Tom Brady's 'Man in the Arena: Episode 2' Does Justice to One of the Best Football Stories Ever Told, the 2003 Patriots

Having given us his insider's perspective on the 2001 Super Bowl Champion Patriots (along with Drew Bledsoe's and Willie McGinest's), the next episode of Tom Brady's ESPN+ GOATuseries "Man in the Arena" turns to his second championship season, 2003. And while it's well-trodden ground, especially in New England where everyone has a copy of the NFL Films' "America's Game" DVD next to their wedding video and home movies of their kids, it is really is one of the greatest stories in the history of the sport. And underrated. And worthy of a new perspective. And Brady delivers. 

If there are three major themes in Ep. 2, they are:

  • How Brady was struggling at this point in his life to figure out how to deal with success and fame
  • Turmoil around the Patriots
  • How Bill Belichick was the Gandalf who guided Brady and the team through all of the above.

As it should, the episode starts with a bit of a long windup into the previous season and the "Super Bowl hangover" of 2002. While correctly pointing out something most people forget, that the Pats actually started out hot, with three impressive wins over Pittsburgh (in the first game played in Gillette, which began with hanging a banner, the perfect metaphor for how far the franchise itself had come), the Jets and Kansas City. But a four game losing streak followed and the season will forever be remembered at the Dynasty's Gap Year. Not mentioned is one of my favorite quotes from that year, after Belichick read a quote from one of his players talking about getting their "swagger" back. "You know what," he told the team. "We didn't have a 'swagger' last year. When you think about it, we didn't have a fucking swagger. What we had was a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency about playing well, being smart and capitalizing on every opportunity that came our way. It wasn't about fucking swagger. You can take that swagger and shove it up your ass, OK?"

That's a real opportunity missed. When I make my own Pats docuseries, that might actually be the subtitle. 

What Brady does mention is his own overconfidence that year, telling his teammates, "Guys, I mean we’re going to go undefeated this year. That’s just the way it’s going to be.'” Until they played Rodney Harrison's Chargers in Week 4. “They ended up kicking our ass." 

As for Brady's fame, while he doesn't specifically reference it, this was the time he was dating the likes of Tara Reid. Peak Reid. Her post-"American Pie" time. Well before the botched cosmetic surgeries and "Sharknado" franchise. And the stories from Quincy, MA cops having to reign her in as she stumbled around Marina Bay are the stuff of legend. What Brady does mention is surrounding himself with people he could trust was a major part of his growth. “You have to put people around you that are going to help you be the best you can be,” he says. “And if those aren’t the people, then you have to move on. I realize that the toughest things that I’ve faced in my life have been the best things for me.”

As for the turmoil around the 2003 team, the story will always begin with the decision to bring in Harrison, then to cut Lawyer Milloy five days before the season. Harrison's signing was classic GM Bill, before we were sure there was a classic GM Bill. We've heard before how the Patriots flew him into town in coach, picked him up in an ordinary car and then took him to the Ground Round, a New England chain restaurant where you threw peanut shells on the floor, kids paid what they weighed and there was a full time clown on staff. Because as de-facto GM Scott Pioli put it then, "Bill and I have a rule: If a guy needs the sizzle, he's not for us." Harrison didn't need the sizzle. 

Another thing we've always heard is that Harrison was always impressed with how Belichick praised him with, "I like the way you warm up. The intensity of it." In this episode, we get Harrison himself elaborating, with a reference to that game against the Pats the year before. “I remember I was warming up and hitting one of my guys and knocking his helmet off. Coach Belichick when I was sitting in his office, he sat down and said, ‘I remember in warmups, you hit that guy and knocked his helmet off.’ And I said, ‘You remember that?’ That little attention to detail, that was the key moment that made me sign with the Patriots, because I said, ‘This guy sees everything.’ If he saw that, if he remembered that, this is where I want to be." 

What most of us assumed was that Harrison was being brought in to replace Tebucky Jones and play alongside Milloy. Even though that seemed weird at the time because they had such similar skills sets. It felt like they were going to go with a sort of two-strong safety secondary. But what we learned when Milloy was released was that the team was trying to get him to take a paycut, and he was refusing. So he was gone less than a week before Week 1 against the Bills. And then naturally, signed with the Bills like 15 minutes later. If the decision to trade Bledsoe to Buffalo a year earlier hadn't driven home the point that Belichick is willing to make burgers out of his most sacred cows, this most certainly did. And it was a precursor to dozens of similar moves in the years that followed. From Richard Seymour to Mike Vrabel to Logan Mankins, even to Cam Newton this year. 

 I guess what I either underestimated or just forgot is how much the decision to cut Milloy affected Brady in particular, because he was saying all the right things in public. But he and Milloy were tight. They lived five doors down from each other, and Brady was shook. “For me, that was the one that hit hard. I remember driving home after that happened and I drove right over to his house. I didn’t even know what to say. It was the first time that I really recognized this was a really tough business." 

And in one of the landmark games of the early part of the Dynasty, Milloy and Bledsoe's Bills handed the Pats the single worst loss they suffered in this era, 31-0. The lowlight was a Brady getting picked off by defensive tackle Sam Adams, who rumbled with the linear speed of an advancing glacier 37 yards for the score, and was jokingly helped to the bench by Bledsoe. Worse still, Milloy sacked his old best friend and the humiliation was complete.

Well, not quite. The completion came with this legendary TV moment:

The episode gives this a lot of play, with Brady claiming the team was well versed in ignoring the outside noise by then. "That kind of rocked the locker room a little bit," he says. "I didn’t believe it. … The reason why we win was not because someone insults us. The reason why we win is we ignore it, and everything everyone says, and focus on the tactical things that matter.” With Harrison acknowledging it motivated everyone to prove the haters wrong, going so far as to thank Tom Jackson for saying it. 

It was maybe the first of such Patriots vs. The Media narratives, while obviously being far from the last. 

The rest of the show follows the pattern of what should be one of the most familiar seasons in Patriots history. First because it was the beginning of nothing less than the best consecutive seasons by any franchise ever. A 34-4 record. A 21-game winning streak. And two championships, the last back-to-back titles the league has seen. 

You've got the game at Denver when Belichick ordered his long snapper to launch a punt snap out of the back of the end zone from his own 1 for the safety that put his team down 26-23 with less than 3:00 left, a game in which the Pats came back to win. Of course there's the legendary 38-34 win at Indy, where Peyton Manning's Colts couldn't punch it in on four tries after a 1st & goal at the 2. A game which eventually meant the AFC championship game at Gillette instead of a hermetically sealed dome in Indy. The best defense of the Dynasty era racking up three shutouts and being a garbage time TD by Jacksonville away from going six straight home games without allowing anyone into the end zone. All culminating with that revenge win against Buffalo, by the surreal score of 31-0. 

The postseason is how you remember that postseason being. Two wins over the NFL's co-MVPs. The frigid game against Steve McNair's Titans. Then Ty Law picking off Manning three times while Harrison added another in the AFCCG. Then the absolutely bonkers Super Bowl against the Panthers. The big reveal of which is Brady admitting that the insane completion he made to Troy Brown was actually a fuck up on his part. “I rolled to the left. We had Troy Brown, and then I had an in-cut coming from the backside. Well, I was throwing the in-cut, and Troy Brown comes out of nowhere, reaches up, and catches the ball between two guys. And I was like, holy shit! Where did that come from? In the instance of ‘rather be lucky than good,’ I was definitely lucky, because there was no way I was completing the in-cut.”

I mentioned Brady getting mentored by Belichick in that time, and I really need to pay off the tease. Because if you glean nothing else from this series, know that this GOAT understands what he owes to that GOAT. 

“When I look back at that time, it was really a growth-stage part of my career," he says. Then talking about how he sees young guys in at the same stage and wonders if they'll be able to get their shit together, he acknowledges how lucky he was. “I had Coach Belichick there to teach me. Every Tuesday we would meet and go through the entire defensive starting lineup, and their strengths and weaknesses, what we could attack, what he was watching and how I could see the things that he saw, so I could gain confidence and anticipate.”

Annnddd … I'm spent. 

This is Brady's comments in visual form:

Kevin C. Cox. Getty Images.

There's a Dynasty to reboot and a new quarterback to guide along the same career path, so there's not a ton of time for nostalgia. But as you look back on the absolute Weapon of Mass Destruction that was the 2003 Pats, you can't help but see the parallels between then and now.  And feel like this current team can have a future just as bright as theirs was. 

My review: Certified Fresh Patriots Porn.