This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 24, 2001, issue. Subscribe today!
WHETHER HE'S DRIVING around in his pickup, or unseating The Franchise in New England, or resurrecting an 0-2 team into a probable playoff team, Tom Brady always seems to have that toothy grin on his face, the look of someone who's crashed a party. He knows people are always checking him out. Frame: too skinny. Arm: not powerful. Age: too young. Credentials: a sixth-round pick. So when Brady joins Montana, Young, Baugh and Aikman on the all-time list of quarterbacks to connect on 70 percent of his passes for four games in a row, that grin reappears, smugly, as if to say, "Told you so."
Maybe we should have seen this coming when Brady started advising Drew Bledsoe on offensive strategies during the preseason. Or when Brady tossed touchdown passes of 91 and 60 yards on consecutive plays against the Colts in his fourth career start. Or when Pats coach Bill Belichick, a man who usually schedules exactly one smile every other month, started grinning like it was Christmas when chatting about his young QB. Sure, running back Antowain Smith has rediscovered his career, and a small-fry offensive line has been better than anyone thought. But the lanky second-year quarterback, the one who entered the season with one completion in three career passes, is the reason the Pats are thinking January.
Who knows what Brady will do for an encore, or what he'll do with the people waiting at his mailbox for autographs, or with the pictures women send him (he is 24, single and handsome). Thanks to Belichick's startling decision to disenfranchise Bledsoe, we're probably going to find out.
For now, folks in New England are using the word "storybook" to describe his season, but Brady doesn't buy it. Sounds too easy. Break me down, he says, and you'll see why I've turned the league upside down. As good as he's been, it's an offer you can't refuse.
BILL WALSH RARELY spoke of Joe Montana's arm; it was Montana's footwork he loved, footwork that made his arm so accurate. So if you want to know exactly how Brady has cut up the NFL into an armchair doily, start with his feet.
That's where Belichick started. He was intrigued by Brady's accuracy (62.3 percent) at Michigan, but when Brady reported to camp before the 2000 season, Belichick saw a rookie QB whose La-Z-Boy dropbacks and 5-plus 40 wouldn't cut it in the Pats' quick-passing offense. Son, Belichick told him, you need to get faster. In a hurry. So Brady hit the weight room during the season, then attended all 60 team workouts in the off-season, adding 15 pounds to his just-over-200-pound, 6'4'' frame. He also spent his nights dropping backin his small apartment in Foxboro, following afternoons spent dropping back on turf, which came after mornings spent watching film of yesterday's dropbacks.
Last July, when training camp opened, Belichick nearly swallowed his whistle. "I was outrunning guys -- kind of," Brady laughs. More importantly, "I felt more mobile. And I was able to get the ball away in a hurry."
Fast-forward to third-and-four at midfield, down 13-0 to the Jets on Dec. 2. Brady takes a quick drop, sets up perfectly and fires a slant to Fred Coleman, who goes 46 yards to set up New England's first score. Click forward again. Now it's third-and-two during a timeout with 1:46left, the Pats at midfield clinging to a 17-16 lead. Belichick calls Brady's number, a quarterback scramble for the first down that would put the game away.
"That's definitely what you want, huh?" says Brady, clutching his sore ribs.
"It's the last play of the game," Belichick says. "You don't have time to get a cup of coffee. Can you run it or not?"
End of discussion. Brady takes the snap, rolls right, fakes a handoff to tailback Kevin Faulk, then spins behind the right side of the line. Hit just short of the 48, he falls forward for the first down -- by a foot.
Next, listen to Brady's voice. No, not the yawning Ben Stein voice he uses in public. (During a recent press conference, reporters listened as Brady droned on about his mom and his dad and "just wanting to play as well as I can"; a couple of local writers walked out in midsentence, leaving Brady to ask, "Where's everyone going? Geez, am I that boring?") No, pay attention to the voice Brady uses on the field. Direct, clear, pointed. Demanding when he has to be. Confrontational when he wants to be. Not many vets listen when a second-year guy shouts. In New England, they do. "He has a good feel of when to jump on a guy," says Belichick, "and when to explain things."
Jumping: It's the second quarter of the Jets game. Two offensive linemen are slow getting off the field. Brady turns around, jogs over to them, and screams, "Let's go!" He follows them over to the sidelines and continues to fire away. It was the last three-and-out for the Pats all day.
Explaining: It's a midweek practice before the Jets showdown. Coleman runs a slant to the wrong spot -- right into the linebacker -- so Brady pulls him aside. "If you do that again, that's an interception," he tells Coleman. "You've gotta get behind him." Coleman would do exactly as he was told on the critical 46-yard reception that Sunday.
"It doesn't matter whether he's right or wrong," wideout Troy Brown says. "People listen to him. He gives you a look that makes you know if you do what he tells you, it'll be fine."
Brady knew he was good long before anyone else did, and he's not afraid to make it clear to any remaining disbelievers. Against the Broncos, he drove linebacker Al Wilson so crazy -- "Can't believe you fell for that one!" he woofed. "You really can't cover, can you?" -- that Wilson hit Brady late after a touchdown pass, drawing a $5,000 fine. "I'm pretty chirpy," Brady says. "I can talk a little too much smack."
Of course, people stop listening real fast if you don't know what you're talking about. But people have listened to Brady for a reason. When he was at Michigan, then-offensive coordinator Mike DeBord called him in on off-days to help with the game plan. "Not every player could be a coach," says DeBord, now the head coach at Central Michigan. "He could. He can process a lot of football quickly."
This off-season, receiver David Patton was stunned when Brady, between reps in the weight room, would tell the newly signed free agent how to adjust his routes on the fly. "You just don't hear that coming from a backup," Patton says. "I wondered, 'What if he were starting?' "
The answer came against the Saints in Week 11, with 16 seconds left in the first half of his first game as the anointed starter. Up 13-0, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis calls a rollout right against eight-deep coverage. Brady, on the run, checks option No.1, Patton on a go route: covered. Then he finds option No. 2, Brown on a 15-yard out route: covered.
So Brady stops, plants and drills a pass to option No. 3, wideout Charles Johnson, running left to right across the end. Result: a 24-yard touchdown. "He never seems to be confused," Bills GM Tom Donahoe says.
Not even when his team is losing. "Every time he got to the line against us, he was looking over the defense and calling audibles," Broncos linebacker John Mobley said after Denver beat the Pats 31-20. "He was very much in command." Brady, naturally, agrees. "Football's always come easy to me," he says, flashing that grin again. "I've always been able to focus downfield. I think I know where everyone is on every play."
Tell Belichick about it. When asked why he adores Brady so much, the coach pauses, then does a three-step drop, holding an imaginary football. It's a strange sight, a fifty-something head coach doing an impression of his second-year quarterback, but here goes: "I'll get mad at him and say, 'Why did you do that?' And he'll say, 'Well, I saw the corner here, I saw the linebacker there. It looked like the receiver slipped a bit on his cut and I didn't want to throw it to him. I had a guy in my face, so I came back late and tried to throw it in the flat. I should have thrown it away.' " Belichick gives you a look that says, yeah, sure. "But then I go and look at the tape," he says, "and I see all that's happening, just as he sees it."
Here's what Belichick has seen so far: eight wins in 11 starts, with 2,518 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. Eight games without an interception. Five games in which Brady has completed better than 70 percent of his passes.
Here's what else Belichick has seen from Brady: the ability to shrug off the emotional distractions that come when the coach picks one man to lead over another. Especially when that man is a 29-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler who also happens to be your friend and mentor.
Bledsoe and Brady were on the fast track to being best friends. They golfed together, went to baseball games together, played jokes on each other. When Patriots QB coach Dick Rehbein died of a heart attack on Aug.6, Bledsoe moved into the role, tutoring the younger quarterback.
The day the Jets' Mo Lewis punctured an artery in Bledsoe's chest, causing him to lose half his body's blood in 2¬ hours, Brady wasthe first teammate to arrive at Massachusetts General Hospital. Brady opened the door to Bledsoe's hospital room, saw his friend hooked up to all those machines, breathed deeply and then fell silent. He had no idea what to say.
Thrust into the starting role, Brady showed he did know what to do, winning three of the next four games. Then came the four interceptionsin the fourth quarter against the Broncos in Week 7 -- the first picks of his career after a record 162 attempts. Bledsoe told him: "You're going to have more days like this. But you've got to show the team you're ready to go Wednesday." Bledsoe dropped tips for how to burn cornerback Ray Buchanan of the Falcons, New England's next opponent: lay off the out routes and short stuff, and attack him deep. Brady spent Monday and Tuesday in the film room. That Sunday, he threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-10 win, and beat Buchanan five times.
But tips were easier to give and receive then. Bledsoe was still injured, still 20 pounds under his playing weight, still thinking that Belichick would remain true to his word and give him a chance to compete for his starting job once he was healthy. On Nov. 19, Belichick reversed field, naming Brady the starter for the rest of the season. Bledsoe went to owner Bob Kraft for help, and Kraft told Bledsoe it was Belichick's call.
The next few days around Foxboro were strange: the two quarterbacks, standing feet apart, discussing their relationship with reporters but not with each other. Bledsoe politely declined comment for this story, but it's clear his relationship with Brady will be easier when they are no longer wearing the same uniform. "Look, I can only speak for myself," Brady says. "There's a personal friendship there that I value. But Coach made his decision."
It must have made Brady cringe when Patriots fans booed Bledsoe as he jogged out of the tunnel before the game against the Saints. Before the Jets game, Bledsoe called the coin flip as one of the Pats' captains, then jogged to the sideline and put on a jacket and cap. He helped Brady warm up, then stood alone, holding the ball after Brady waved him off and grabbed his helmet. After beating the Jets, Brady exchanged victory leaps, high-fives and butt slaps with his teammates. Bledsoe was the first one showered, the first one packed, the first one out of the locker room.
BLEDSOE CALLS these last couple of months "Brady Days." In November, Brady went to a Celtics game and was instantly surrounded by autograph seekers. He left after 20 minutes because the folks behind him couldn't see the game through the mob. The Patriots Pro Shop is sold out of Brady's No. 12 jersey. Dining with his folks the other night, Brady paused for a moment and said, "These are the best of times."
How quickly times can change. Don Yee, Brady's agent, told Tom Sr. that NFL scouts had committed "malpractice" in evaluating his son. Not that it's burned in Brady's memory or anything, but faster than it takes him to fire a slant, he can name the quarterbacks picked before him: Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, Spergon Wynn. On draft day 2000, Brady was so distraught, he walked out of the house carrying a baseball bat. Says Tom Sr., "We were concerned for the cars in the neighborhood." Just then, Belichick called, and the last thing Brady said was, "You won't regret this."
But the stakes are so much higher now. For the second time in his career, Belichick has alienated the franchise quarterback -- remember Bernie Kosar? -- and it seems virtually certain that Bledsoe will be gone next season. The Pats could trade him (one GM says he'd bring a first- and a third-round pick in return), waive him (the cap hit is virtually the same as it would be for keeping him) or expose him to the Houston Texans in the expansion draft (which would at least eliminate any cap hit).
Brady has another year left on a rookie contract that pays him $298,000, then he becomes a restricted free agent. The same GM says Brady would fetch a first-rounder. All that hangs in the balance is Belichick's future and that of his team. But don't expect Belichick to be listening to any offers for Brady.
All of which amazes Tom Sr. He remembers watching Drew Henson cut into his son's playing time at Michigan. He remembers hearing the NFL scouts wonder aloud why a senior was being benched for a sophomore. Mostly, he remembers the pain his son felt as he saw his NFL prospects slipping away. "He was under such pressure and so hurt there, I don't know how he handled it," Tom Sr. says. "They have a good support system at Michigan. They had counselors, and he availed himself of everything. He needed it all.
"We wouldn't talk about football with him on the phone. He didn't know if football was worth it for him."
It sure is now.