MINNEAPOLIS -- Hard to believe, but New England once won a Super Bowl without Tom Brady playing the lead role. In fact, they won a handful of them.
That was back in 2001, 2003 and 2004 when the Patriots' defense was the backbone of the team, and guys like defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and cornerback Ty Law were the stars. Now, of course, Brady is the marquee name -- not just of the Patriots but the NFL -- and Seymour, Bruschi and Law are long gone.
Except Law really isn't. He's a Hall-of-Fame finalist who is here this weekend and is considered one of the favorites for election when the Hall's board of selectors meets Saturday. Law was a top-10 finalist a year ago, and, while that guarantees him nothing, it does put him in the on-deck circle for the next election.
So what made him Hall-of-Fame worthy? For an answer, we turned to someone who coached him -- the Patriots' former secondary coach and, later, defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini. Of course, Mangini also coached against him as the Jets' and Browns' head coach, too.
"What a great guy to coach," he said on this week's Talk of Fame Network broadcast. "It took a little while for me to get to understand Ty's personality, but nothing bothered Ty. If he got beat ... you always ask for guys to have short memories. And Ty was built that way.
"Ty had the best ability on the stem of a route. So a route's broken down where you jam at the line of scrimmage, and then the vertical part of the route is the stem. Ty's ability to widen wide receivers on the stem of routes was the best that I've ever coached.
"He had natural instincts that were unique, and he had ball skills. So that's another part of it. Some guys can bat balls down. Ty could convert those mistakes into interceptions. So his ability on the width of routes, his instincts and ability on where the ball would go ... and then his ability to convert it to interceptions ... to me, makes him unique."
Law was a key figure in Brady's first Super Bowl victory, a 20-17 upset of the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, with his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown the Patriots' first points in that game. Two years later he was part of a defense that led the league in points allowed (14.9 per game), opponent's passer rating (56.2), interceptions (29) and passing TDs allowed (11). And it was Law who three times intercepted Peyton Manning in the conference championship game and was so physical with Marvin Harrison the NFL later imposed a 5-yard contact rule.
Law's 53 career interceptions tie him with Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders, and his six playoff pickoffs rank third among the league's all-time pure cornerbacks. But he was more than a ballhawk who returned eight of his career interceptions for touchdowns. He was a sure tackler, too, and that's not something common to all high-profile corners.
"Ty was a willing run-support player," said Mangini. "Ty took on wide receivers and would shed blockers. There's a physical-ness to him that, a lot of guys with his numbers in terms of interceptions, don't have."
When the Patriots beat St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, they lined up Law at one corner and Otis Smith at the other ... and the two complemented each other so perfectly that New England did the improbable: Stall the "Greatest Show on Turf," overcome a 17-1/2-point favorite and score one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
"Otis had a very specific skill set: He was really physical at the line of scrimmage," said Mangini. "He had good ball skills too. But he was physical at the line of scrimmage and he could go and match up aginst those big wide receivers.
"Now, what you wanted to be able to do was double or work some help to Otis' side to allow him to be as physical as possible. Without a guy like Ty, who you could put on the other side and isolate, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did with Otis.
"The nice thing about those guys is that people assumed we were going to do one thing after we showed it for awhile. So then we could adjust and give Ty some help and allow him to take some chances. But it was Ty's ability to match up against the best receiver ... or the receiver that we chose ... that then allowed us to push some help to Otis and maximize his skill set, which was being really physical."