-- There is no revisionist history by the New England Patriots even now, with Tom Brady perhaps on the verge of becoming the youngest quarterback ever to win a second Super Bowl title and already rating an invitation to President Bush's State of the Union address. No, they admit, they didn't know. They, like the rest of the NFL, had no idea that Brady would be this good.
It could go down as one of the all-time draft-day steals, if Brady continues to win like this. Looking for quarterback depth behind veteran starter Drew Bledsoe in the 2000 draft, the Patriots selected Brady in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick, and didn't expect that much. He had a quick mind and a decent arm, but he was a skinny kid who didn't run that well and had shared playing time as a senior at the University of Michigan with a highly touted young recruit, Drew Henson.
"Tom as a rookie wasn't anywhere near the quarterback he is now," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. "He's improved significantly. It's the same player. It's the same guy in the jersey. But he's a much better player than he was in 2000."
Even after having Brady in the fold for a season, the Patriots acknowledge, they weren't quite sure what they had. They signed four-year NFL veteran Damon Huard as a free agent in April 2001 as a prospective backup for Bledsoe. But Brady beat out Huard to rise to number two on the depth chart in the 2001 preseason, and the rest perhaps will appear on Brady's Hall of Fame plaque one day. He took over for an injured Bledsoe two games into the 2001 season and led the Patriots to a stunning Super Bowl triumph over the St. Louis Rams and now, at age 26, he's back, looking to become the ninth quarterback with multiple Super Bowl victories.
"Am I going to say he's up there with Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino?" said former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a CBS analyst. "No, I'm not going to say that yet. But anybody who has won the games he's won is a great quarterback."
But did the NFL miss on Brady when he left Michigan, or did Brady just get better? Opinion is divided.
"He should have been taken a lot higher, to me," said Washington Redskins right tackle Jon Jansen, a teammate at Michigan. "He slipped awful far for the player that he was. We all knew he was going to be a good one. I got a chance to see him playing with [Scott] Dreisbach and those guys, before he was splitting time with Henson, and he had the most poise of all of them. Coming out, I just think maybe he was a better NFL quarterback than a college quarterback, and maybe that's why people didn't see it when they watched him in college. Tom is a very smart player and that shows up more in the NFL because the players have to make more decisions on their own."
Former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said, "You have a lot of people in the NFL who don't know what they're looking for in quarterbacks." But Simms, also a CBS analyst, added: "Even so, they didn't miss with Tom Brady. Coming out of college, he was what he was. He was not strong. He couldn't run. His arm was good, but there were a lot of questions there. You have to go with the tangible. Talent, that's what gets you drafted high."
Brady began his Michigan career playing behind Brian Griese and Dreisbach, and ended it in a spirited battle for playing time with Henson, the gifted passer who likely would have been the top overall choice in the draft upon leaving Michigan but opted for a baseball career. Practices, Brady said, were as intense as games for the two quarterbacks.
"Every throw was important in practice," Brady said. "We used to split reps 50-50. We'd be counting: 'I got eight throws. He got eight throws. What were the stats?' It was fierce, fierce competition, and it was always to the point where you'd wait for game day so you could get out there and compete against a different team. A lot of times, dealing with that Wednesday night or Thursday night practice where you didn't play well helps you develop that mental toughness, develop some thick skin and realize that you've got to continue to go out there and compete and improve."
Said New York Giants linebacker Dhani Jones, who was at Michigan with Brady and Henson: "The hype was all for Henson, not so much with Brady. They're two completely different people. Henson is a big guy who could run down the field. Brady is a little bit smoother, a little bit more precise with the way he thinks and can dump the ball off. . . . But now he's the king of the hill. He's the man on top of the mountain."
Brady eventually won the competition and completed his college career by throwing for 369 yards in an Orange Bowl win over Alabama. He had a 20-5 career record as a starter at Michigan, and played well for the NFL scouts in the East-West Shrine Bowl. But in the minds of the league's front-office decision-makers, he suffered from his time-sharing arrangement with Henson.
"He was splitting time with the young kid, so you had to wonder," one NFL executive recalled. "The young kid looked like the better quarterback. He had a stronger arm and he could run better."
Said Belichick: "I'm sure a big part of it was the fact that he wasn't even a regular starter at Michigan. When you're sitting there in the NFL and -- forget about the player, I'm just saying conceptually -- you're saying, 'Well, okay, this guy couldn't start for that team.' Or, 'He was a part-time starter for that team. Is he going to be able to play in the NFL? How many starters do they have on that team?' But in Tom's case, the more he played, the better he played and by the end of the year, he was the full-time starter. He beat out Henson and had a great bowl game."
The Patriots' brass -- Belichick, Vice President of Personnel Scott Pioli, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and late quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein -- became intrigued by Brady as a potential low-risk, late-round pick. Rehbein was dispatched to Michigan to conduct a workout, and the Patriots filed away the name as a possibility. They made the selection on the second day of the two-day draft, just when Brady was beginning to wonder whether he'd be an undrafted free agent begging for a training-camp look somewhere.
"You're always kind of hoping you're one of the top guys," Brady said. "It just didn't work out. I think some people just didn't think I possessed the qualities to be a quarterback in the NFL because I slipped down behind a bunch of players. It was a long first day [of the draft]. I really didn't anticipate getting picked on the first day, anyway. Then the second day, that got to be a really long day. The middle of the sixth round, I'm thinking, 'I might not get picked. I mean, what am I going to do?' After that, finally getting picked was just a relief. It's really been a period since then of just trying to improve."
And after a 2000 season in which the rookie watched and learned but played in only one game and threw three passes, he has improved rapidly and dramatically.
"There's a reason why a guy drops to the sixth round, but there's also a reason why a guy flourishes once he gets in here," Weis said. "He had that special moxie that it takes to be a winning quarterback. He had it at Michigan. He has it now. What he was lacking was a little bit of physical development, which he obviously has worked so diligently on to improve. The kid came in here about 180 pounds. Now he's 220 pounds. That's 40 pounds, and his body fat is still about 6 percent. So you add an extra 40 pounds, and he already had that special quality. We talk about the word 'it.' He has it. I can't define the word 'it,' but certain quarterbacks have it and certain quarterbacks don't. Tom Brady is the epitome of having that special it."