It all changed in a span of 80 days.
Two decisions transformed the New England Patriots from an afterthought on the NFL landscape to one of the most dominant teams in the history of football.
In the NFL, success is usually fleeting. Teams make a run to the Conference title game or Super Bowl never to be heard from again (1985 Patriots, 2002 Buccaneers, 2008 Cardinals just to name a few) but two decisions in less than three months have allowed the Patriots to maintain an elite level of play for nearly a dozen years.
January 27th, 2000: Twenty-two days after leaving his position as head coach of the New York Jets (after just a day on the job), Bill Belichick agrees to terms with the Patriots to become head coach. Robert Kraft gives Belichick autonomy over football decision-making and the new coach's first real test is the 2000 NFL draft.
April 16th, 2000: The Patriots are on the clock with their fifth pick of Day 2, the team had dealt their first round pick to the Jets in order to sign Belichick and it had been a relatively quiet draft to this point (Unless you consider drafting Dave Stachelski and Jeff Marriot major moves). It is now the end of the 6th round and with the 199th pick of the draft the Pats picked former Michigan Wolverine quarterback Tom Brady. Brady had beaten out Drew Henson during the 1999 season and led Michigan to an exciting Citrus Bowl win, however he was considered a fringe NFL prospect due to lack of arm strength and athletic ability. The Pats nearly selected quarterback Tim Rattay out of Louisiana Tech, but ultimately decided to take a chance on Brady and stored him away as the 4th QB on the roster for the 2000 season.
The rest, of course, is history. Drew Bledsoe was nearly killed by Mo Lewis during the second game of the 2001 season, pushing Brady into action and sparking the remarkable run to the Super Bowl. Once there Belichick's defensive schemes held the St. Louis Rams, the "Greatest Show on Turf" to just 17 points as the Pats won their first Lombardi trophy. The men have been side-by-side ever since.
In ten seasons together -- Brady was injured 7 minutes into the 2008 season -- Brady and Belichick have won 123 regular season games and 16 more in the post-season. The Pats have played in the Super Bowl five times, winning it three.
Yes, there have been bitter disappointments: losing to the Giants twice on the world's biggest stage; blowing an 18-point lead in the 2006 AFC title game; and losing to the Jets at home in the 2010 post-season (just to name a few).
But that's the thing: to lose a big game you need to be in the big game and no team in the history of football has played as many big games over a 10-year span as these New England Patriots. Winning in the NFL is hard, especially since the advent of free agency in 1989. But, the Pats have made it look easy.
That brings us to the scary reality that nothing lasts forever.
Brady just celebrated his 35th birthday. Only four quarterbacks in history have won a Super Bowl after turning 35 (and none since John Elway in 1999). Belichick is 62 and only two coaches have picked up a Super Bowl ring at on older age (this includes Tom Coughlin who became the oldest coach in history to lead his team to the title after beating the Pats last season at age 65. Yes that game still stings).
As great as this dynamic duo has been we don't need to look that far in the future to picture a world where Brady has retired to a world of shimmying at Carnival and enjoying the various water slides across this great nation while Belichick has hung up his whistle for a life of, umm, well whatever it is Bill Belichick does for fun.
That day is coming, and it's not as far off as we think.
With that said, I implore you to savor the moments that these guys, and this team give you this season.
Belichick has re-loaded the team with a plethora of players under the age of 25 and set this team up as prohibitive favorites in the AFC. Enjoy each win, each perfect pass by Brady, each smarmy answer from the coach to the media.
While it's difficult to imagine, the time is coming where Pats fans will have to get used to a new QB, and a new coach, and chances are we'll be pining for the good ol' days.