The play clock was ticking down, his backfield wasn’t set, and some players hadn’t heard the playcall — confusion abounded.
Quarterback Tom Brady had no chance to get the play off — and knew it.
Trailing by 10 with seven minutes left, Brady also knew that his team’s two remaining timeouts were precious. And so, facing a 2nd and 1 on his own 38, Brady did what you’ve probably never seen a quarterback do in that situation.
He didn’t frantically call for a timeout. He just stood in the shotgun and coolly let the play clock expire. Five-yard penalty? Big deal. Tom Brady knew the timeout was far more precious than a penalty that made it merely 2nd and 6.
This didn’t happen in a Super Bowl. Or in any New England Patriots NFL game.
The year was 1999. Brady was finishing up his final season of college football at the University of Michigan. A lot has been written and said over the years about how Brady’s moxy was forged during his unheralded, setbacks-filled college career with the Wolverines. That is very true.
But this one play, as much as any other in his time at Michigan, showed that this quarterback perhaps was a breed apart.
Sure enough, the future two-time Super Bowl MVP and five-time Super Bowl starter led the Wolverines back that day from a 27-17 deficit at previously No. 2-ranked Penn State, driving the Wolverines for two touchdowns in the final 3:21 for a 31-27 victory.
It took ABC’s announcers of that game, Brent Musberger and Gary Danielson, a few minutes to come to grips with what Brady had done on that one play.
“That saved timeout by Tom Brady might really (be) big late in this game,” ABC’s colour commentator Gary Danielson finally said. “I think that was a real heady play by a fifth-year senior quarterback.”
Musberger later raved, “It looks like a genius move right now.”
As it turned out, Michigan never even needed that timeout, so efficient was Brady on those two late TD drives.
* * *
I watched that game on TV in 1999. Even recorded it on VHS. Why? Well, to say I’m a bit of a Michigan fan would be like saying Lady Gaga is a bit of a fashion renegade. I once had Michigan-logo bedroom curtains — and not when I was a kid. Paint the picture for ya?
That unhealthy fanhood made me more than a little familiar with Tom Brady’s exploits in maize and blue. Brady’s no-timeout play that day stuck with me; I’ve recounted it to NFL fans for years. And I’m not the only one.
“I remember it well,” recalls Aaron Shea, a tight end, teammate and apartment mate of Brady’s at Michigan — and a close friend to this day. “Not many quarterbacks would have done that. It just shows the confidence that he had in himself, and also in his teammates.”
* * *
In 1995, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady came to Ann Arbor from San Mateo, Calif., with little fanfare. SuperPrep recruiting service had him as only the 65th best prospect in the Far West. There were far more heralded recruits entering Michigan alone that same year, including some defensive back from Ohio named Charles Woodson.
While Woodson and others became key starters, Brady accomplished almost nothing after three years — sitting out his first season, seeing only mop-up duty as a third-stringer in 1996, then failing to win the starter’s job at 1997 preseason camp after a close battle with senior Brian Griese.
Bitter and disappointed, Brady nearly quit the team on the spot. And no Michigan fan would have cared — because Griese promptly led the Wolverines to a 12-0 record in 1997 and their first national title in 49 years.
With Griese gone in 1998, Brady figured he’d paid his dues and the job finally would be his. But now there was another obstacle.
That year, Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr successfully recruited Drew Henson, the most ballyhooed high school athlete ever to come out of the state of Michigan. In baseball, he’d broken the all-time American high school record for home runs hit, could throw a fastball 95 miles an hour and was the prized property of the New York Yankees. In football, he was a five-star quarterback with speed, savvy, supreme athleticism, an NFLer’s arm and was ranked among the best incoming frosh in America. To land him was a huge coup for Carr.
At Michigan’s meet-the-fans day in August 1998, Henson was a rock star — swarmed for autographs throughout. Brady was practically ignored.
Henson was impressive in 1998 camp, too. Carr didn’t name a starter until just before the opener: Brady.
The junior proceeded to have a solid season, but Michigan — with legitimate repeat national-championship aspirations — won only a consolation share of the Big Ten title, and lost ugly to Notre Dame, Syracuse and Ohio State.
Such a resume never will endear a starting QB to Wolverine fans. And because Henson looked dazzling at times as a backup, the vast majority of M fans had screamed all fall long for Carr to bench Brady and start Henson.
I was among those fans, I must admit. Brady’s stats were good for a first-year starter (61% completion rate, with 15 TD passes), but the Wolverine ground game sputtered behind a reworked line — something fans seldom take into account when criticizing a quarterback.
Come 1999, it was Brady vs. Henson II. The pressure on Carr to start Henson was immense. Yet Brady never backed down or sulked.
Neither QB pulled ahead after pre-season camp. Carr resolved to play them both in the first half each week — Brady in the first quarter, Henson in the second. At halftime, Carr and his coaches would tap the hottest QB to play the entire second half.
Brady got the second-half tap in the opener against Notre Dame and guided Michigan to a 26-22 comeback victory in the final two minutes. In the next four games Brady got the tap three times and played well, while Henson was unimpressive in his lone second half, at Syracuse.
It was in Game 6 at undefeated Michigan State when Brady ended the debate — replacing Henson in the second half and leading a three-touchdown fourth-quarter comeback that fell just short, 34-31. By Game 8, Carr made Brady a four-quarter quarterback.
Shea recalls that Carr’s decision was supported by the whole team, especially Brady’s fellow seniors: “No offence to Drew, but Tom was the best quarterback on the team.”
In the end, Brady led the Wolverines to a 10-2 season that culminated with wins over arch-rival Ohio State and, in the BCS Orange Bowl, over SEC champion Alabama. In that game, his college finale, Brady was spectacular — completing 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four TDs, in twice rallying the Wolverines from 14-point deficits.
“People always ask me if I thought Tom Brady could be great in the NFL,” says Shea, now the director of player development for the Cleveland Browns. “I always say, ‘Watch what he did in that Orange Bowl, and you tell me.’ ”
* * *
After Brady’s heroics in that 1999 Penn State game, he had completely won me over. Henson, schmenson.
Of course, I was as surprised as anyone that the gangly kid who had to earn every snap he ever got in college became THAT Tom Brady with the Patriots.
When you look back at Brady’s passing stats over his final seven games as a Wolverine, though, how can you not be impressed? He was 150 of 240 for 1,781 yards, with 14 TDs against only three interceptions — the equivalent of a (superb) 99.3 NFL passer rating. A good chunk of those stats were compiled when Michigan either was behind or fighting to hang on to a narrow lead.
“The most underrated college quarterback in the country is Tom Brady,” Musberger said at the conclusion of the Penn State game.
That day, ABC played an excerpt of an interview with Brady, in which he was asked what goes through his mind when his team is behind late in a game. Replied Brady:
“I think the one thing you have to be aware of is the situation: Whether you need three points or seven points, how many timeouts you have, where you are on the field. If you know those situations, you’re able to execute.”
The uncalled timeout at Penn State was no fluke. Brady knew exactly what he was doing.
Probably so did Belichick and the Patriots when they drafted him 199th overall in the sixth round. And in Brady’s second year with the Pats, he got an unexpected opportunity — and seized it.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted his five Super Bowl appearances,” Shea says. “But when Drew Bledsoe went down and Tommy got to start, I said to my wife, ‘You mark my words — Tommy will NOT lose this job.’ I knew he was very confident that he could beat him out.”
0Whether it was Drew Henson or Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady never lacked the confidence to believe he was better than any quarterback. Or the smarts to succeed — once he got his chance.