Today Tom Brady will celebrate his 40th birthday. A seemingly ageless wonder, who just won his 5th Super Bowl and 4th Super Bowl MVP, Brady will once again valiantly lead the New England Patriots onto the gridiron. The team will be seeking its sixth Lombardi Trophy and with some pundits believing that another undefeated season is a possibility, there will be high expectations indeed.
While most quarterbacks would be daunted by such a challenge, Tom Brady has made had a career out of rising up to and exceeding expectations. At the University of Michigan, he rose from seventh on the depth chart, eventually earning the starting role in his junior season (though he did often have to share time with Drew Henson). Brady’s ability to overcome adversity even extended to his ability to handle game time situations, an attribute best exemplified by his performance in the 2000 Orange Bowl against Alabama. In a game where Brady had to twice overcome 14 point deficits, he threw 34 for 46 with 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a dramatic touchdown during the first possession in overtime off of 25 yard pass to tight end Shawn Thompson.
The story of a little heralded quarterback rising from being a sixth round pick and fourth on the depth chart to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory in his sophomore season would normally sound like a far fetched, underdog sports movie. However, this story belongs to Tom Brady. In keeping with our recent focus on underdog and improbable stories, this post will focus on what led to that point and how Tom Brady was able to rise to the occasion.
“Don’t See Him As a Huge Talent”
“Brady, nearly 6-5 and 210 pounds, is a dropback passer who finally developed in his senior season. He was a big-time player for the Wolverines, making big plays when the team needed them. He was not awed by any situation or event. Scouts like his calmness but don’t see him as a huge talent.”
- Nick Cafarado, Boston Globe, April 8, 2000
Chad Pennington was supposed to be the star of a thought to be generally weak quarterback class in the 2000 draft. Tom Brady was just a little heralded prospect who was expected to possibly go in the third round of the draft. .
The New York Jets would indeed the 18th overall pick to draft Chad Pennington, the only QB selection made in the first two rounds of the draft. The San Francisco 49ers (who picked Giovanni Carmazi in the third round), Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, and Cleveland Browns would all select quarterbacks before the Patriots used the 199th pick (their second selection in the sixth round) to draft Tom Brady. When asked if he was disappointed with slipping from third to sixth in the draft, Brady simply said, “I don’t think disappointment is the word … [w]hether it’s the second or sixth round, I think everyone starts on the same level.”
“A pocket passer who will compete for a practice squad spot with the Patriots”
- “Patriots Pick at a Glance”, Boston Globe, April 17, 2000
Perhaps the best summation of the expectations that Tom Brady had going into his first season comes from the above quote. Brady was the fourth-string quarterback, slotted behind franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz, and Michael Bishop. Since it was highly unusual for a team to carry more than three quarterbacks on their active roster, even making the team was going to be a struggle.
Despite it being highly unusual however, the idea of carrying four quarterbacks was not something that Bill Belichick ruled out. Shortly after drafting Brady, he was asked about the possibility of carrying four quarterbacks on the 53 man roster. He replied that he “wouldn’t rule anything out or close the door to any situation. If those four guys are the four best of 53, were certainly not in the business of getting rid of football players if we’ve got them. We’ll do everything we can to keep them.”
The Remarkably Unremarkable Rookie Year
August 4, 2000 – One day after Tom Brady’s 23rd birthday. The rookie quarterback was set to take the field against the Detroit Lions during a preseason game, 49 miles from his alma mater, the University of Michigan. In a move that would become characteristic in the years to come, Brady would win the game in thrilling fashion with a 47 yard pass to Sean Morey with just six seconds left on the clock. Despite his heroics, the expectations of Brady didn’t change. Just a couple of weeks later, the Boston Globe still posited that he could end up being passed through waivers and placed on the practice squad.
When asked about that possibility, Brady told the Boston Globe, “I am going out there every day, trying to get better and see how good I can possibly be because there are a lot of great quarterbacks here … [i]t is so competitive that you just have to go out and worry about yourself, worry about completing balls when you are in, and hopefully get better each day. Then, hopefully, the coach sees something he can work with and then you are able to get your shot.”
As it turns out, the coach did see something. Despite expectations that he wouldn’t, Brady did make the Patriots roster. As Bill Belichick explained to the Providence Journal in 2012, “[y]ou can protect the ones on the 53; to some degree, you can’t protect the ones on the practice squad. So in that particular case, that’s why we didn’t put Brady on the practice squad because we wanted to make sure that we had him, not so much for that year, but for the following year.” Belichick, displaying the football genius that he would become known for in subsequent years, saw the need to break with tradition to hold onto talent.
Brady’s rookie year was remarkably unremarkable. He went 1 for 3 for six yards, making his lone appearance on Thanksgiving Day against the Detroit Lions. Brady’s most notable work occurred behind the scenes, in practice. As Brady told the Boston Globe on December 5, “[y]ou’ve got to prepare each week like you’re going to be No. 1 and if you do that, you know you’re ready no matter where you’re at … that’s the approach I’ve taken the whole season. I always prepare like I’m going to be in there, and the coach tells me whether I’m dressing this week. There were times I didn’t dress, but at least I was prepared. You never know what’s going to happen.” Brady even didn’t dress for the first time until November 12th against the Cleveland Browns. Shortly thereafter, he was officially promoted to 3rd on the depth chart, ahead of Mike Bishop, by Coach Belichick.
Continuing to Rise
In March of 2001, Drew Bledsoe signed a ten year $103 million contract with the Patriots, all but guaranteeing that he’d be the starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. Any path that Brady had to eventually reaching the top of the depth chart was seemingly gone, at least in New England.
To make matters worse, the Patriots signed Damon Huard in the off-season with hopes that he’d be their 2nd string quarterback. Huard, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, had started for an injured Dan Marino in 1999 and was 5-1 in six career starts. Belichick described the decision to sign Huard by saying, “[Tom] Brady and [Michael] Bishop have to show they can win at the professional level. That’s what separates Damon Huard and the young guys. Damon has won in this league, and that’s not easy.” Bishop and Brady entered camp competing to be the third string quarterback. Belichick once again did not dismiss the possibility to taking all four quarterbacks to the main roster.
During the 2001 preseason, Brady was 31 for 54 with 384 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, including a 54 year pass to Keith Faulk in the final postseason game against Washington. It was a game against the New York Giants on August 10th however that convinced Belichick to take a serious look at Brady as a possible second string quarterback. After relieving Huard who went 9 for 12 with 85 yards, Brady went 8 for 14 with 92 yards, enough for Belichick to consider testing Brady against a first string defense.
During the next week’s game against the Carolina Panthers, Belichick made the decision to send Brady, not Huard, in to relieve Bledsoe. Brady then went 11 for 18 for 122 yards. He scored one touchdown, the first of the postseason for the Patriots.
Defying expectations again, Brady leapfrogged Huard on the depth chart. When asked about the decision, Belichick said that it wasn’t just the numbers that convinced him to promote Brady, he also said that, “Tom has a lot of natural leadership. [It] was something that all those players saw and looked up to, and it was easy to see that it was a natural thing for him and he was very comfortable doing it.”
Surpassing the $100 Million Man
The course of Tom Brady’s career, and New England sports history, was changed on September 23, 2001 when New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis tackled and injured Drew Bledsoe. Most of us are intimately familiar with how the story flows from here. Tom Brady made his first career start the next week against the Colts, defeating them 44-13, in the first Brady-Manning showdown (though no one recognized its significance at the time). The Brady-led Patriots would however lose to the Miami Dolphins the following weak, dropping their record to 1-3. Brady once again faced improbable odds. Could he, a first year starter and second year quarterback, lead the team out of the dog house and get them to the playoffs? When asked about his odds, Hall of Fame coach Don Shula said, “”[y]ou just can’t expect a young guy that hasn’t had a lot of experience in the NFL to come in and dominate … you want him to step in, do his job, get help from his teammates, and don’t make a lot of mistakes. The rest of the offense, the defense, and the kicking game have to do their parts. All of the units have to come together when a guy like Bledsoe goes down.”
Brady would once again defy expectations and the team would win 5 of their next 7 games. However, there was the lingering question of Drew Bledsoe, who was cleared to play in week 10 against the St. Louis Rams and made his intent to compete for the starting job to the media. Despite Bledsoe being cleared, Belichick opted to stick with Brady. In fact, on November 19th, Belichick proclaimed that Brady was the starter “unless something dramatic happens.”
The Patriots would finish the season, 11-5, a dramatic improvement over the 5-11 that they finished in 2000. The team would narrowly defeat the Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs, then the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Brady would then lead the team to victory in Super Bowl XXXVI over Kurt Warner and the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.
The first year of Tom Brady’s career was full of defying expectations, rising above criticism, and seizing opportunities. It took so many things going exactly right for Brady to be in the right spot on September 23rd. If Brady hadn’t fallen to the sixth round in the draft, if Belichick hadn’t taken the unusual step of taking 4 quarterbacks into the 2000 season, if Brady hadn’t outperformed Damon Huard in the 2000 preseason, if Mo Lewis hadn’t hit Drew Bledsoe, who knows where Tom Brady is today? The outcomes of the series of improbable events that gave us Tom Brady as the starting quarterback is a testament to his ability to rise to the occasion and perform above expectations.