Go-to Guy When quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down, the Patriots turned to unheralded Tom Brady, who is the biggest surprise of the first half

November 19, 2001

Free agent David Patten had it all figured out when he signed with
the New England Patriots in early April. He would build a strong
relationship with quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and more passes would
come his way. Getting in tight with the team leader, Patten
figured, was the best way for a new receiver to operate. As
Patten schmoozed with Bledsoe through minicamps and training camp
and into the preseason, however, he kept noticing Tom Brady, a
lanky second-year reserve quarterback who swaggered around the
locker room.

Brady would sit in the weight room and instruct teammates on pass
route adjustments or the best ways to detect a flaw in a defense.
During minicamps he controlled the huddle as if he were running a
game-winning drive. "Tom carried himself like this was his team,"
Patten says. "I thought, If he's this confident as a backup, I
can only imagine how he'd be running the show."

Now we know. Since Bledsoe left the lineup after shearing a
blood vessel in his chest during a 10-3 loss to the New York
Jets on Sept. 23, Brady has become the surprise of the NFL's
first half. He owns a 5-2 record as a starter and an 88.9 passer
rating that ranked fourth in the AFC after Sunday's 21-11 win
over the Buffalo Bills, and a detached attitude suggesting
success hasn't turned his head.

Brady, 24, grew up in San Mateo, Calif., where he admired how
San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young
made the game look easy. Brady operates with a similarly cool
approach, a natural feel for the game and of how to maneuver in
the spotlight. "People talk about how we've got the ball rolling
lately, but you can never buy into the hype," says Brady. "It's
easy to believe everything that's being said about me, but I'm
mature enough to know I'm not the only reason we're playing well."

An improved running game and a reconstructed offensive line have
helped Brady, but he has been the big difference in New
England's overcoming an 0-2 start. So meticulous is Brady in his
game preparation that he advised Bledsoe, a nine-year veteran
and three-time Pro Bowler, on strategy during preseason games.
Brady also doesn't rattle when blitzed, makes smart
decisions--he set a league record by not throwing an
interception until the 163rd attempt of his career--and calls
plays with a pronounced authority. "Some guys just say the
play," says Pats running back J.R. Redmond. "He makes you think
we're about to do something big."

Brady has even been impressive in defeat. "Every time he got to
the line against us, he was looking over the defense and calling
audibles," said Denver Broncos linebacker John Mobley after a
31-20 victory over New England on Oct. 28. "He was very much in
command."

That loss to Denver was a critical juncture for Brady. He played
well before throwing four fourth-quarter interceptions, mistakes
that could have sent him into a funk. Instead, he rebounded with
a 250-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 24-10 win over the
Atlanta Falcons the next week. "Inexperienced quarterbacks need
to show they can deal with the highs and lows of this league,"
says New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. "The jury is
still out until you face adversity, and Tom proved he can deal
with it."

Brady is well-versed in dealing with disappointment. Upon
arriving at Michigan in 1995 and redshirting, he sat behind
Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese for two seasons before becoming
the starter as a junior. Although he set school records for
attempts (350) and completions (214) in '98, threw 20 touchdown
passes as a senior and finished his career with a 20-5 record as
a starter, he wound up sharing time his senior year with Drew
Henson, the nation's top recruit, and plummeted to the sixth
round of the 2000 draft. "The big question scouts had on him was
why [Michigan] would try to play a freshman over him," says
Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "That had everybody concerned."

"When I went in the sixth round, it wasn't anything new," Brady
says. "My whole college career had been about competition. Coming
in here, I needed to just slug it out."

His new Patriots teammates gave him grief about his frail 6'4",
204-pound frame, with center Damien Woody offering him extra
food after practice. Brady's deficient lower-body strength
affected his delivery--he usually wound up to throw go-routes
and deep outs--and he wasn't especially mobile. The coaches did
like his instincts, poise and leadership, so they made him the
fourth-string quarterback behind Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and
John Friesz.

Often on the inactive list, Brady hit the weight room hard. By
season's end the velocity on his throws had improved enough that
some receivers complained that he was putting too much zing on
the ball. Brady, who now weighs 220 pounds, also badgered Friesz,
a 10-year veteran, for insights on the offense. This year, "he's
been asking questions in meetings you normally wouldn't attribute
to a second-year guy," Bledsoe says. "Instead of wondering who
his second receiver on a play was, he wanted to know about
reading the defense or where to put the ball when he saw a
specific coverage."

"Even at the end of last year I felt like a stronger player,"
says Brady. "I could make throws that I couldn't make before. I
was more elusive. Plus, I didn't feel I had to prove anything to
myself anymore." Or to anyone else. Brady moved to No. 2 on the
depth chart after winning a training-camp battle with Damon
Huard, who had been a backup for the Miami Dolphins last year.
(Friesz had been released during the off-season, and Bishop
waived during camp.)

Brady has shown enough that opposing defenses are mixing up their
coverages more and, as Bledsoe says, "preparing like they're
going to face me." That may not be good news for Bledsoe, who
received a 10-year, $103 million extension last March but has won
only seven of his last 26 starts. Though he remains confident
that he'll be the Patriots' starter for years to come, the cost
of waiving or trading him in the off-season (a cap hit of $6.8
million) doesn't differ much from the price of keeping him on the
roster for 2002 ($6.2 million). New England could be as much as
$12 million under next year's cap and is sure to keep that in
mind if Brady continues to excel. "Right now Tom is our starting
quarterback," says Belichick when asked about a potential
quarterback controversy. "Until Drew is cleared to play [Bledsoe
hasn't received a projection for his return and remains limited
to noncontact drills], it's not even an issue."

Brady also wants it that way. "I'm still only a second-year
player," he says. "People can talk about a quarterback
controversy, but one thing I learned in college is that the
coach decides who plays, and when he says to go in there, you
play your butt off. That's all I've been trying to do."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER The Ty That Binds The Patriots' Ty Law wraps up Bills quarterback Rob Johnson as Richard Seymour gives Johnson the eye during the Patriots' 21-11 victory (page 52). [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER PASSING THE TEST A third-stringer going into the preseason, the poised Brady has an 88.9 passer rating, fourth best in the AFC.

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