“He wasn’t the Tom Brady that we all know,” said Eric Mangini, a defensive assistant on the Patriots back then.
Mangini and other assistant coaches would place “gentleman’s bets,” he said, on those post-practice sessions. Mangini, wagering on his young secondary, won his share. Tom Brady was not the Tom Brady we all know.
“He struggled,” Mangini said.
That was a dozen seasons, 300 touchdown passes, 124 wins and three Super Bowl titles ago. It is now to the point that the Tom Brady we all know seems so much of an understood commodity that he is almost an afterthought in Saturday night’s AFC divisional playoff game against Denver, the of-course-he’s-here-again star. It is now to the point that his opposite number, the Broncos’ Tim Tebow, is the nation’s cross-cultural focus. It is now to the point that when Brian Hoyer arrived in New England three seasons ago — an undrafted rookie just hoping to make the team as one of Brady’s backups — he lined up in drills and thought: “That’s Tom Brady.”
“You know all the accolades,” Hoyer said, “and he’s working next to you.”
The second weekend of the 2012 NFL playoffs features an inordinate amount of star power, with four Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks — Brady, New Orleans’s Drew Brees, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning — still playing. Tebow, of course, has at least temporarily overshadowed them all. But only one player, with a victory this weekend, can set a record for quarterbacks for the most playoff wins with one team. Only one, with a run through the playoffs to a Super Bowl title, can match Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four rings.
Only one is Tom Brady, and we all know what that means.
“Tom Brady has the ‘it’ factor,” said Scot Loeffler, his quarterbacks coach at the University of Michigan. “I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but he has it. He carries every intangible you’d ever want in a quarterback.”
Everybody believes that now. Loeffler, and a few others, believed it then. As Brady said this week, “I think everybody has a story to tell.” Brady’s is as well-known as any: part of a constant quarterback controversy at Michigan, overlooked till the sixth round of the NFL draft, thrust into the Patriots’ lineup as a second-year pro after an injury to Drew Bledsoe, now a legend. But it’s worth remembering: He wasn’t always this Tom Brady.
“Anyone who wants to say that they could see he would be as good as he is now, they’d be lying,” said Charlie Weis, New England’s offensive coordinator from 2000 to ’04. “But you knew, after that second year, this kid’s something special.”