By: Bob George/
February 08, 2004

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This begins our series on positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: quarterbacks.

Tell me that Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr saw this coming.

It is New Year's Day, 1998. "M" had just polished off Ryan Leaf and Washington State, 21-16. The Wolverines just completed a 12-0 season and a share of their first national championship since 1948. Michigan would have killed to have gotten to play co-champ Nebraska, just like LSU would want to take on USC this year.

The Rose Bowl MVP was quarterback Brian Griese. Dad Bob cried up in the ABC broadcast booth. Mom Shay tried to console Dad Bob. Despite the great night for the Griese family, the "star" of the evening was cornerback Charles Woodson. Woodson was pulling a Deion Sanders that year, catching and preventing touchdowns at the same time. He was contemplating coming out of school early and entering the draft that fall. Woodson did enter the draft, the same one where Indianapolis took Peyton Manning at one and San Diego took Leaf at two. Woodson went to Oakland at the five spot.

Meanwhile, forced to enjoy that Rose Bowl win from the background was a young sophomore named Tom Brady. He would be a junior in 1998, and would be the heir apparent to replace Griese and lead the Wolverine offense as they tried to "improve" on their 1997 12-0 mark. But Brady perhaps had no idea that Carr would recruit this "can't miss" quarterback named Drew Henson, a kid from nearby Brighton who would throw a monkey wrench into the starting quarterback mix at Michigan for the next two years.

Over the next two seasons, Brady did start most of the games, but could not shake Henson and his awesome arm and potential. Brady would rack up a terrific record of 20-5 in his junior and senior year at the Big House at Main and Stadium. Brady beat Arkansas in the 1999 Florida Citrus Bowl, 45-31, and in his final game as a Wolverine, led Michigan to a thrilling 35-34 win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl. Henson attempted 47 passes his freshman year, and 90 passes his sophomore year. But despite the constant presence of Henson, this was Brady's team.

Still, one had to wonder about Brady and his overall game when he always had Henson behind him coming in at various times during the season. Someone who goes 20-5 in two years and is 2-0 in bowl games usually takes all the snaps unless he is hurt or is in a blowout game. Henson, who tried to make it as a Yankee third baseman but is now finally trying to get into the NFL, was a more ballyhooed prospect than Brady. He was simply too good to just let him sit and rot on the bench for two years.

At this point, could anyone in Ann Arbor have forecasted the first four years of Brady's career in the NFL? The first year was easy to predict. It's the last three that have everyone in the league not really knowing what to make of this kid whom everyone is now calling the second coming of Joe Montana.

Looks like the late Dick Rehbein saw something that Carr may have not, for if he had seen it, Henson would never have had a whiff of the pig in the Big House until Brady was handed a diploma. Rehbein told Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli to grab this kid. The Patriots nabbed him in the sixth round in 2000. He spent that year as the number four quarterback behind Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz and Michael Bishop.

Heck, even Bishop saw something. When Bishop was sent packing after that season, he said on his way out the door that Brady was the best quarterback on the team, and not Bledsoe.

It's now 2004, and Brady is a two-time Super Bowl champion. He also happens to be a two-time Super Bowl MVP. The only other men to claim the latter are Montana, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw. This was supposed to be happening to Manning or Leaf, not Brady.

The NFL Draft is the most inexact science known to modern man. Brady is 4-0 against Manning in career head-to-head matchups. Leaf became a bigger NFL manchild than Terry Glenn. There have been lots of other big name college quarterbacks to come into the NFL in the last five years. Why was it Brady that would become the most decorated of them all in the NFL?

With Baltimore's Trent Dilfer and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson showing that a team doesn't have to have a marquee quarterback to win the whole thing when you have a defense for the ages, Brady is showing the league that a team does need a great quarterback when the defense isn't able to answer the bell. Brady doesn't have the raw numbers, but he does possess the greatest skill of them all. He simply is the best game manager in the NFL, and the smartest quarterback in the league to boot.

The Patriots had a great defensive season in 2003. They gave up an average of 14 points per game, a league low. They gave up 14 points to both Tennessee and Indianapolis in the playoffs. Brady played well enough to get 17 versus the Titans and 24 against the Colts. In the Super Bowl, however, the defense could not stop Jake Delhomme and his bombardier approach to offense. The Panthers scored 29 on the Patriots. Brady merely put up 32. He did it because he had to, and because he could.

Back to raw numbers. Brady had the lowest completion percentage (60.2) of his career. He threw 12 picks, two fewer than in 2002, and all of them on the road. His passer rating of 85.9 was a .2 improvement over 2002. He threw for 3,620 yards, also down from the previous year. You look at these numbers, and if you judge Brady solely on this data, you then conclude something like "Well, why is everyone complaining that Brady isn't in the Pro Bowl?"

Brady might turn out to be like Bill Russell. He might just win a few more Vinces before he hangs it up. But when you talk contract with Brady, he might want to be like Russell and get a guarantee that no stats will be discussed in negotiations. Russell had that deal with Red Auerbach, and Auerbach was anything but stupid. Belichick could do to be just as smart with his quarterback. Brady's greatest asset to the team is simple, and that is that he is awfully good at winning Super Bowls.

What will happen next year now that Brady's position coach is leaving? John Hufnagel, who came to the Patriots this year as Brady's new quarterback coach, is heading to Exit 16-W to become the new offensive coordinator for the Giants. Rumour is that Charlie Weis may assume the duties of the position coach, which is the way it was since Rehbein passed away in August of 2001. This may not turn out to be a big deal, as Brady had no position coach in 2001. But having someone there to help with technique and keeping you in focus is nice to have, and Brady could very well miss Hufnagel in 2004.

Going into 2004, Rohan Davey will be the second-string quarterback, with Kliff Kingsbury likely the three and Damon Huard hitting the road. Huard is a veteran with starting experience, and will likely test the free agent market with the hope in getting a starting gig elsewhere. Davey (heading to Europe) and Kingsbury are definitely on the cheap, but Huard's experience will be missed.

But these guys will get less of a whiff of starting reps than MTV will get of next year's Super Bowl halftime show. If anyone in pro sports has a job that is exclusively his, it is Brady and the starting quarterback job for the Patriots. This is Brady's job, and this is Brady's team, bar none.

And given his leadership ability and championships won at the age of 26, the future for the Patriots looks scary. And we mean the good kind of scary.

Next installment: running backs.