Behind closed doors, how did Tom Brady approach his first NFL start for the 0-2 Patriots in 2001 as they prepared to take on Indianapolis and Peyton Manning?
Editor's note: This is Part III of Tom E. Curran's three-part series revisiting the rise of Tom Brady from sixth-round pick to seven-time Super Bowl champion. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
Dave Nugent, defensive end and Brady's roommate: Leading up to that point he was always very professional. He still watched game film and practice film like he was preparing to be the starter. But I remember from that moment, he took it to a different level. He became laser focused because this was the moment that he had been preparing himself for. He always told me that all he can do is focus on the things that he can control so that when his moment came, he'd be ready for it. And I remember when he got that opportunity he was not going to let it go and he became just obsessively just laser focused with his job at hand.
I didn't see him in the morning because he got up that much earlier to go to the stadium. I didn't see him at night because he'd be in our basement watching film. I just remember he was just intentionally and intensely watching film but there were no nerves. He didn't seem uncomfortable at all during the week. Just like he was built for that moment, you know, it's like he's been preparing for this moment. And he just seemed ready to me, that's what stood out of my mind.
BILL BELICHICK FIELDED A SLEW OF QUESTIONS THAT WEEK ABOUT BRADY’S FITNESS TO BE AN NFL STARTER. THIS IS A PORTION OF BELICHICK’S PRESS CONFERENCE ON MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 AFTER CONFIRMING BRADY WOULD BE STARTER.
Q: If you have to begin your preparation for the Colts right now, you obviously can not prepare with Drew playing, who is your quarterback?
BB: Tom Brady.
Q: Where does he fall in the parameters for arm strength to be a successful NFL quarterback?
BB: I think his arm is good.
Q: Obviously he doesn't have a cannon and a lot of guys who do have cannons couldn't hit the side of a barn, but ...
BB: I don't think we are talking about John Elway here, but I don't know how many of those there are. I think he has got an NFL arm; he has got a good NFL arm.
Q: Tom isn't exactly an established NFL quarterback as of yet, so how much quicker would you be to make the change with him?
BB: I can't put any timeframe or parameters on that. Tom will play and we expect him to play well.
Q: Is his leadership a reason why expect him to succeed?
BB: Yes. I really don't think that I am going to be standing here week after week talking about all of the problems that Tom Brady had. I have confidence in him, I think the team has confidence in him and I think that he will prepare himself well and he will go out there and perform at a good level.
I am sure that like every other young player there will always be something in the game that you would like to do differently. People say that about every player young or old. It is always going to be that way. Everybody will make a mistake in the game, but I think overall that he will perform within the framework of the offense that we have designed for him and he will make plays that he is capable of making. That is what my expectations are and I think Tom will work hard to respond to that opportunity.
Nobody ever likes to see a teammate go down, especially a warrior like Drew, just to go back in the game in that situation and the condition that he did shows the kind of toughness and grit that he has and what he is respected for. But at the same time every player likes to play, every player wants to take advantage of an opportunity and I know that Tom has prepared hard and that is what a backup quarterback's job is. To be ready when the opportunity arises.
ACROSS THE COUNTRY IN SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA, BRADY’S PARENTS -- TOM SR. AND GALYNN -- WERE CONFIDENT BECAUSE THEIR SON WAS CONFIDENT.
Tom Brady, Sr.: We did talk to Tommy and he said, ‘Yeah I think I'm going to be it. I'm ready to go.’ We were never concerned about it.
He had so many comebacks, very opportune times in his college career, that nothing frankly seemed to amaze him. And for us, the biggest amazement, frankly -- I think our biggest news is when he called us and he made the team the first year. He said he made the team, and that kind of overwhelmed us because they had had John Friesz and Michael Bishop. So he was fourth on the depth chart.
I didn't have any doubt that he would do very well. One thing that he always had under his control is he's been very well aware of game situations. When he was a kid, we’d watch games and we'd say, ‘That was a good move’ or ‘That was a bad move’ or ‘Why’d they call a timeout’ or whatever. He always was a little bit distressed (when teams did things that didn’t make sense situationally). He’d keep saying, ‘You don't do this, you don't do this, you don't do this.’ He had a very good sense of what to do during various situations in the game.
It was a very happy time for Galynn and I with Tommy getting the chance to play, but I certainly felt badly for Drew on that (and the injury).
WHEN GAME TIME CAME, OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR CHARLIE WEIS FELT GOOD ABOUT BRADY. AND HE FELT GOOD ABOUT THE TEAM’S PLAN FOR HIM AND THE OFFENSE.
Weis: He's kind of a wired-up guy on game day when he comes out the tunnel, hitting helmets and the other stuff. But as far as composure, I mean, he was excited. But always, always composed. Great composure.
Remember we had a good defense. So we understood, Tommy understood that we're a complementary team at that time. Our defense was better than our offense. ... We had a good methodical team that could run the football and we're going against a team, as I recall, that wasn't very good against the run. And I know we ran the ball about 40 times that day (39 for 177 and three TDs). Antowain Smith ran over 20 times (22), and I know Kevin (Faulk) got another 10 touches (nine carries, two catches). We completed like 13 passes. The most important thing is, he didn't turn the ball over. He took care of the football. Everyone was saying, ‘All they do is dink and dunk and he can't throw a ball down the field.’ What we're doing is playing complimentary football, and I think that we got off to a good start that day.
It wasn't a question whether you could throw long. It was, ‘Let's take what they give you right now and we’ll go in that direction.' And that's how you play winning football.
Scott Pioli, Director of Player Personnel: We knew that there were going to be bumps and that it wasn’t going to be perfect. His first start was a mixed bag. You go back and he started out and he didn't look so hot. (Brady airmailed an open David Patten with his first third-down throw.) Charlie did something which wasn't very Charlie-like. He was trying to get Tom to push the ball with a few passes that were downfield whereas later in the game, in the second half, Charlie ran a couple more draws. Antowain Smith established himself as the good back that he was going to be that year. There were a little more checkdowns, using (tight end) Jermaine Wiggins, using Kevin Faulk. The pattern changed with the play calling but the key was that the defense played lights out that day.
That was a big part of the story. Tommy got a lot of help from a lot of people. And most importantly, Tommy didn't do anything to lose the game.
THE GAME’S PIVOTAL PLAY -- ARGUABLY, THE SEASON’S PIVOTAL PLAY -- CAME ON THE COLTS' FIRST POSSESSION. IT WAS SECOND-AND-6 FROM THE COLTS 37. MANNING HIT WIDE RECEIVER JEROME PATHON FOR 5 YARDS AND LINEBACKER BRYAN COX OBLITERATED PATHON A YARD SHORT OF THE STICKS. ON THE NEXT PLAY, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE JAMMED UP EDGERRIN JAMES, FORCING A COLTS PUNT. THAT STYLE OF DEFENSE WOULD HOLD FOR THE NEXT FOUR MONTHS.
Pioli: Truly, I felt the energy in the entire place change when Brian Cox had that hit on Pathon. It changed the energy in the building. I mean, (linebackers coach) Pepper Johnson is always a little bit off the hook on the sidelines. He took it next level.
B. Cox was a new dude to that team. He was a Jet. He was a Jet that Patriots people and Patriots players hated until he showed up. He showed up at our place and it was different but similar to when Rodney Harrison showed up. (Cox) brought this energy, this tension, this intensity that was different. He wasn't initially a locker room favorite. But people realized, ‘Hey, man, that stuff when I was with the Jets, that wasn’t personal. That was business. I was doing the best for my team.’ And that became part of the collective understanding of our locker room that once you're in that locker room, you're one of us. Yeah, that other stuff happened, but once you know about Brian Cox, everything he's going to do is for our collective greater good.
Our defense that day, Anthony Pleasant, Bobby Hamilton, Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson -- they all played well. Otis Smith -- I mean, Otis had a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in that game. I remember, right before the half, they're driving. And we put 10 more points on them in the last two minutes because Otis intercepts the ball, runs it back for a touchdown. Then we get the ball back, a three-and-out. We get a chunk drive. And that to me, that's one of the things I remember about that. How well Brady, and our offense and our team, our defense, and offense were prepared. Chunk passes, use the sidelines, use timeouts, just the efficiency of the coaching, and then the performance by the players. And then three more points to make it 20 nothing at the end of the half? That was pretty special stuff.
I trusted in Charlie in that game. Charlie and Bill and Ernie Adams (Belichick’s do-it-all advisor) knew what we had to do with the kid and they did it.
I always go back to one of the great lessons I learned early in football having grown up a Giants fan and listening to how Phil Simms was put together and how they took this young guy from Morehead State and evolved him. (Bill Parcells) and (Giants offensive coordinator) Ron Erhardt made sure that they did a lot with the short and underneath and sideways passing game, to build the confidence of the quarterback and get him comfortable. To get the line comfortable to figure out what's going on in front of them. And then to also get the ball in the hands of people who are getting paid to have the ball in their hands and be out in space and work against other people.
That's what Charlie started to do. I cannot overstate the importance and the work all of the skill players -- not just the guys catching the ball that day -- but Mark Edwards doing his job at fullback, Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk on the draws, Kevin Faulk picking up the blitz. It wasn't perfect that day. I'm not saying it was. But there were signs of things coming together. There were moments of certain things where you’d say, ‘Damn, that's good and smart football.’
I remember Kevin Faulk, getting out of bounds, getting himself to the perimeter, getting out of bounds, run after catch, draws, there were things happening with the team. People were focusing on the low-hanging fruit. To me that game, that situational football at the end of the half, to get the game from 17, then to get those extra three points at the end of the half what that did for that team, mentally and emotionally? But also, I think, for them to understand all that Bill is teaching them? It comes together and they say, ‘This stuff might work! This stuff makes sense! That three points may matter! Wow! This stuff might work!’
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE PATRIOTS' 44-13 WIN IN WHICH BRADY WENT 13 FOR 23 FOR 168 YARDS WITH NO TOUCHDOWNS AND NO PICKS, A TEAM-WIDE SPARK WAS KINDLED.
Pioli: I think my greater focus was that I was excited to see how our defense played against Peyton Manning. And I knew how we were going to play. We were going to be as physical as you could possibly be up to the line and maybe, on occasion, across the line.
It’s a new quarterback, we get it. That's the news. But how is our special teams gonna play? But how did the defense play? Because, in addition to wondering about how your quarterback’s going to play, how are you going to slow down No. 18 on the other side of the field? He's about to become the best quarterback in the National Football League. You know what this man is going to be. It was excitement, knowing that your team had been prepared right. That the coaching staff had done the right thing to prepare the defense, to prepare the big-picture team, and that the offense was ready. As the game started, I, I felt great about the defense because I saw some of the energy I had seen. I mean, again, we had some dogs, man. All those guys with the jersey number in the 50s (Mike Vrabel, Cox, Johnson, Larry Izzo, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, for example). You see that they're evolving. We brought a bunch of them in the offseason but they fit exactly what we were trying to do and exactly how Bill and Romeo (Crennel) wanted that defense? They were ready.
Nugent: I remember coming back to the condo, and it's so funny because during the week he was so business-like, but after the game, he was like a kid in a candy store. It's like he could finally let loose, and he was just a kid, he was a 24-year-old kid, and he just, you know, he was enjoying the moment and that's what I remember about him the most.
THE PATRIOTS FOLLOWED UP THE WIN OVER THE COLTS WITH AN UGLY LOSS IN MIAMI. BRADY THREW FOR 86 YARDS AND WAS SACKED FOUR TIMES IN A 30-10 LOSS. BUT THE PATRIOTS WON FOUR OF THEIR NEXT FIVE AND BRADY’S CONFIDENCE AND PRODUCTION GREW. THE TEAM LOOKED DIFFERENT. WITH BLEDSOE ON THE MEND AND READY TO RETURN, BELICHICK BROKE THE NEWS TO THE FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK THAT THE JOB WAS NOW BRADY’S.
Weis: We never had the conversation (about sitting Brady down when Bledsoe was healthy). We never worried about when 11 was gonna play. We figured we'll deal with that when that time comes. You're worried about that week. We never talked about it. Not once did we talk about it. We talked about it when the doctors came to us and said, ‘Hey, Drew can play.’ That's when we talked about it.
It was uncomfortable. Because now we were on a little winning streak. We had some mojo going, which was the main reason why we didn't make a change. You know we didn't make a change because we had that going. And chemistry is one thing that very often is undervalued. And there was good chemistry. The defense and RAC (Romeo Crennel) had rallied and picked up the pace when Drew went down. Not disrespectful to Drew but out of respect for Drew. They felt that they had a bigger responsibility to pick up. The offense, as the year went on, we grew and got better at giving us opportunities to do more things.
Nugent: I'm going to be 100 percent honest, I never remembered Tom ever once talking about anything that wasn't positive in regards to Drew that year. It wasn't like, ‘Oh my gosh, what's gonna happen when Drew gets healthy?’ Or, ‘I'm better than Drew.’ There was none of that. There was concern for Drew's health, and he was just more focused on his task at hand than anything else. Not once (did Brady mention it) and that was within the walls of our home. I mean, he could have said it to me if he wanted to, and he could confide in me but he never shared that with me.
That just tells me that, going back to when he first told me, ‘All I can do is focus on what I can control,’ he's always had that mindset. And looking back, had he not had that mindset for his moment, I mean, the history of the franchise would have changed forever. But because he had that kind of mindset that, ‘All I can do is focus on the things I can control. I can't control what they're going to do with Drew, when he comes back healthy,” it helped him succeed.
THE REST OF THE SEASON WAS HISTORY IN THE MAKING. WE KNOW NOW HOW THAT TURNED OUT. THE SUBSEQUENT 20 YEARS, WHICH CULMINATE AND COME FULL CIRCLE TONIGHT AT GILLETTE STADIUM AS BRADY AND THE BUCCANEERS PLAY THE PATRIOTS IN WHAT WILL CERTAINLY BE HIS FINAL GAME IN FOXBORO, HAVE ONLY BEEN ONE OF THE GREATEST STORIES IN PRO SPORTS HISTORY. I ASKED WEIS IF HE FELT A CERTAIN PRIDE IN ALL THAT’S HAPPENED SINCE THE LAST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, 2001.
There's a bus full of people that have a small part in it. You do feel pride in the fact that you were one of the people that was involved. But I think that the number one person who deserves the credit for Tommy Brady is Tommy Brady.
I think that his intestinal fortitude is what separated him. There are a lot of great football players who have intestinal fortitude, but the guy was just different. He just had a chip on his shoulder, and I find humor in the fact that -- at 44 years old -- he still has the chip on his shoulder.