Tom Brady wasn’t supposed to be the toast of New England now. Brady had to fight off freshman quarterback Drew Henson to start as a senior at Michigan and was ignored in the 2000 draft until the Patriots took him in the sixth round. Fourth-string as a rookie, when he threw just three passes, Brady beat out Damon Huard to become Drew Bledsoe’s backup this season after veteran John Friesz wasn’t re-signed and the flashy Michael Bishop was cut.
However, when Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding after being hit by New York Jets’ Mo Lewis in Week 2, Brady took over and quickly made the three-time Pro Bowl passer an afterthought. Brady, 24, joined immortals Joe Montana, Sammy Baugh, Steve Young and Troy Aikman as the only quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes in four straight games. Brady finished sixth in the passer ratings while leading the Patriots fourth or fifth in the AFC East the three previous years to the division title.
After rallying New England past Oakland 16-13 in overtime in last week’s snowy divisional playoff game in Foxboro, Mass., Brady is 12-3 as the starter heading into tomorrow’s AFC Championship game at Heinz Field against Kordell Stewart and the host Steelers.
“What I like best about Tom is the way he responds when things go wrong,” said Pro Bowl receiver Troy Brown.
“Tom plays like such a veteran,” raved kicker Adam Vinatieri. “You would think he had been in the league 10 years. Tom doesn’t razzle-dazzle you to death, but he goes out and makes plays. I love that guy. He just never gives up.”
That was never more evident than during last Saturday night’s blizzard. Brady struggled for the first three quarters before finishing a fourth-quarter drive with a 6-yard touchdown run and after having his apparent fumble overturned by instant replay directing the series that ended with Vinatieri’s last-minute, game-tying field goal. Brady completed all six of his passes in overtime to set up Vinatieri’s 23-yard game-winner and wound up completing 32 of 52 attempts for 312 yards, all team playoff records.
“You lay in bed at night and hope sometimes that the game comes down to a time where you can bring the team back in the last few minutes to win,” said Brady, who will join Stewart and Oakland’s Rich Gannon as the AFC quarterbacks in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 10.
“You’ve really got to commend Tom for the poise he showed under pressure, handling those tough conditions and just hanging in there,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s what he does. He might have a bad play here or there, but he battled right through them, hung in there and started making some good ones.”
Which is why Brady will be the Patriots’ starter when they open CMGI Field this fall and why Bledsoe the symbol of the franchise the previous eight years figures to be either traded or waived. New England’s seven straight victories have tied a team record and also equaled its total in Bledsoe’s past 26 starts. The Patriots’ only loss since October was to St. Louis, the NFL’s top team and their possible opponent in Super Bowl XXXV.
Unlike Bledsoe, the starter since being the first pick in the 1993 draft, Brady is much more one of the guys. He prefers to meet the press at his locker instead of a podium. Brown called him “just a down-to-earth guy.”
Although he was a high school All-American in San Mateo, Calif., and set records as a two-year regular at Michigan after backing up Brian Griese (now Denver’s starter) as a sophomore, Brady wasn’t considered more of a pro prospect when he left Ann Arbor than he had been in 1995, when the Montreal Expos drafted him as a catcher in the 18th round.
“Tom’s not the most athletic quarterback,” Belichick said. “But he’s a very hard worker. That’s Number 1. He learned a great deal from last season. He’s a smart kid, and he’s got a lot of confidence and some natural leadership. Tom improved his accuracy and his strength [Brady put on 15 pounds during the offseason to reach 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds by virtually living in the weight room when he wasn’t in the film room]. He’ll step up in the pocket. He has good vision. He makes good decisions.”
Picking Brady was one of Belichick’s best.