Free agent David Patten had it all figured out when he signed with the New England Patriots in early April. He would build a strong relationship with quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and more passes would come his way. Getting in tight with the team leader, Patten figured, was the best way for a new receiver to operate. As Patten schmoozed with Bledsoe through minicamps and training camp and into the preseason, however, he kept noticing Tom Brady, a lanky second-year reserve quarterback who swaggered around the locker room.
Brady would sit in the weight room and instruct teammates on pass route adjustments or the best ways to detect a flaw in a defense. During minicamps he controlled the huddle as if he were running a game-winning drive. "Tom carried himself like this was his team," Patten says. "I thought, If he's this confident as a backup, I can only imagine how he'd be running the show."
Now we know. Since Bledsoe left the lineup after shearing a blood vessel in his chest during a 10-3 loss to the New York Jets on Sept. 23, Brady has become the surprise of the NFL's first half. He owns a 5-2 record as a starter and an 88.9 passer rating that ranked fourth in the AFC after Sunday's 21-11 win over the Buffalo Bills, and a detached attitude suggesting success hasn't turned his head.
Brady, 24, grew up in San Mateo, Calif., where he admired how San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young made the game look easy. Brady operates with a similarly cool approach, a natural feel for the game and of how to maneuver in the spotlight. "People talk about how we've got the ball rolling lately, but you can never buy into the hype," says Brady. "It's easy to believe everything mat's being said about me, but I'm mature enough to know I'm not the only reason we're playing well."
An improved running game and a reconstructed offensive line have helped Brady, but he has been the big difference in New England's overcoming an 0-2 start. So meticulous is Brady in his game preparation that he advised Bledsoe, a nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler, on strategy during preseason games. Brady also doesn't rattle when blitzed, makes smart decisions—he set a league record by not throwing an interception until the 163rd attempt of his career—and calls plays with a pronounced authority. "Some guys just say the play," says Pats running back J.R. Redmond. "He makes you think we're about to do something big."
Brady has even been impressive in defeat. "Every time he got to the line against us, he was looking over the defense and calling audibles," said Denver Broncos linebacker John Mobley after a 31-20 victory over New England on Oct. 28. "He was very much in command."
That loss to Denver was a critical juncture for Brady. He played well before throwing four fourth-quarter interceptions, mistakes that could have sent him into a funk. Instead, he rebounded with a 250-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 24-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons the next week. "Inexperienced quarterbacks need to show they can deal with the highs and lows of this league," says New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. "The jury is still out until you face adversity, and Tom proved he can deal with it."
Brady is well-versed in dealing with disappointment. Upon arriving at Michigan in 1995 and redshirting, he sat behind Scott Dreisbach and Brian Griese for two seasons before becoming the starter as a junior. Although he set school records for attempts (350) and completions (214) in '98, threw 20 touchdown passes as a senior and finished his career with a 20-5 record as a starter, he wound up sharing time his senior year with Drew Henson, the nation's top recruit, and plummeted to the sixth round of the 2000 draft. "The big question scouts had on him was why [ Michigan] would try to play a freshman over him," says Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "That had everybody concerned."
"When I went in the sixth round, it wasn't anything new," Brady says. "My whole college career had been about competition. Coming in here, I needed to just slug it out."
His new Patriots teammates gave him grief about his frail 6'4", 204-pound frame, with center Damien Woody offering him extra food after practice.. Brady's deficient lower-body strength affected his delivery-he usually wound up to throw go-routes and deep outs—and he wasn't especially mobile. The coaches did like his instincts, poise and leadership, so they made him the fourth-string quarterback behind Bledsoe, Michael Bishop and John Friesz.