By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You’re sure to hear it quite a bit between now and Sunday afternoon: Bill Belichick is 21-6 with the Patriots when facing rookie quarterbacks. It’s relevant, of course, with the Patriots set to face No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson and the New York Jets this weekend.
The general idea behind the constant repetition of this statistic is the suggestion that Belichick — the best football mind of his generation, and maybe ever — toys with inexperienced opposing passers so badly that only the best of the best can pass the test of beating Belichick early in their careers.
Yet a closer look at the six QBs who achieved this rare feat shows … that’s not really the case. At all.
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, looking at those six rookies who have defeated Belichick’s Patriots. We’ll ease into this exercise by starting with the least surprising names and slowly work from there.
BEN ROETHLISBERGER — 2004
Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champ and has been the face of the Steelers – a cornerstone NFL franchise — for the better part of two decades. His name is certainly the least surprising on this list.
Of course, we didn’t know that the rookie out of Miami (Ohio) was going to have that career when he took over for Tommy Maddox (Tommy Maddox!) back in ’04. But that Steelers team was stacked, and they handed the Patriots their first loss in 13 months.
Roethlisberger was a very efficient 18-for-24 for 196 yards with two touchdowns — both to Plaxico Burress — in the 34-20 Pittsburgh victory. Tom Brady was just 25-for-43 for 271 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while the Patriots rushed for just five yards — five yards — as a team. On Halloween, no less. Spooky!
The Steelers ended up going 15-1 that year, but Brady and the Patriots got revenge in the AFC Championship Game. A feverish Brady threw two touchdowns in that game, while the Patriots rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger threw three picks in the first playoff loss of his career.
RUSSELL WILSON — 2012
We all know Russell Wilson as an elite quarterback these days, but back in 2012, we didn’t know a ton about him. This frustrating afternoon in Seattle provided an introduction to the Legion of Boom for much of New England, as it came to be remembered as the “U Mad, Bro? Game.”
Wilson was very good in this game, throwing for 293 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran for 17 yards on five carries, while losing one fumble. It was Wilson’s first three-touchdown game, and his 133.7 passer rating was the second-highest mark of his rookie season.
At the time, he wasn’t exactly a household name. But in retrospect, it’s no surprise that a quarterback of Wilson’s caliber is on this list.
MARK SANCHEZ — 2009
While, yes, Mark Sanchez’s career is mostly remembered for the time he ran into a large fellow’s buttocks, the fact is that he quarterbacked a couple of damn good Jets teams in his first two seasons.
As a rookie, Sanchez ended up with 20 interceptions and 12 touchdowns. But when he faced the Patriots in Week 2, the league hadn’t quite gotten a read on him. Against the Patriots, he was good enough to not lose, completing 14 of 22 pases for 163 yards and a touchdown while — most importantly — not throwing any interceptions.
The Patriots led 9-3 at halftime, but Sanchez hit Dustin Keller for a touchdown just a minute into the second half to take a 10-9 lead. The Jets’ kept Brady and Co. in check the rest of the way, and the Jets won 16-9.
The Patriots got some revenge on Sanchez later in the year, holding Sanchez to 8-for-21 passing with a touchdown and four interceptions in a 31-14 New England win.
TUA TAGOVAILOA — 2020
Tua lands somewhere in the middle of this list, because we’re not sure what his career story will end up being. As a No. 5 overall pick, the Dolphins hope he’ll end up being great. His statistics may not quite be at that level just yet, but he is 7-3 as a starter for Miami — and two of those victories have come against the Patriots.
Granted, beating the Patriots in 2020 wasn’t quite the same accomplishment as it was in previous years, but Tagovailoa was undeniably good in last year’s 22-12 win in Miami. He completed 20 of his 26 passes for 145 yards and an interception, while rushing for two touchdowns.
His first touchdown came when the Dolphins trailed 9-7 early in the fourth quarter. His second score stretched a three-point lead to a 10-point lead with 3:17 left in the game.
GENO SMITH — 2013
OK, now we’re getting weird. Geno Smith — the same Geno Smith with a 12-19 record as an NFL starter, and the same Geno Smith with seven more interceptions than touchdowns — beat a Patriots team that would go on to play in the AFC Championship Game.
Sports. Are. Weird.
This game came in Week 7. The Patriots won the first meeting of the year, 13-10, a Thursday night affair in which Smith threw three interceptions while taking three sacks. He had a 27.6 passer rating in that loss, which seems to stretch the bounds of the lower limit of the passer rating scale.
This one, though, was different.
The Jets trailed 21-10 at halftime, seemingly in line for another loss. But Antonio Allen started the second half with a pick-six of Brady. Later in the third quarter, Smith ran in an 8-yard touchdown, giving the Jets a 24-21 lead — which later grew to a 27-21 lead. The Patriots did tie the game before regulation ended, and they were in line to take over near midfield after a long Nick Folk field goal attempt for the Jets was no good.
Alas … illegal pushing. The first and only time such a call was really ever made. Illegal. Pushing. In a football game.
That odd penalty gave the Jets new life, and Folk kicked the game-winner for the Jets a few minutes later.
Smith was was moderately OK in the game, going 17-for-33 for 233 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and the critical rushing touchdown. But that illegal pushing penalty kind of overshadowed his big win over New England.
COLT MCCOY — 2010
On a list with ’03 vs. Washington, ’04 vs. Miami, this 2010 loss to Cleveland goes down as one of the strangest, most unforeseen losses in the entire Bill Belichick era.
It’s appropriate, then, that Colt McCoy was under center for it, earning the second of his eight career victories.
The 2-5 Browns, under head coach Eric Mangini, welcomed the 6-1 Patriots to Cleveland for this one. In a game that featured a Rob Gronkowski fumble near the goal line, a surprise short kickoff by Cleveland botched by New England, a twist on the Little Giants’ annexation of Puerto Rico to spring a Chansi Stuckey rushing touchdown (read that part back again, aloud this time), an utterly absurd touchdown run by McCoy, a bucket of Gatorade dumped on Mangini, and 184 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Peyton Hillis … the Browns beat the Patriots.
The Browns went on to finish the year with a 5-11 record. The Patriots didn’t lose for the final eight weeks of the regular season.
If that all seems like a fever dream, well, there’s video proof that it actually happened. Wild times.
McCoy was 14-for-19 for 174 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, plus 20 rushing yards and the touchdown on the ground. He’d lose his five remaining starts that year, throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions in the process.
Obviously, McCoy was not the driver of that Browns victory. But his performance — along with an overwhelming effort from the entire Browns roster — provided a blunt reminder that, yes, on any given Sunday, anyone can beat anyone. Even if one of those anyones is Bill Belichick, and the other anyone is Colt McCoy.
It is both the dumbest and most beautiful thing about this sport we call football, now isn’t it?