Succeeded

Winning with a young quarterback early makes a massive difference. It removes one of the biggest questions facing any team, "Can this guy lead our team to the ultimate victory?" It also allows the front office to put talent around that young quarterback. Even with the old rookie wage rules, the Patriots had a pretty similar situation to Seattle with Russell Wilson because Brady was drafted so late.

Belichick learned from his mistakes in 2002, and was far more aggressive in turning over his roster with draft picks and rotating in veteran free agents. The core of his team, Brady, Law, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Bruschi, Vrabel, Matt Light, Ted Johnson, were kept around.

But many of those guys were aging, especially on defense. Law was gone the next year, as was Johnson. The careers of Bruschi, McGinest and Vrabel were nearly over.

The team never recaptured the balance on defense and in the running game necessary to win another Super Bowl, despite featuring one of the best quarterbacks to ever play.

Relevance To the Seahawks

Many remember the turn of the century Patriot teams as Belichick's defense and Brady's offense. There is little doubt both were keys to the great run they had, but an unsung aspect of their ability to play in three Super Bowls in four years was their "next man up" mindset. Both the 2003 and 2004 Patriots suffered serious injuries to important players, and lost little momentum as new players stepped in and stepped up.

Pete Carroll and the Seahawks have demonstrated a similar ability in the his tenure in Seattle. Suspensions and injuries did not deter the 2013 Seahawks from fielding a dominant and balanced team. That likeness to the early 2000s Patriots, along with the young franchise quarterback, are the strongest connections between the teams.

Seattle is far younger, and should be setup to keep their core players around for a run that resembles what New England accomplished.

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