To be a Tom Brady backup is
The first man thrust into the hopeless situation of being Tom Brady's backup believed, for a little while at least, that he stood a chance. He watched film until his eyes glazed over, just like Brady did, and with every precious snap Damon Huard got, he tried to do everything perfectly. Before this gig, Huard had backed up Dan Marino, who taught him to be a pro and always, under every circumstance, to stay confident.
It was 2001. The NFL was about to undergo a seismic shift in power, and Tom Brady, all 24 years of him, could sense it. That first season together, Brady and Huard used to play blackjack on road trips. It was a way for the quarterbacks who spent so much time being cerebral and competitive to cut loose. In Brady's second game as a starter that season, his New England Patriots took a 30-10 beating in Miami, a game in which Brady was neither great nor horrible. On the plane ride home, Brady and his new backup got to talking over a game of cards. Actually, Brady did most of the talking.
"You know, Damon," Huard recalled Brady saying, "I've been playing this game my whole life. I've started a couple games now, and it's the same game, man. It's no different. I kid you not, it's not that hard. I'm going to be a great one. I'm going to be one of the best at this game."
Huard thought to himself, "'That's great, Tom. Now deal me some cards.'"
Four months later, they were sitting in a locker room at the Louisiana Superdome, just before Super Bowl XXXVI. Brady turned to Huard and asked him how great it was going to feel in three hours, when they were Super Bowl champs.
And by then, Huard knew what so many other quarterbacks who have come to New England in the past decade have come to accept: He didn't stand a chance.
Being a backup quarterback for Tom Brady is, in many ways, one of the toughest jobs in the NFL. It is a life in a perpetual holding pattern. It's knowing that no matter how hard you work -- and you'd better work hard if you're on Brady's team -- you won't play, and will rarely see reps in practice.
It is trying to keep up with a man so demanding, so charming, so in command that if his backup ever enters a meaningful situation, it means panic and chaos has ensued. The last person anyone in New England wants to see is the backup.
And Patriots fans rarely do. According to stats from the Elias Sports Bureau, aside from in 2008, when Brady suffered a knee injury, only 76 passes have been thrown by backups in the 11 other years that Brady has started. Huard was with the team for three seasons, but he amassed just one pass attempt as Brady's understudy.
Brady backups have come in all sizes -- Doug Flutie was 5-foot-10; Ryan Mallett is 6-6 -- and from powerhouses (LSU) to less-beaten paths (Wyoming). They've stuck around for years, and in some cases just a few weeks. Most of them aren't household names, but coach Bill Belichick is, like everything else, selective about who he makes a New England Patriots backup. While Peyton Manning has had more than 40 men whose names have appeared under his at some point on the depth chart, Brady has had roughly half that many backups.
And while outsiders assume that being Tom Brady's backup is a clipboard-holding, soul-sucking assignment, many of those who've done it considered it just the opposite.
Their stories aren't told very often. But they help reveal why the Patriots are playing in their seventh AFC Championship Game in the Brady era on Sunday night when the Baltimore Ravens visit Gillette Stadium.
"I was excited when I got the call," said Kevin O'Connell, a third-round draft pick for the Patriots in 2008. "One of the first things you think about is the opportunity to be around a future Hall of Famer.
"You just want to be around him and learn from him."
In the summer of 2004, a journeyman quarterback named Jim Miller sat in Bill Belichick's office, smack-dab in the middle of a crossroads. Miller was 33 and pondering the idea of backing up Brady. It wasn't like other teams were calling Miller; he couldn't even throw a football at that point, and his career was on the brink of being over. A bone infection in his shoulder had nearly led to his arm being amputated. He was beat up, mentally and physically, from five shoulder surgeries.
He didn't understand how he could help. By then, Tom Brady was 26 and had two Super Bowl rings. He was in the middle of a winning streak that would stretch to 21 games. The meeting was almost like a scene from "Bull Durham," when the coach asks Crash Davis to help, and Crash utters something like "I'm too old for this s---."
Oh, it wasn't as if Brady needed much mentoring from Miller. But Belichick wanted the veteran for something else.
"He wanted me to be a sounding board," Miller said. "If you don't know [former Patriots offensive coordinator] Charlie Weis, he can be a very I do believe the word is gruff. He could be abrasive, and that certainly can affect your starting quarterback. Belichick said, 'I need you to be an intermediary between Charlie and Tom.'
"You've got to remember, as a quarterback, you're getting three lines of communication. Here you have your offensive coordinator, then you have your quarterbacks coach. Then there's Belichick, who's in our meetings with us. It can get frustrating at times when you're getting three different messages."
There have been a thousand stories about Brady's preparation, but it can't truly be understood, his backups say, unless you've pushed yourself through the third hour of film study or sat with Brady on game day. Especially in 2004.
Back in those days, Brady was unmarried, with no kids or obligations. And he spent all of his time on football. Miller used to laugh at the fact that Brady didn't know much about politics or just about anything else going on in the world outside the football offices back then. He didn't have time. His impromptu quarterback meetings over breakfast on game days were like lightning rounds on quiz shows. He'd have his backups run him through a fire drill of questions and possible scenarios.
Anyone who's played behind Brady has inevitably watched more game film than he cares to mention. Some of them can't understand how Brady and Belichick could sit there, for three hours straight, never taking their eyes off the film.
"I think Tom is very receptive," Miller said. "He always wants to get better. We'd go out and just do our drops in warm-ups, and he'd say, 'Jim, watch my feet.' He practices with a purpose. The whole purpose is to getting better. His attention to detail is constant.
"You can definitely see the drive in him, the drive to be perfect. I think Tom knows his physical limitations. So how is he going to beat you? He beats you cerebrally. He will out-execute you and out-compete you."
Miller was among the guys who never threw a pass in his Patriots career. But he was happy he was by Brady's side in '04. After years of toiling away in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Chicago, Miller, in that one season in New England, got something he'd never found there. He got his only Super Bowl ring.
John Navarre was 17 years old when he met Tom Brady. He was a hotshot quarterback from Cudahy, Wis., on a recruiting trip to the University of Michigan. He was standing in the tunnel during a basketball game one day when Brady sauntered up to say hello. Looking back, it wasn't exactly a chance meeting; Michigan's coaches no doubt wanted Brady to bump into to the kid.
Brady, a junior at Michigan by then, was the poster boy of cool. He had modelesque looks, charm and command. Navarre wouldn't have called him presidential back then because he didn't use the word much at 17. But looking back, that's exactly what Brady was. And here was the most important thing -- Brady backed up all of his confidence.
"He was just the kind of guy you wanted to be around and do what he was doing," Navarre said. "Everybody liked him. Everybody was drawn to him and wanted to hear what he had to say. He was a leader not only on the football field but in the whole athletic department. Wherever he went, you wanted to be around that."
It should be noted that Michigan, at least back then, carried enough quarterbacks on its roster to field a baseball team. When Brady arrived on campus, he was seventh on the depth chart. He hated being a backup. His disdain of it was so deep that he reportedly hired a psychologist to deal with the frustrations of sitting out. But by the time Navarre arrived -- he committed to Michigan, of course -- Brady was entrenched as a starter.
He taught Navarre how to lead. How to capture the attention of a team. In meetings, Brady was the one with the clicker, even when the coaches were in the room. He'd quiz receivers on coverages and plays. He wanted to make sure they saw what he was seeing.
"He'd put them on the spot," Navarre said. "He wouldn't embarrass them, but he was very good at keeping them on their toes. He would run it like a coach.
"That whole season, the one thing I picked up the most was how he commanded the entire group. He was the leader of the team, not just the offense. Everybody just looked at him for answers, and he had the answers all the time. He could relate so well to the players where he knew when to discipline them, correct them and hold them accountable. But he had a great friendship with all of them."
Navarre took a lot of mental notes that season, and tried to emulate Brady. The next year, when Brady was in the NFL, the Wolverines' starter, Drew Henson, went down with an injury, and Navarre was called upon to start. Brady had taught him to always be ready. Navarre threw for four touchdowns in his debut against Bowling Green.
He'd eventually play in the NFL, and in 2007, Navarre landed as a backup in Indianapolis. Playing under Peyton Manning, he said, was similar to being Brady's backup. Brady's attention to detail isn't quite as over-the-top as Manning's, Navarre said. Manning used to spend two hours breaking down one throwing motion. Then again, Navarre played with the quarterbacks at different stages in their careers.
"They both have certain characteristics that would make you want to be around them and have a beer with them," Navarre said. "They're both so unique and special that you'd just want to grab all the information they had and sit down with them like they were historical figures."
When the Patriots called on an early Sunday morning in April 2008 to tell Kevin O'Connell he'd been drafted, it was sort of a historical day. O'Connell became the highest-drafted New England quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. In the days leading up to the draft, O'Connell, a San Diego State grad, was getting plenty of hype. He was 6-foot-5 and smart and fast, and even Don Coryell was pumping the kid up to the local media in San Diego.
When New England called that morning, O'Connell did not dread the thought of carrying a clipboard behind Brady for the next five or 10 seasons. He didn't even think about it.
O'Connell knows it sounds cheesy, but he was excited to learn from the best. Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance to be around Brady for long. His rookie season was one of the most tumultuous and painful in modern Patriots history. O'Connell was the No. 3 quarterback the day Brady went down. He watched from the sideline as Brady took the hit from Bernard Pollard that tore Brady's ACL and MCL, ending a streak of 111 consecutive starts. At that moment, being a backup quarterback in New England became much more stressful.
"I was thrust into a completely different role," O'Connell said. "I became one snap away, and you have to focus in on that possibility."
Matt Cassel filled in for Brady that season, led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, then bolted for Kansas City. O'Connell saw some spot action that season, and completed 4 of 6 passes for 23 yards. It was a good opportunity, he said. But he would have rather seen Brady out there.
The next summer, O'Connell threw two interceptions in a preseason game, and on Aug. 30, 2009, he was cut. It was sort of a stunning move, considering how much the Patriots value draft picks and how highly he'd gone in 2008.
"I didn't play very well," he said. "There were no excuses. I had an opportunity, and I didn't make great decisions."
O'Connell has played for five teams since, and everywhere he goes, he carries what he learned from Brady with him. He thinks about his work ethic, mostly. And how much he enjoys the game.
"I look back, and I was thankful that I was around him for that short period of time," he said. "It was fun just getting to know him. He's a great guy, and it was a great team to be a part of. It's a very demanding place to play, but that's what you want. I would've loved to have stayed there."
Kliff Kingsbury, the 33-year-old coaching whiz who helped groom Johnny Manziel this fall and was recently named Texas Tech's head football coach, was once a Tom Brady backup. So were Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie.
But most of the names that have appeared behind Brady's are, like many NFL backups, anonymous. Huard eventually got his shot as a starter. He went to Kansas City in 2004, didn't see the field for two years, and then in 2006, when Trent Green was knocked out with a concussion, Huard became the starter. He led the Chiefs to a 5-3 record and helped them reach the playoffs.
It might not have produced the same results, but when Huard took the huddle, he took Brady and Marino with him. Marino was like a big brother to Huard. They used to play golf together. Huard still has an image of Marino, in his late 30s, hobbling around the field, believing, still, that he was the best.
He saw that in Brady. Huard is sure that Brady probably doesn't remember some of those stories from 2001, how he'd get worked up over a game of backgammon, how he told his backup before the AFC Championship Game that "we're going to light these guys up."
Brady, Huard says, was never obnoxious or cocky. He just knew, after all those hours of preparation, that he was the best.
"He's the same guy out there from 11, 12 years ago," he said. "The guy just hates to lose."