- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

SMITHFIELD, R.I. Life is very different for all the New England Patriots than it was on the opening day of training camp last July. But no member of the surprise Super Bowl champions has undergone a more radical change in status than Tom Brady.

A year ago, Brady the least experienced of New England's three prospective backups to quarterback Drew Bledsoe was ignored even by Patriots beat writers at Bryant College. Yesterday the Super Bowl MVP was the center of attention of a throng that included several national media members.

This after an offseason in which the 24-year-old Californian with the accurate arm and model's looks visited the Playboy Mansion and was a judge at the Miss USA Pageant. Meanwhile, Bledsoe was traded to AFC East rival Buffalo.

"It was a pretty quick offseason, but I got as much rest as I wanted," said Brady, who turned down plenty of appearances and interviews to be a regular in the Patriots' offseason conditioning program. "It was fun. I had a chance to go home and reflect a little bit on what worked and what didn't work. In one sense, I approached the offseason the same way [as last year], trying to get better every day, trying to get a better feel for my teammates and the guys I'm throwing the ball to, but my role is definitely different this year. I've just got to grow into it."

Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 draft out of Michigan, certainly grew up last season when Bledsoe was hospitalized with internal injuries after being tackled by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in Week 2. Brady led New England past Indianapolis 44-13 the next week and wound up guiding the Patriots 5-11 in 2000 to 11 victories in his 13 starts.

Brady joined Sammy Baugh, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young as the only quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes in four straight games. He followed Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Daunte Culpepper as the only quarterbacks since 1970 to make the Pro Bowl in their first years as starters.

"Tom has established himself at a whole different level than he had a year ago [when] we didn't know for sure that he was going to make the team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in the understatement of the day.

But Brady wouldn't be Boston's most eligible bachelor if not for his playoff heroics in the snow in overtime against Oakland and his cool on the winning drive during the final 81 seconds of the Super Bowl against heavily favored St. Louis.

"Nothing really rattled Tom last year," Patriots halfback Antowain Smith said. "He handled himself real well and he learned a lot. He worked a lot harder this offseason because everybody has such high expectations for him and he has the same for himself. People want to see if he can repeat the year he had last year. I have all the confidence in the world that he can do it."

So does Brady, who is intent on showing he was no one-year wonder.

"I don't know of any great athlete who says, 'I've done it. I've proved that. That's all I've got to do,'" Brady said. "I don't think Michael Jordan or Joe Montana looked at it that way. Every time out, they wanted to prove that they were the best. That's why guys love playing and competing. It's good to get back and do what I enjoy most, playing football and getting ready to play. It will be an exciting season. There are pretty high expectations."

Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy said Brady's singlemindedness is crucial to his fulfilling the expectations that come with being a champion and a Pro Bowl passer.

"Tom hasn't changed besides being around supermodels," Milloy said in a reference to the beauty contest. "He's still the same guy who loves playing football. He's a fierce competitor. He has that drive of not wanting to get off the field. I wish Drew were here for depth, but it's helpful for Tom to get that cloud off his shoulders.

"Tom's so focused that I don't think he even realizes what he has done for this organization and the position that he's in. Tom doesn't have anything to prove after the way he played last year, but he does have to deal with the pressure of this being his team."

And with only career backup Damon Huard and rookie Rohan Davey behind him, there's no question that the champs' title defense is in Brady's hands.

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