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What if Tom Brady had never stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001?

As you read this, remember: Steve Kornacki’s musings about that pivotal Patriots season are just a bad dream.

Drew Bledsoe’s injury in 2001 made way for a then-unkown Tom Brady to lead the Patriots.
illustration by roberto parada
Drew Bledsoe’s injury in 2001 made way for a then-unknown Tom Brady to lead the Patriots.

THE REFEREE HELD UP HIS HANDS a few inches apart, and the Ericsson Stadium faithful  —  what dozens of them remained  —  let out something meekly resembling a cheer. The visiting New England Patriots were just short of the marker, and now head coach Bill Belichick had a choice. It was fourth down and they were sitting at their own 45 yard line, with just inside of two minutes left, both in the game and in this dispiriting season.

If nothing else, dignity was at stake here. The book said to punt. Instead, Belichick looked out at Drew Bledsoe and told his quarterback to stay on the field. Why not just put an end to it with one play here?

On the CBS telecast, the announcers perked up.

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“Belichick wants to roll the dice!” play-by-play man Don Criqui exclaimed.

Bledsoe lined up under center Damien Woody. Woody snapped it to Bledsoe, who stepped back, started to turn, then felt the ball slip from his grasp. He saw it hit the ground and pounced: a recovery for a loss of a yard. Turnover on downs.

Chris Weinke, the error-prone 29-year-old rookie who’d thrown twice as many picks as touchdowns all season, suddenly morphed into John Elway, firing off three straight completions, and when John Kasay’s 27-yarder sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers had their first win since Week 1  —  and the Patriots had yet another defeat grabbed from the jaws of victory.

Afterward, Belichick resisted George Seifert’s attempt to offer a word of encouragement, yanking his arm away from their midfield handshake and shambling off toward the locker room.

“A very frustrating end to the 2001 season for Bill Belichick,” Criqui said. “And a sight that Patriots fans have grown accustomed to.”

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The loss meant a 6-10 record for the 2001 Patriots, who were spared only by the hapless Bills from finishing in the AFC East cellar for the second-straight season. The Patriots, a rising NFL power in the late ’90s, were now indisputably a franchise in decline. And their coach, brought in with considerable fanfare before the 2000 season, now looked to be the latest example of the genius coordinator who just couldn’t cut it as the head man. He had now completed seven full seasons as an NFL head coach, and in six of them his teams had posted losing records.

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Not that his job was in jeopardy  —  yet. The Patriots and their owner, Bob Kraft, had invested too much in Belichick to give up so soon, having surrendered a first-round draft pick to free him from a contract with the Jets. The owner’s pride was at stake, too.

When Kraft bought the team in 1994, saving the franchise from a move to St. Louis, he inherited Bill Parcells as his coach. There was success on the field but turf wars, power struggles, and bruised egos off of it. After leading the team to the Super Bowl in January 1997, Parcells abruptly resigned, complaining that Kraft had overruled him on key personnel decisions.

He moved to the Jets, taking Belichick with him as his defensive coordinator. Together, they revived one of the league’s worst franchises, leading Gang Green to the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance and transforming the New England-New York rivalry into a blood feud. Belichick was given credit for the stout defense, but it was his mentor who got the glory.

Color Daily -- REMOTE TRANSMISION MF2 9-23-2001:Foxboro, MA:Patriots' quarterback Drew Bledsoe is attended to by team doctor Bert Zarins after being hit in the fourth quarter. Library Tag 09242001 SPORTS
JIM DAVIS / GLOBE STAFF / file
Drew Bledsoe lies on the field after his 2001 injury.

Kraft, meanwhile, turned to the anti-Parcells, Pete Carroll, who oversaw a steady descent into mediocrity. When the 1999 season ended in futility, Kraft set his sights on Belichick, who leaped at the chance to escape his boss’s Hall of Fame shadow. The owner and coach both wanted to prove they could win without the Tuna. Kraft wasn’t ready to admit he’d whiffed on another coach.

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Was it possible they were losing because of Bledsoe? You’d hear it every now and then from callers on Boston sports talk shows, and the columnists and TV talking heads would sometimes bring it up delicately, aware that what they were suggesting didn’t seem to make sense. After all, Bledsoe wasn’t just a premier NFL quarterback; he was the franchise savior.

WHEN THEY CHOSE BLEDSOE with the top pick in the 1993 draft, the Patriots could barely be described as a professional sports enterprise. They were coming off a 2-14 season and had lost 50 of their previous 64 games. The aluminum bleachers in their home venue, a glorified high school stadium, would, at best, be half-filled. In the early ’90s, you were more likely to see kids in the Boston area walking around with Cowboys gear on than anything with the hometown team’s logo on it. That was life before Drew.

In his second year, Bledsoe threw for 4,500 yards and brought the Patriots to the playoffs. By his fourth, they were in the Super Bowl. Even after the Parcells divorce, he still made the Pro Bowl. The Pats had won big with him before. Surely they could again. Right?

One of the doubters, secretly, was the head coach. To Belichick, Bledsoe was a naturally gifted quarterback who was simply too inconsistent. As the losses mounted, Belichick had begun pondering what a Patriot offense without Bledsoe might look like.

Here his mind wandered back to his Browns days, and what had been one of the defining decisions of his career. After struggling for a few seasons, Belichick concluded that the incumbent quarterback, Bernie Kosar, was past his prime, so he benched and then cut him. But Kosar was a local hero, a Youngstown kid who’d won a national title in college then come home to play pro ball. With this move, which haunted him for the rest of his tenure at the Browns, Belichick certified himself as a reviled figure in Cleveland. The lesson: If you’re going to get rid of a beloved quarterback, you’d better be sure you have a better option in place  —  and win right away.

As he considered Bledsoe now, Belichick quickly realized there was nothing he could do. For one thing, Bledsoe was locked in. Just before the ’01 season, he’d signed a 10-year, $103 million contract. The quarterback was also one of Kraft’s favorites, someone the owner regarded like a son. And after two dismal seasons, Belichick’s political capital had all but evaporated. If there was a problem with Bledsoe, the consensus held, it was an indictment of the coach, not the quarterback.

It might be different, Belichick realized, if there was a highly regarded prospect on the roster behind Bledsoe. But the Patriots’ backup was an obscure sixth-round pick named Tom Brady, who’d barely touched the ball in his two seasons with the team. Belichick was intrigued with Brady and managed to insert him for most of the fourth quarter in a late-season blowout win over the Browns. Playing in garbage time, Brady was unremarkable that day.

As he looked toward his third season, Belichick could see that he was boxed in. It was going to be a make-or-break year for him and he would have no choice but to stake his coaching career on the arm of Drew Bledsoe.

They came out of the gate fast in 2002. In the opener against Jacksonville, another franchise desperately trying to combat decline, Bledsoe completed 34 of 47 passes for 357 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. The Pats won easily. They handled Miami the next week, then disposed of the Lions. A 3-0 start with a rejuvenated quarterback. First place in the division.

No one panicked when they fell short in Oakland in Week 4, but then came the Sunday night meeting with the Jets. Both teams were 3-1, and the early edge in the AFC East was on the line. The Pats’ brand-new stadium, filled beyond capacity for the biggest game in several years, shook with excitement as the home team jumped out in front 14-0. But the Jets chipped away, and the New England offensive machine ground to a halt. When former Patriot Curtis Martin scampered into the end zone with six minutes left, the visitors grabbed a 21-17 lead.

Now it was up to Bledsoe to rescue his team. He regained his sharpness, leading them from their own 20 into the red zone in just eight plays. Then the other Drew reared his head, badly underthrowing Troy Brown. Interception. He got another chance when the Pats’ defense forced a three-and-out, taking over at midfield with 42 seconds left. Two plays later, he threw it away again, and that was that.

Five more losses followed in succession, then finally a win, then two more defeats. They were 4-9 now. The playoffs were out of the question; another losing season was now assured. It was as if something about the Jets loss unmoored the entire team, and especially its quarterback. After Bledsoe put up MVP numbers to start the season, his interceptions were now outpacing his touchdown passes.

Worse, the fans were now in full-fledged revolt. Officially, every game at Gillette Stadium was sold out, but as December arrived there were seas of empty seats. In the home finale against the Bills, a group of fans unfurled a giant homemade banner that read: We miss the Tuna. Kraft was refusing to answer questions about his coach’s future, which by itself amounted to an answer.

The swan song came in Miami, where early in the second quarter Bledsoe was knocked out with a concussion. Tom Brady, the little-used backup, trotted onto the field. In theory, it was an opportunity for him. After Brady held a clipboard for three years, his contract was coming up. The Pats were likely done with him, especially with Belichick on his way out, but a competent performance here would perhaps convince another team to take notice and bring him in as a backup. In reality, the Dolphins were fighting to make the playoffs, and the Patriots had already quit. Brady never had a chance. He threw for 58 yards and two interceptions as the Dolphins rolled to a 34-7 win.

BELICHICK WAS FIRED the next day, one of three head coaches to get the boot on Black Monday.

“There can be no shame, none whatsoever, in being a defensive genius,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote. “That is what Bill Belichick is. What Bill Belichick most decidedly is not, however, is a head coach.”

It had now been six full seasons since their run to the Super Bowl, six seasons since Parcells left town. In that time, the Patriots had gone 44-55 with just one playoff victory. It had now been four seasons, and counting, since they’d even made the postseason. They were becoming an afterthought in their own town. The dwindling fan base was fragmented. A faction had remained loyal to Parcells after his exit and now they were louder than ever, and winning converts.

Once upon a time, Kraft had been a celebrated figure throughout New England, the diehard fan with deep pockets who’d stepped up to stop the team from fleeing to St. Louis. Now he was a talk show punching bag, the meddlesome owner whose ego had driven away the best coach in NFL history and ruined what should have been a golden age of Patriots football.

The Boston media wondered if Kraft might turn to Tom Coughlin, a Parcells disciple just fired by Jacksonville, or maybe Steve Mariucci, a quarterback specialist who’d just been let go by the San Francisco 49ers.

Kraft picked up the phone and made the call he had sworn for six years he’d never make.

“Bill,” he said when the familiar voice answered, “I was wrong.”

They smiled and said the right words at the press conference. “I feel really good about this,” said Parcells, who would be the coach and general manager. “I want to emphasize that I have a lot of respect for Bob after the conversations we’ve had.”

Bledsoe was on hand, too. He’d been happy when Parcells left for New York, believing the coach was too overbearing and stifling, and he’d said so in public. Now, he expressed his own regrets.

“What I’ve come to appreciate is that he’s a winner and has a gift for making everyone around him winners, too.”

From Providence to Bangor, Patriot Nation erupted in euphoria. Season ticket requests poured in; overnight, the wait list ballooned to five years. Gleeful callers shared their joy on the radio shows. The Boston Herald ran a special eight-page section under the title: “He’s back!” The mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, declared a “Bill Parcells Appreciation Day.” The D’Angelo’s chain announced a special deal in honor of the returning hero  —  half off all tuna sandwiches.

“It must be said,” Bob Ryan wrote, “that Bob Kraft deserves credit for swallowing his pride.”

Empowered like he wasn’t before, Parcells set about stuffing the roster with his type of player  —  gritty, intense, loyal. Richie Anderson and Dedric Ward, Parcells guys both, came aboard early. So did Vinny Testaverde, replacing Brady as Bledsoe’s backup. More would follow.

Brady would spend the next several years casting about for an opportunity in the NFL and Canada before returning to his native northern California and becoming a high school coach.

Terry Glenn, publicly mocked by Parcells as “she” during his first run with the Pats, showed up to training camp in the best shape he’d been in for years.

Under Belichick in 2002, they’d won five games. In 2003, the Patriots passed that total by Halloween. They clinched the division on the last day of the season, gutting out a 13-10 decision over the Jets. They were 10-6, their best mark since 1997, and were rewarded with a home playoff date with the wild card Denver Broncos. Just before kickoff, the NFL announced that Parcells had been voted its coach of the year. His team then proceeded to validate the decision, dismantling Denver 28-6. All 65,000 fans stayed to the very end, savoring their return to the league’s upper echelon. A “We love Bill!” chant started near the home end zone with a few minutes left. By the time the final seconds ticked off, the whole stadium had joined in.

They lost the following week in Kansas City, in a sequence Pats fans would scream about for years to come. Down 23-20 and facing a fourth-and-two from the Chiefs’ 43-yard line with just over three minutes to play, Parcells elected to punt.

“If you can’t trust your defense, you can’t trust anyone,” he’d later say.

When Toby Gowin’s boot pinned Kansas City inside the one, the Tuna’s call looked plenty wise. But on first down, Trent Green connected with Johnnie Morton, who read the New England coverage perfectly and took it all the way to the house to seal the game. Maybe too perfectly, it turned out: Months later, it was revealed that a low-level Chiefs employee had been clandestinely videotaping the Pats’ hand signals. It had been, the Chiefs claimed to a league-appointed investigator, the brainchild of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel  —  who, in turn, said he’d gotten the idea from his time on Belichick’s Patriots staff. Irate Patriot fans demanded that the game be vacated retroactively, to no avail.

“There’s a word for what the Chiefs did,” Kraft said. “Cheating.”

But for all the weird drama of the game that bounced the Patriots from the playoffs, the season was nothing short of an unqualified success. Bledsoe even returned to the Pro Bowl for the first time since ’97, throwing for 3,812 yards and 29 touchdowns on the season.

The Tuna had done it again. Four coaching stints and four stunning turnarounds. “I don’t want to say he’s better than Lombardi,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote, “but he just might be.”

The Patriots were back. They won the division again the following year, made two more wild card appearances, then after a down season in 2007 came storming back in 2008. With an 11-5 record, they again won the division and this time advanced to the conference championship game, oh so close to another Super Bowl.

Trailing 21-20 in the final minute, Bledsoe brought the Pats inside the Steeler 10, and Parcells called for a field goal. It would be a chip shot, but there was a twist. His backup had suffered a freak wrist injury in the locker room at halftime, so Bledsoe would have to serve as the holder. When he went to field the snap, the ball slid straight through his hands.

As Heinz Field erupted in joy, CBS announcer Jim Nantz turned to his lead analyst and asked what might go through a coach’s mind in a moment like this.

“Beats me,” replied Bill Belichick, who’d blossomed into a self-deprecating broadcasting star. “The good thing about having the kind of record I had is that I never had to deal with a situation like this.”

But Parcells did have to deal with it, and he just couldn’t shake the loss. A week later, he announced his retirement. His second run with the Patriots hadn’t produced a Super Bowl, but it had revived an entire region’s football spirit. With a 61-45 record and five playoff appearances, it marked the most successful six-year run any Patriot coach had ever enjoyed. Kraft announced that the field at Gillette Stadium would be named in Parcells’s honor and gave him the title of head coach emeritus.

“We maybe didn’t appreciate him like we should have the first time he was here,” the owner said. “But then we learned through painful experience just how lucky we’d been to have him. We’ve never had it better than we did these past six years  —  and I’m not sure we ever will.”

Steve Kornacki is a national political correspondent for NBC News. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. This story is excerpted from a new book of fictional sports essays, “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History,” copyright © 2018 by Mike Pesca. Reprinted by arrangement with Twelve, a member of Hachette Book Group LLC. All rights reserved.