Brady’s back — how do Pats keep it that way?
Foes don't want QB back in '07 MVP form, which means constant blitzing
by Tom Curran, NBCSports
Tom Brady’s résumé suggests he may be the best quarterback of all time.
Three Super Bowl titles in his first four seasons as a starter. Five conference championship appearances in his first seven years at the helm. He won titles with average offensive talent around him. Then, when surrounded by excellence in 2007, he delivered history, throwing 50 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions during New England’s 16-0 regular season of 2007.
Like the quarterbacks his career most closely resembles — Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana — Brady scratched, clawed and overcame odds to reach those heights. And now, and entering his 10th year in the league, Brady, 32, is battling to stay there.
His past two games have not gone well. There was the stunning 17-14 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, which ruined the Patriots’ perfect season and shined a light on the fact that battering Brady is the only hope of stopping him. Then there was the 2008 opener seven months later when Brady’s left knee was blown out on a low hit by Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard.
As the 2009 season begins, Tom Brady is once again gunning for the rest of the NFL. And they are gunning for him.
The book on how to beat — or at least slow down — the Brady-led Patriots was hatched in Week 11 of the 2007 season. To that point, the Patriots were 10-0 and winning games by an average of 26.3 points.
Then came the Philadelphia Eagles. Their defensive coordinator, the late Jim Johnson, had seen the previous 10 opponents eschew blitzing Brady because they were afraid he’d riddle their undermanned secondaries. Johnson saw that led to slow torture. So he blitzed. Heavily. And the Patriots narrowly escaped with a 31-28 win.
With more opponents ratcheting up the pressure, the Patriots won their next eight games by an average of 10 points. And during the final one, when the pressure on Brady was its greatest, New England lost by three.
Pat Kirwan, a former NFL scout, coach and front office man and now a contributor for NFL.com and a host on SIRIUS NFL Radio has gone in-depth on the phenomenon.
“I think Tom is the best quarterback in the NFL and there was a period there where teams wouldn’t blitz him because they couldn’t get to him. They stopped trying,” Kirwan explains. “But in that Eagles game, they went to the fire-zone blitz over and over. They decided, ‘Let’s go get him because if not, we’re gonna die a slow death.’ Sooner or later, every defensive coordinator was saying, ‘Let’s cut the head off this thing because we can’t stop it.”
Kirwan points out that, in the past 10 games beginning with the narrow win over the Eagles and ending with the season opener against Kansas City, Brady’s been sacked 19 times in 349 attempts.
Aside from the sacks are the hits Brady’s taken after he’s gotten rid of the ball — like the pancaking he took from Washington’s Albert Haynesworth in this preseason that tweaked his right shoulder and caused a wave of panic.
“He’s getting sacked about once every 20 attempts,” Kirwan says. “That’s borderline for safety. And then he’s been hit another 25 or 30 times. He’s getting significant contact once every 8.5 times he drops back. That can’t continue.
“Defensive coaches know what happened in the Super Bowl (when the Giants sacked Brady five times). They are motivated and inspired to go after Tom more than ever before.”
The Patriots know it is coming. How do they counter it?
Brady’s ‘hard to coach,’ in a good way
As he leans against a golf cart in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is asked what surprises him about Brady. The answer comes quickly.
“That he’s improved steadily,” Belichick answers. “Even now. Even on a daily basis. Little things. It might be one thing now, while in his rookie year or second year it might have been five things. But he’s always working to get better and you see that on the field. He takes coaching well and applies it.”
“Just a change to a play or a minor read or detail ... personal training and conditioning. Film study. Visualization of plays or situations. Execution on the practice field. He’s driven to be the best and he takes that seriously in everything he does. Everything is geared to get better,” he says.
Then Belichick points out something he’s never really noted before. That Tom Brady is “hard to coach.”
“You have to be better prepared than he is because he sets such a high standard with his preparation and his level of understanding,” Belichick says. “As a coach, you’re competing with that, trying to exceed that or else, what are you doing (for him)?
“You don’t want to go into a meeting with him and say, ‘Well, this team didn’t hit a lot of outcuts against (this defense).’ He’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, in the Green Bay game last year they did. They hit five of them.’ You’ll want to have seen that game and make sure you know what happened so that he’s not telling you what happened when you should be telling him what happened.”
Which is interesting because while Brady has mostly embraced his celebrity, he’s also remained largely the same as when he was drafted in the sixth round back in 2000.
“Can he go out to dinner everywhere?” asks Patriots center Dan Koppen. “No. Can he go out to a bar and just hang out? Probably not. You sorta feel bad for the guy in that sense but when he’s around us, he’s just a normal guy. We know that. He knows that. It makes for an easy relationship. From the way he comes across form the first time you meet him, you just see immediately he’s not egocentric. He’s Tom. He’s a normal guy. And guys understand that from the moment he walks in.”
In trying to return from a devastating knee injury to his place as the league’s elite quarterback, Brady’s been maniacal. The aftereffects of the injury can be seen here and there. A slow gait during practice-ending sprints. A hesitation when stepping into a few preseason throws. But he didn’t miss a single practice during New England’s grueling training camp. That, on a team where veterans routinely are given a practice off during double sessions.
The same way Belichick credits Brady for making the coaches better, Brady flips the praise at Belichick.
“He holds us accountable,” Brady stresses. “Every day, you’ve got to bring it. You can’t say, ‘Aww it’s Wednesday, let’s go out here and just get through the day. That’s not me. That’s not this team, so I hope as a leader, as a quarterback, I can push everybody and I want to follow Coach Belichick’s lead. When I’m out there playing quarterback, there’s no plays off or days off. We’re trying to make improvements, we’re trying to get better and you can’t do that by not going full speed or not making the right calls or making the right decisions. Whether it’s a meeting room or the practice field, I’m trying to get the best out of everybody, which in turn gets the best out of me.”
There is no doubt that the season off has rekindled a fire in Brady. By the end of 2007, the scrutiny and controversy that dogged New England wore on the entire team. The break Brady got — while not welcome — did have an impact.
“An injury like that allows you to step back and maybe appreciate it more,” says Koppen, one of Brady’s closest friends. “Sitting on the sidelines is not fun. Maybe a greater appreciation is there but I don’t think that Tom’s drive is different between now and before. He’s had a year to sit back and build up that hunger. It was strong before. It’s even stronger now.”
New England’s always able to adjust
Brady often talks about adjustments, improvements. There’s a constant tweaking that goes on, a recalibration with receivers on their routes, with the offensive line and its protections.
It’s one of the aspects of the game that captures him: the fact it’s always changing, challenging and making a team reinvent.
“Two years ago, we were a great passing offense,” Brady says. “We were a passing team and we had great success. But in ’01, ’03 and ’04 we won a lot of frigging games not doing it that way, but by playing great situational football, by being able to execute when we had injuries. We have to adjust all the time to whatever we’re faced with.”
The adjustment this year is developing the counterpunch to the pressure that’s coming.
“Defensive linemen are just going to start coming after Tom and figure, ‘Maybe we’ll stop the run on the way to him but we’re going to do some fire-zone blitzing like the Giants did,” Kirwan says. “I think Bill Belichick is really smart and he will have something to counter it. Maybe it will be more protection with the tight end. Maybe it’s more of a commitment to the run. Maybe it’s more six and seven-man protections. Bill said to me in the offseason, ‘We’re taking a long look at what teams will do.
“I know this, if you love football and you love the Xs and Os and think of it all as a chess match, Bill Belichick is the best in the league at working with his king,” says Kirwan. “What did he learn in 2007 that he didn’t get to show in 2008? That, to me, is the big story of this football season.”