Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Throwback column: Dec. 5, 2001

It won't be the biggest story for the ESPN hypemeisters this week - not when will-he-play-or-won't-he status of Terrell Owens practically requires a "Breaking News" update on the ticker every other hour - but it's sure to be on the short list.

With a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles 10 days from now, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will have won three Lombardi Trophies in four seasons. Only Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman will have quarterbacked as many Super Bowl champions as Brady, and only Aikman did the 3-for-4 thing.

It will be a hell of an accomplishment for Brady . . . if it happens, that is. Apparently, the talking heads aren't willing to wait for something as insignificant as the game's outcome before proclaiming a champion. We're still several sunrises before gameday, and already a breathless debate rages regarding his standing among NFL quarterbacks.

Not among current quarterbacks, mind you. Among the all-time greatest quarterbacks.

For superstitious reasons, this is one topic we're going to save for another day. We don't like to count our championships before they've hatched, so to speak. But - knock on wood, or Dan Marino's forehead - it is not a stretch to say that should the Patriots defeat the Eagles come Feb. 6, Brady's name will belong in the same breath as Unitas and Starr, Montana and Elway, Bradshaw and Aikman.

He is poised to join heady company, the sport's most exclusive club. And as I pondered his historical legacy - okay, all right, I've thought about it some, jinxes be damned - it got me to thinking about those days, not so long ago, really, when we were first getting to know Tom Brady, to trust him, to believe that this swizzle-stick thin former sixth-round pick might be someone truly special.

As I am prone to do when trying to gain some semblance of perspective, I went rummaging through my archives, trying to pinpoint that moment when it was crystalized for me, that moment when I arrived at the realization - probably later than most, since I'm kinda slow - that Brady, and not the comfortably tenured Drew Bledsoe, should not only be the future of this football team, but the present as well.

This is what I came up with. This column was published Dec. 5, 2001, three days after Brady led the Patriots to a come-from-behind road victory over the then-first-place Jets, a victory that catapulted New England toward the AFC East title and, perhaps more than any other win, gave the team the confidence to believe that this calm, cool kid QB could take them to wonderful places. Like, say, New Orleans. And Houston.

With Brady and the Patriots once again arriving at football's pinnacle - for some reason located in Jacksonville this year - and with a special place in history one victory from their grasp, here, then, is a look back, to those brilliant days when it all began.

Dec. 5. 2001 - Admit it. You looked to Drew.  It was the first half of last Sunday's Patriots-Jets border war, and Tom Brady, the fresh, new golden boy, was being battered and bludgeoned like his name was Bledsoe. He was struggling, the offense was stagnating, and you were steaming.

That's when your eyes began creeping toward the $103-million backup plan standing on the sideline. While the thought may have been fleeting, it crossed your mind nonetheless: Maybe Bledsoe can save the day. Maybe Belichick should put him in.

Thirty joyous minutes of football later, and we may never look Bledsoe's way again.

In the second half, Brady enjoyed a breakout performance reminiscent of Bledsoe's 45-of-70, 426-yard coming out party in '94 against Minnesota. The Pats fought back for a thrilling 17-16 win over a bullying rival, and the suddenly optimistic residents of Patriotville were left with but one question:

Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy?

We now know this to be the undeniable truth: Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots. For now. For the foreseeable future. For the bright future.

Oh, most Pats fans were hopeful of this before the Jets game. Even if you admire Bledsoe - and I do - you couldn't help but be intrigued by Brady, the Bay Area kid who grew up idolizing Joe Montana, and, as ridiculous as it sounds, seems possessed by his spirit.

We immediately bought the confidence and discipline and all the other intangibles. We appreciated the sense of tempo (Tom Jackson's term) that he brought to the suddenly lively offense. We fell for the charisma, the boyish, easy grin.

And yet .  .  .

He hadn't really been tested yet. I mean, really tested. Sure, he'd taken a few lumps: the four-pick fourth quarter versus Denver, the bouts with inconsistency versus the Rams and the Dolphins, a shaky throw here and there.

But he hadn't had to endure one of those bloody Sundays that Bledsoe had become so accustomed to, those painful afternoons when the running game is stuck in neutral and the offensive line in reverse.

Brady hadn't faced true adversity.

The Jets presented Brady with plenty of it. This is how he handled it:

He stood up, picked the grass out of his teeth, and fought back.

After a feeble first half in which he completed five of 11 passes for 53 yards, he spearheaded an extraordinary team effort in the second half, going 15-of-17 for 160 yards in the Pats' most enjoyable come-from-behind victory in a calendar's worth of Sundays.

It was yet another passed test in this young quarterback's emergence. It may have been the most difficult. It surely was the most important.

We learned to trust these Pats in that second half, to realize that the possibilities for this proud collection of misfits are endless. We learned beyond a modicum of doubt that we can trust Brady, too.

Last Sunday, the Pats became a team. Brady's team.

There's irony here, if you're looking. In recent years, Bledsoe fought too many of the Pats' battles alone. Now that the Pats have some soldiers, some talent, he's no longer the field general.

Of course it's not fair. But to paraphrase Jerry Glanville, that's what NFL stands for - the Not Fair League. The cold, hard truth is, Brady has outperformed him.

Our respect for Bledsoe blinded us to his flaws; Brady has forced us to see them. The new guy doesn't have his predecessor's fastball - who does, other than the Green Bay Gunslinger? - but he does every one of the small things better.

Brady sells the play-action with a magician's sleight-of-hand. He gets rid of the ball in a nanosecond, which is why he rarely gets creamed in the empty-backfield formation, the one they ran so successfully in the second half against the Jets. He's decisive and efficient in the red zone.

And while he hardly is blessed with Donovan McNabb's footwork, he is just mobile enough. Remember that game-clinching 1¾-yard run, where he sprinted right, got hit and somehow spun for the first down? Think Bledsoe would have made it? Nope, no way. We saw what happens when he tries to run the last time he played the Jets: he winds up with a tube stuck in his chest.

It saddens me to think that Mo Lewis's savage hit may mark Bledsoe's final on-field act as a Patriot. He has meant so much to the franchise in his nine years, and for all his flaws, he has been nothing less than an outstanding quarterback.

No doubt he will be again. He's 29, healthy and hungry. For the first time since - well, when, Pop Warner? - he has something to prove.

Which, exactly, is why he must go. He casts too big a shadow. As long as Bledsoe is here, there will always be that temptation to look to him whenever Brady is struggling.

That wouldn't be fair to either player. Brady shouldn't have to look over his shoulder. Bledsoe shouldn't have to watch an understudy star in the role he made famous.

Right now, Bledsoe is masking his hurt and frustration with his usual class, but you just know his heart is aching. Somewhere beneath all that Bourquesque dignity and common sense lurks the well-fed ego of a professional athlete. He thinks he should be playing. He thinks his coach lied to him and likes the other guy better. If he doesn't yet think it's time to move on, he will in time.

Our best guess: He'll ask for a trade before the last light is turned off in Foxboro Stadium. And the Pats will appease him before the first light is turned on at CMGI.

It's too bad it has to be this way. But it must. Wonderful things are happening to the Patriots, with Brady playing quarterback.

It cannot be a coincidence. It is his team now.

If we catch ourselves looking to Bledsoe again, it will be only to say goodbye.

(This column was originally published in the Concord Monitor.)