FOXBORO – It was December 16, 2001 and the 8-5 Patriots were on the road in Buffalo where Tom Brady was making his 12th NFL start.
Leading 6-3 in the third, the Patriots had a third-and-17. Brady looked downfield, saw nothing open and tried to make some yards down the right sideline. Too many yards, as it turned out.
Brady underestimated the speed of Bills corner Nate Clements and, before he was fully into his belated slide, Brady got smashed by Clements.
Brady’s helmet must have gone 10 yards. Here’s the video.
Watch it to appreciate the hit. But also make note of Brady’s reaction. Within a second he is up and striding back to retrieve his helmet, pulling away from the reach of concerned teammates Mike Compton and Damien Woody, clapping his hands together and making a show of running – not jogging, not walking, not wobbling – back to the Patriots sideline.
His message was clear. “It will take more than that.”
That 2001 season was full of message sending by Brady. Two months earlier, he whipped a touchdown pass to Troy Brown in Denver then ran downfield to tell Broncos linebacker Al Wilson that Wilson couldn’t cover. Wilson got a flag and a fine. The next year, the NFL implemented its first Brady-related penalty – taunting.
Fifteen seasons later, Brady doesn’t feel the same need to prove his mettle. He’s working smarter, not harder. He discussed that on Wednesday when asked about being smart about taking hits. And he discussed it at length.
“I always talk about making good decisions in the pocket as a quarterback and making good throws and so forth. Some of it is knowing when the journey is over and going down and not taking a (big hit),” he explained. “You stand in there and take a huge hit and look tough and be out for four games and not help your team win. It’s a long season, and I think you’ve got to try to be smart about which ones you take and which ones you don’t. You’d love to stand in there every throw and step into it and get blown up and act like it’s no big deal. But I think sometimes those things do end up being big hits and then, if you’re knocked out for four or five games (it doesn’t help the team).”
In the 2009 preseason, Albert Haynesworth drove Brady into the turf on his right shoulder and Brady was messed up for the rest of the year. That wasn’t necessarily a preventable hit (except on Haynesworth’s part), but it did underscore the fact that being a gladiator in August or September might mean you aren’t around or effective in December or January. For years, I’ve noticed Brady will fold his tent more readily early in the season than he will late, probably because of the import of the games.
He wants his teammates – his midget receivers in particular – to be similarly judicious.
“I’ve talked a lot of times to our receivers, especially when you’re a 185-pound receiver as opposed to a 220-pound receiver, you’re a smaller running back, you just don’t need to take unnecessary hits because you’re really putting yourself in a position where you’re not available to your team anymore. And that’s obviously not helping the team win,” he explained.
Both of his 185-pound (or so) receivers – Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman – have the same strain of recklessness and “You can’t hurt me…” doggedness that Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown and Brady himself had. It’s not necessarily why they are currently unavailable, but when they do return, they’ll need to pick their spots.
When are those spots? It comes down to game situation.
Last Sunday, the Patriots could have leaned all day on Rob Gronkowski and thrown him the ball 17 times and taken their chances. Instead, they stayed away from him for the most part. And when they went to him, it was on low-danger throws (the 30-yard fade in the second quarter). But when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, the Patriots went to him twice on fourth down plays. The second was a throw down the seam on which Gronk took a blow-up hit but held on. Everybody – the coaches, Brady and Gronk – understood the situation and sold out.
“You have to try to do what you can to help the team win on that particular play,” Brady explained. “And if it’s fourth down, you have to try to make a play, but if it’s first and 10 in the middle of the second quarter …? Coach talks all about risk/reward about throwing the ball, (saying), ‘Even if you complete that pass, it’s a 2-yard gain. If you don’t complete it, it’s an interception. Is the 2-yard reception worth the risk of the interception? It’s really not. It goes along with other decisions in the pocket and so forth as a quarterback.”
Because Brady’s been willing to “know when the journey is over” his journey – and the Patriots’ – continues.