15 years ago, the NFL was a very different kind of league than it is today. Instant replay was low quality. You could hit with your head and not get flagged. You could touch the quarterback in the head and not be penalized for a personal foul. But, on top of all the rule changes, there were some very interesting, dramatic stories that took place in 2001.
The 2001 season started off in somber fashion with the death of Vikings tackle, Korey Stringer. A former 1st round draft pick, Stringer passed away from complications to a heat stroke he suffered in practice on August 1st, 2001. It was a 91 degree day in Minnesota and Stringer’s temperature was over 108 degrees. On this day, Stringer just collapsed on the practice field. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Korey Stringer’s death brought a lot of attention to the vital importance of hydration. Practices were required to have more frequent water breaks so that nothing so tragic (and preventable) would ever happen again. Water at practices should have always been a top priority. If the players are pushed too hard and don’t take several water breaks, Korey Stringer’s story might have very well repeated. But, as history will show us, sometimes it takes a travesty to improve the status quo. Indoor practice facilities are much more common today too, which avoid the sun completely.
Stringer was 27 years old with a wife and a three-year old son at the time of his passing.
The season went from bad to worse when the September 11th terrorist attacks shocked the nation. NFL players appeared just as distraught as everyone else, expressing their desire to be with family and loved ones. Players and fans alike came together in a way that the league has never seen. It didn’t matter where you were from or what team you cheered for, if you were an American citizen, you stood in silence with those around you to honor those lost on 9/11. The league rescheduled the week two games to be played after week 17.
Then, there’s the Tom Brady story that we’re all at least a little familiar with. Drew Bledsoe just signed a monster ten-year deal with the New England Patriots. Unfortunately for him, he also suffered a monster injury against the Jets in week two. You know the rest, but I’ll summarize it anyway. Tom Brady came in after the Patriots 0-2 start and lead his team to an 11-5 record, including a 6-0 finish. And of course, they were Super Bowl champions, defeating the Rams 20-17 with a clutch field goal from Adam Vinatieri on the final play of the game.
Bledsoe did the right thing opting out of the Patriots franchise. He was too talented to be a backup.
The 2001 season was the catalyst for the Patriots 2000s dynasty lead by Belichick and Brady.
Speaking of the Rams, however, how can we overlook the Greatest Show on Turf? Don’t some of us miss the days when the NFL was more lenient on celebrations and teams coming up with their own nicknames? The Rams went 14-2 in 2001, riding the arm of a young Kurt Warner, the legs of the versatile Marshall Faulk and the hands of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakim.
Perhaps the most overlooked statistic is the fact that the Redskins became the first team to start a season 0-5 then go 5-0. The Redskins had the worst start of any team in over 50 years, being outscored in their first five games, 32-144. The team would finish 8-8 in Marty Schottenheimer’s only season coaching in Washington.
Let’s not forget that 2001 was also the last year where each conference had only three divisions, each one composed of five teams. There was just an East, Central, and West divison. No North and South yet. The Houston Texans would arrive on the scene a year later, splitting the conferences into the four divisions that they are today.
Lastly, remember Doug Flutie? He was starting for the Chargers in 2001. He was taking over for the disastrous Ryan Leaf and actually on the roster with rookie Drew Brees.
Was there anything Flutie couldn’t do? At just 5’9”, Flutie played for the Bears and Patriots in the 1980s, then returned in 1998 to play pretty well for the Bills. But it’s so frequently forgotten that Flutie started all 16 games in 2001, his only season to do so, under coach Norv Turner and with rookie LaDainian Tomlinson.
There’s a lot to acknowledge and learn from the 2001 season. That year featured so many stark news stories, both for the NFL and for our country.