In the third episode of the newly-released Tom Brady documentary, “Man in the Arena,” discussion focuses on the team’s successful bid to repeat as Super Bowl winners.
Notably, no NFL champion has managed to match the feat of the 2003-2004 back-to-back Super Bowl-champion Patriots in the ensuing years. The episode focuses on the team’s journey in 2004, and the overarching “edge” mentality—a reference to the team’s collective competitiveness—that many of the players in the group shared.
As in previous episodes, former Patriots players accompany Brady in recapping events. In Episode 3, former New England linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel provide new commentary.
Here are a few notable things from “The Edge,” which was released on Tuesday morning:
Brady did his fair share of trash-talking.
In highlighting that era of Patriots teams’ competitiveness, the documentary goes into detail about the trash-talking that took place.
“Did you give him [expletive]?” Vrabel was asked in one scene. “Oh always,” he acknowledged. “Nobody was off-limits, I think. We tried to keep a good feel for when to make jokes and when not to.”
“He’s the one that probably gave Tom the most [expletive] talking trash,” Bruschi said of Vrabel.
“Tom’s a big boy,” Vrabel justified. “He can handle it. Like, he’ll talk plenty of [expletive] back. Don’t worry.”
“Your quarterback’s not quite as innocent as we all believe,” Vrabel added.
Internal discussion vs. the public narrative
One of the pillars of the Patriots’ mentality during the Bill Belichick era has been about not giving too much “bulletin-board material” to the opposition, and to avoid saying anything controversial in public.
Bruschi offered an unusually candid assessment of how this worked from the team’s perspective in 2004.
“We felt like we had it figured out,” he recalled. “We knew how to balance ‘One game at a time, blah, blah, blah,’ along with, ‘We’re the best that there is.’ Being able to have those two types of mentalities, and still know when to bring them out.
“OK, in front of the media, this is what Belichick wants,” Bruschi explained. “But then, within ourselves and the way we play on the field, it’s about domination. I mean nobody can beat us and having that attitude. It’s a delicate little balance, but the expectation was to win every game because we knew we could.”
Belichick and the concept of “suppressing success”
After winning 21 games in a row between the end of the 2003 season and the start of 2004, the Patriots were finally beaten in October of that season by the Steelers. The 34-20 defeat to Pittsburgh was a wake-up call for New England.
“Sometimes it’s good to have a reset button during a season,” Bruschi acknowledged of the loss.
“I think in the end, coach Belichick loved the fact that that happened,” Brady said of the defeat against the Steelers. “After 21 games, I think he was ready for the bubble to burst.”
Brady added that while it was difficult for Belichick to reasonably keep up his critiques of the Patriots during the unbroken string of wins, an actual loss “gave him all the reasons he needed to come in and get [expletive] off at the team.”
Brady even went through an expletive-riddled example of how Belichick addressed the Patriots following a loss. Still, as Bruschi reasoned, Belichick “did it when we won, anyway.”
“I used to call it ‘suppressing success,’” Bruschi remembered. “We can play our best game and we can win by 21 and the defense can hold them to maybe 3, 10 points, but that’s the beauty of football. You can pick five plays that didn’t go well. And the coach can either decide to move on, we won the game, or he can coach hard and pick those five plays, and make you see that still you have work to do.”
“It’s a hard life to live that,” Bruschi said of the Belichick style. “You better have thick skin. You better have mental toughness, and you really have to look at why he’s doing it. And if you do it that way, you can accept it easier.”
The Patriots, as Brady pointed out, were built on a love of competition because that was what Belichick wanted.
“Belichick loved the competition,” said Brady. “And I think he really loved seeing guys compete against one another. He loved the fact that we’d go out there and try to beat each other up. He loved the fact that there’d be fights. He loved the fact that there would be guys talking [expletive] to one another. I think he created that environment because he just wanted to see competition.”
As both Brady and Vrabel noted, a common saying amongst the team became about “getting the edge.”
“That’s what we were,” Brady concluded. “We were the edgers.”
The 2004 Patriots knew they were going to beat the Colts
Having defeated the Colts twice in 2003 — including in the AFC Championship — the Patriots were confident in facing Peyton Manning and the high-flying Indianapolis offense in 2004.
Bruschi described the Colts as “the number one overall picks, and the white jerseys, and they play in the dome and they got the pretty offense and all that stuff.”
Beating — or, as Bruschi noted, “squashing” — the Colts was a regular activity that New England not only enjoyed, but expected. Ahead of the playoff rematch in January, 2005, the Patriots (once again playing at home in the snow) were full of optimism.
“You just feel powerful going into Gillette Stadium and just having the fans and having the weather, and you just know that it’s not happening, man,” Bruschi said of the Colts’ chances that day.
“We were challenging them differently in each game,” Brady said of how the Patriots played in those games, “whereas [the Colts] were trying to run the same type of plays and have the same formula. I mean we were pretty fired up.”
The Patriots prevailed, 20-3.
“You know those games where you just look [at] guys’ faces and they just know they’re beaten?” Bruschi asked. “It’s just so cool when it’s the first quarter.”
The Patriots played a “perfect game” to beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship.
While New England players seemed to relish playing Manning and the Colts, the Steelers offered a bigger problem. In addition to the opponent, Brady also was dealing with the flu.
“We booked a hotel late right after we won against [Indianapolis], and a lot of hotels were unavailable,” he recalled. “So we had this [expletive] hotel that we stayed in. Guys were like quarantining in their rooms because we had a lot of guys that were sick.
“I actually had the flu pretty bad the night before the game,” Brady said. “I was like in slow-motion. I wasn’t sure how I was going to play.”
As for the Steelers, Bruschi — recalling the regular season loss — admitted that “you know these guys are good, and this is going to be hard.”
Brady said that playing in Pittsburgh was “a very intimidating place to play, because not only do they have a great defense, it’s all 65-70,000 of the yellow towels screaming, yelling, not to mention, they were 16-1 at that point.”
But as the game played out, Brady was able to shake off his illness and play well. He hit Deion Branch for a 60-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to get New England off to a fast start.
“It was one of the great throws I’ve ever made in those conditions because it was freezing out,” said Brady.
In a matchup of two physical teams, Bruschi theorized that it was “almost like who’s the better tough guy.” In the end, it was the Patriots, who won 41-27.
“If I would say there was a perfect game of football played at the highest level, I would say that would be the game,” Brady explained. “If we could replicate that, we would never lose a game.”
The unsung punt of Super Bowl XXXIX
With less than a minute to go in Super Bowl XXXIX, as the Patriots tried to protect a 24-21 lead, New England had to punt the ball back to the Eagles for one final possession.
Patriots punter Josh Miller placed the ball perfectly so that it could be downed inside Philadelphia’s five-yard line. It’s a moment that’s been forgotten by history, but it was a crucial play in the team’s win.
“Nobody ever talks about the punter, but man that guy made a kick that pinned them down inside the [five-yard line], and it was like it almost sealed the game,” said Bruschi.
Bruschi also added that though he had Eagles running back Brian Westbrook as his coverage assignment on the final Philadelphia offensive play, he simply rushed Donavan McNabb instead, helping to force the championship-clinching interception made by Rodney Harrison.
Bruschi on the Gatorade bath he gave Belichick and his father
Having helped the Patriots clinch a third Super Bowl win in four years, Bruschi said that he had only one thought.
“It’s the first time ever that I went to the Gatorade bucket,” Bruschi recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to get this [expletive] good.’ Belichick, you know? I refer to him [like] that fondly, of course. I love that [expletive], OK?
“I went and got that bucket and picked that thing up, and right as I got it right [above him], I saw him with his dad,” Bruschi continued. “I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to ruin this moment.’ So I held it just for split-second more, then I gave it to him anyway, and it felt good because those Gatorade showers are a sign of a championship and a big win, but also it’s the players saying, ‘We told you we could do it. Take that.’”
The 2004 team was the culmination of a “moment in time.”
Brady acknowledged that he was “tired” in the aftermath of Super Bowl XXXIX, differing from the level of excitement he felt after his first two championship wins.
“I think I was becoming a bit overwhelmed,” he said, admitting that his level of commitment “took a toll on me, I needed to regroup.”
In a larger sense, the team sensed that change was incoming. The veteran core that had held together for the three Super Bowl wins was going to experience some level of breakup.
“I think that 2004 [team] was the culmination of a great four-year run of football, of success, of realizing our potential,” said Brady.
“We had a moment in time,” he added, “and I think we should appreciate it, realizing that moment in time wasn’t going to last forever. We didn’t know that was the end, but when I look back, from the time we won the Super Bowl to the end of the 2005 season, that was the final chapter in that part of our team’s history. And then it had to be rebuilt.”