“I was very impressed with the signing of Rosevelt Colvin. They are making a run at defense.”
— Rodney Harrison, March 12, 2003, upon signing with the Patriots hours after Bears linebacker Rosevelt Colvin also signed
“Rosey was trying to play a 4-3, walked-off-the-line linebacker to a defensive end in sub situations (on the Bears). But it wasn’t really a clean fit for him. So he had a much cleaner fit in the 3-4.”
— Bill Belichick, 2018, on the Pats’ free agent pursuit of Rosevelt Colvin
To Bears fans, Rosevelt Colvin is a beloved player and a painful “what if.” Younger fans might not even know his name. He was here for his first four seasons, the final two of which he posted 10.5 sacks apiece. The 10.5 sacks in 2001 were the most for a Bear in six years. The 10.5 sacks in 2002 made him the first Bear since Richard Dent to go double digits twice.
To Patriots fans, Rosevelt Colvin — I’m guessing — is a well-liked, well-respected but likely under-discussed player who gets lost in conversations about the first half of the Patriots dynasty. He played there from 2003 to 2008, winning two Super Bowls, forcing a fumble in one and landing on a Sports Illustrated cover.
I say he is likely under-discussed because much of his time in New England was lost to injuries. A broken left hip ended his first season with the Patriots after just two games, while a foot injury ended his 2007 season after 11 games in the midst of New England’s perfect season.
As a result he played in only one of the three Super Bowls that New England reached in his time there, and was understandably overshadowed by a host of linebackers (McGinest, Bruschi, Vrabel, Seau, Thomas...) and his fellow 2003 free agent acquisition Rodney Harrison.
But Rosevelt Colvin holds a special place in NFL history, one I’m thinking about as we get set for a Bears-Pats game on Monday night: he was the first acquisition that helped turn a one-time feel-good story into the greatest dynasty in the history of American pro sports.
“I think we were all fortunate that we sort of came together and were able to get deals done because of what it turned into over the next few years and the Patriots dynasty and the culture,” Colvin told The Athletic in 2020.
The Patriots dynasty refers to the entire Brady-Belichick run from 2001 to 2019, and certainly you can split it into two dynasties, one from 2001 to probably 2007, the next from 2010 or 2011 to 2018 or 2019.
But in the moment, the championship that kicked everything off didn’t feel like part of a sustained run at all.
It felt like a one-off — the supremely Cinderella Patriots rising up with their sixth-round, backup quarterback taking the reins and guiding the Pats over the dynasty-in-waiting Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, winning America’s hearts in the wake of 9/11 before falling back down to Earth in 2002, going 9-7 and missing the playoffs. (Little did we know that would be the final time in his career Tom Brady would fail to win 10 games.)
At the time, conventional wisdom was that the 2001 little-engine-that-could Patriots would be one of sports’ great one-and-done’s. A trivia question. An NFL Films throwback.
And then came the 2003 free agent season, with Bill Belichick and VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli setting their sights on one man above all others: Bears linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. While Colvin’s career with the Patriots did not go how Colvin, Belichick or Pioli wanted, it set the stage for two major factors behind what became the Patriots dynasty: scheme malleability based on reversing league trends, and no wining and dining — just football.
“Is this dude trying to tell me I’m going to be the next Lawrence Taylor?” — Rosevelt Colvin and the new Patriots 3-4 defense
During his college career at Purdue, Rosevelt Colvin played defensive end, with 25.5 sacks across his final two seasons. The Bears then converted him to outside linebacker in Dick Jauron’s and Greg Blache’s 4-3 scheme. He became a starter late in the 2000 season, one-third of what emerged as the best young linebacker trio in the NFL, alongside fellow 1999 draftee Warrick Holdman and Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Urlacher.
Had Colvin come along even five years later, he would have likely been drafted by a team running a 3-4, still converting from d-end to linebacker but as a pass-rusher. If he played today, there would be no conversation at all about his position: he would be your protoypical edge rusher.
But in 1999, nearly every team ran the 4-3. One coach determined to buck that trend was Bill Belichick, who became head coach of the Patriots in 2000.
“When we put in the 3-4 in 2000-2001, there were three teams running it,” Belichick explained in early 2018 when asked about league trends of the 3-4 vs. the 4-3. “So if you wanted a nose tackle, there were plenty of them out there. If you wanted a 3-4 outside linebacker, there were plenty of them out there.”
Belichick did try to run a 3-4 in his first two seasons with the Patriots, but due to personnel constraints he ultimately went to the 4-3 during the first Super Bowl run. The team continued to play in both schemes in 2002 and after missing the playoffs, Belichick set out to return to the 3-4, in part because they were already loaded at linebacker, harkening back to Belichick’s time as defensive coordinator of the Giants under Bill Parcells with Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson and Gary Reasons.
As Sports Illustrated reported in their 2003 NFL preview issue, Belichick and Pioli started the 2003 offseason by writing a list of traits they wanted from their defensive free agents: “hitters, tough guys, people who could run.”
They targeted two players in particular. One was Chargers All Pro safety Rodney Harrison. The other was the 25-year-old Colvin, who had already visited the Lions, Cardinals and Jaguars, and who wanted to either play somewhere warm or play somewhere close to his hometown of Indianapolis. The Patriots were neither.
But Belichick wanted him bad, so Colvin flew to Boston to meet Belichick at Gillette Stadium. They sat in Belichick’s office, watched film of Colvin from the Bears and Purdue and, as Colvin recalled in 2020, “just talked football.”
“After that, he was like, ‘We really like you as a player,’” Colvin said. “He had some (Lawrence Taylor) references about the history of the defense they run. I’m like, ‘Is this dude trying to tell me I’m going to be the next Lawrence Taylor?’”
Eventually for Colvin, New England’s deficiencies — not warm, not in the Midwest — were overruled by Belichick’s vision of how Colvin would dominate in the 3-4. He signed there on March 11, 2003, which helped persuade Harrison to do the same later that day. During the preseason, the team then traded for Colvin’s former Bears teammate Ted Washington to play nose tackle.
Bill Belichick’s new 3-4 was complete.
“Rosey was trying to play a 4-3, walked-off-the-line linebacker to a defensive end in sub situations (on the Bears),” Belichick said in 2018. “But it wasn’t really a clean fit for him. So he had a much cleaner fit in the 3-4.”
Here, for example, is a Colvin sack in 2001. This is against the Browns, the play before Mike Brown’s walkoff interception. Colvin is lined up on the left, basically on the line of scrimmage but not in a three-point stance. His body is low but his hands are up. He’s in an in-between space, not quite a linebacker, not quite a lineman.
Contrast that with Colvin’s first sack as a Patriot, Week 2 against the Eagles. On this play, Colvin is lined up on the right side, standing upright. It’s not a straight pass rush — he has contain and sacks Donovan McNabb after a scramble — but it’s a more natural way to rush the passer and takes advantage of his speed without putting him behind a defensive end as he was in the 4-3.
For the Patriots, this shift to the 3-4 was indicative of something they would do for two decades on both offense and defense: find an edge by reversing league trends. As Belichick noted in 2018, the Patriots were one of only a handful of teams running a 3-4 at the start of his tenure there. In the above story from September 2003, the Boston Globe noted that the Pats were one of five teams running the 3-4.
But with the success of three of them — the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers — NFL teams shifted away from the base 4-3 alignments.
“You look back five, six years ago and you’ve got 16, 17, 18 teams playing 3-4,” Belichick said. “You go to the draft board and think, ‘Here’s a nose tackle. Who needs a nose tackle?’ Well, eight teams in front of you need a nose tackle and there’s two nose tackles. It’s something you have to figure out where you can get the players to play in your system. Sometimes you just can’t get them so either you have to change your system or modify it or play with lesser players if you want to maintain (the) system.”
Rosevelt Colvin was the first example of Bill Belichick finding players to fit a system on the basis of the rest of the league undervaluing them — sort of like the NFL’s version of Moneyball. The painful irony for Bears fans? We looked at Belichick in 1999 as a possible head coach before giving up, the Tribune reporting that he wanted more money and power than the Bears were willing to yield.
If that had been the case, Colvin might have ended up staying on the Bears and playing the 3-4. Instead, the two men would not connect for another four years, when Colvin became a symbol of the Patriots dynasty in a second, different way.
Perusing 1999 Bulls material and stumbled on this bummer. Left: Jan. 19. Right: Jan. 21.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) January 19, 2019
Hello Belichick? Goodbye Belichick.
Bears went with Dave McGinnis, er, Dick Jauron instead. Belichick remained with the Jets for one more year, and then went to the Patriots where, ya know. pic.twitter.com/sLKjVp5fJd
“If a guy needs the sizzle, he’s not for us” — how the Pats wooed Colvin with football talk only
Rosey Colvin was not impressed by his stay at the Residence Inn.
That’s where the Patriots put him during his 2003 free agency visit. Other teams had him at the Ritz-Carlton.
“Man, I told you I didn’t want to go out here,” Colvin recalled telling his agent after the Patriots meeting. “This isn’t the place for me.”
But in the end, Belichick’s passion and vision for Colvin carried the day, as he signed with the Patriots for $30 million over seven years.
“I sat in their office, and Scott Pioli was excited, and Coach Belichick was excited, and after a while, so was I,” Colvin told S.I. in 2003. “Some of the other teams I’d talked to wanted to take me out for dinner and show me a good time, but you can keep all that stuff.”
Added Pioli: “Bill and I have a rule — if a guy needs the sizzle, he’s not for us.”
The Patriots built their first three champions around guys who did not need the sizzle. Their key contributors on offense were lesser-known players like Antowain Smith, Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens, David Patten and Kevin Faulk, guys who made one Pro Bowl between them (Brown in ‘01) but delivered with some of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. The team added Corey Dillon in 2004, with his three Pro Bowls in Cincinnati, but even he was really a grinder, albeit with a lot of talent.
Even Brady during that era was, in all respects, relatively low-voltage.
Defensively, the Pats were led by similar players, though with a bit more star power: Ty Law, Richard Seymour, McGinest, Bruschi, Vrabel among them. Rodney Harrison was considered a star acquisition yet he only had one Pro Bowl to his name. Colvin had zero. The team didn’t truly go after stars until 2006 and 2007, adding Junior Seau and then Randy Moss.
Of all the reasons the Patriots were able to build a dynasty (all the reasons not named Brady and Belichick), perhaps the two biggest were the ones that Colvin embodied: the willingness and vision to be flexible with both players and schemes, and the addition of players who were truly committed to the team. That often backfired for the players, as the club seemed to annually shed beloved vets. But it never backfired for the franchise.
You can thank Rosey Colvin for his role in that.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.