On Thanksgiving Day 2000, with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter, Detroit led New England 34-9. Drew Bledsoe had just thrown a pick-six. Ballgame over. Most of the 77,923 in the old Silverdome headed to the exits, if they already weren’t in cars headed home.
(Gary Moeller 34, Bill Belichick 9, by the way.)
On the verge of being 3-9, the Patriots yanked franchise QB Bledsoe and sent in a skinny sixth-round rookie for his first NFL snaps, playing out the string in a nothing game. Tom Brady was the fourth quarterback used by Belichick that season, following Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and John Friesz; the coach was just trying to see who he had for the future.
“All I remember,” said New England’s second-year center, Damien Woody, “is we’re getting our teeth kicked in at the Silverdome. Lotta fights in the stands that day. Very rowdy.”
Brady’s first pass: off the hands of running back J.R. Redmond; incomplete. Second pass: an out route to the right, incomplete for the late Terry Glenn. Third pass: a completion to Redmond, negated by a Patriot penalty.
Brady’s third official pass: complete to tight end Rod Rutledge in the right flat for six yards. That was the lone completion of Brady’s rookie season.
“I get this question all time,” Rutledge said the other day. “ ‘What do you remember about the play?’ My answer is always the same: Not very much. The moment was insignificant. Nothing to look at. I remember Tom being calm and cool in the huddle, but it was just a regular football play. I caught it, and onto the next play.”
The next season, Brady’s determination and work ethic kept catching Belichick’s eyes, and he earned the backup job to Bledsoe. “Bill was purging the roster, and adding guys, and Tom kept leapfrogging guys,” Woody said. “He leapfrogged Friesz, and Bishop. He was just methodical. Every day he kept playing and doing things right.”
My call to Rutledge was only the 4,000th reminder about this one moment that seemed so insignificant at the time, in one game that was a lost cause, in one season that was a trial for the future.
Rod Rutledge Jersey Retro
“People see on my Wikipedia page I caught the first completion of Tom’s career,” Rutledge said from Alabama, where he is in real estate. “So it’s a conversation-starter. Then they’ll say, ‘Do you still have the ball? Did you keep the ball?’ Did I keep the ball? Are you kidding? It was just a play.”