DE Greg Spires was a teammate of QB Tom Brady in 2000, a year before Brady got his break
Consider the last four quarterbacks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense has faced.
In Atlanta there was Michael Vick, who repeatedly used his feet, as he does better than any QB in football, to buy time for long third-down conversions.
Next was rookie Kyle Orton, who is currently serving as, basically, a caretaker for a Chicago offense that is playing second fiddle to the league's top-ranked defense.
A trip to Baton Rouge brought another matchup against the Saints' Aaron Brooks, who Ronde Barber called a "zone-killer" because of his powerful arm and who Barber promptly killed with three interceptions.
To top it off, there was Carolina's Jake Delhomme, a Buc nemesis dating back to his days as a Saints reserve and, while he may not have the legs of Vick or the arm of Brooks, the author of numerous unbelievable plays against Tampa Bay.
The Bucs lost to Orton, though it wasn't really the rookie passer (14-28, 150 yards, one TD, one INT) who was the main problem. But Tampa Bay beat the other three, winning a shootout against Vick and coming up with the big plays at the right times against Brooks and Delhomme. The Bucs' defense found a way to beat rocket legs and explosive arms and big-play moxie, in the process thrusting themselves towards the front of the NFC playoff race.
Well, out of the frying pan and into the fire, to use an analogy that is completely unsuitable to the conditions in which Tampa Bay's next game will be played. The quarterback task this week isn't the embodiment of one particular physical trait or mental ability. It is Tom Brady, who simply does everything a quarterback is supposed to do unfailingly well.
"Future Hall-of-Famer," summarized former Patriot Greg Spires, who probably won't spark much of an argument with that assessment. "That's what comes to my mind. He does everything well. He's a total package. He doesn't really run out of the pocket. He's not a Vick. He's not a Brooks. But he has different things he does to buy time, get the ball off, find open receivers."
Brady was just a sixth-round draft choice in 2000, so he obviously didn't enter the league with the sort of eye-popping "tools" that make the scouts drool. But his record has been impeccable since he took over the Patriots' offense two games into his sophomore season. The stats are impressive – he's a career 62.0% passer with a rating of 88.2 – but his most important numbers have been in the win-lost column. Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl championship in his first year as a starter, got them back to that hallowed place two more times in the next three years and has a career record of 65-19 as a starter, including 9-0 in the playoffs.
That's what impresses Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden the most.
"His winning percentage," said Gruden. "You can have stats. I think people get kind of worked up over quarterback ratings and things like that. This guy's a great quarterback. He's a winner. He handles the whole offense. You see him changing protections, changing plays, finding hot receivers. He's tough as nails. He's one of the best passers in football. He's just a winner and I think the whole team rallies around him. He has a presence about him that's very rare."
Gruden's not done. Brady's work on the football field, which is fueled by tireless work off of it, inspires that kind of effluence, not to mention periodic magazine covers and comparisons to Hall of Famers. "He's just got great command," continued Gruden. "I think that's the greatest compliment I could give him. Sure, he has talent; he has great accuracy; functional mobility; he's tough; but he's in control of the whole show. He's a beautiful thing to watch. He's in great rhythm, his mechanics are flawless. He's just a great performer and he rallies the team. He's the man."
Barber might have been impressed with Brooks' arm, but he obviously wasn't fooled by the Saints quarterback's intentions, picking him off three times in the Bucs' 10-3 win two weeks ago. Getting a read on Brady is likely to be much more difficult.
"If Tom Brady's not the best quarterback we're going to face this year, then I don't know who is," said Barber. "He eats zone coverages up. He's just very good at what he does, looking off receivers, playing the zone-dropper's eyes. He can look somebody off as good as anybody I've ever seen. It's a credit to him and his understanding of defenses more than anything. We've got to be a disciplined team.
"I know their record doesn't show as much success as the past couple years, but this is the ultimate challenge for us."
Obviously, Brady doesn't rattle easily, and he has a very tight bond with his offensive line. Even with a handful of injuries to that front line this season, it has managed to give him good protection, allowing only 22 sacks so far.
"They've got probably the best quarterback next to Peyton Manning in the game right now," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "Calm, cool, collected – he loves the pressure situations."
That became clear after his preternaturally calm performance in crunch time of Super Bowl XXXVI, his first championship game. To get there, he had helped lead the Patriots to a playoff win over Gruden's Oakland Raiders in weather much like what is expected this weekend. Since that groundbreaking postseason, Brady has done nothing to change the impression he made on the league as the ultimate winner. It's hard to believe, looking back, that he made very little impression at all on the same league before the 2000 draft.
"Some guys do that," said Gruden. "Some guys, they just have a knack and they take advantage of their opportunity. I was there for the beginning of his run. He did that to me and started his legacy. I've got a lot of respect for him. My understanding is, he's a quality, class guy. I'm looking forward to competing with guys like that."
The challenge of facing Tom Brady wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
DE Greg Spires on playing in Foxborough: "It's cold. Hopefully it's not too cold when we get up there. We've won in cold games before."
QB Chris Simms on the weather in New England: "I think if you look at the team, it depends on where everyone's from geographically. The guys from the South, I don't think, they get real pumped up to go out there and hear the snow reports. Me personally, I look forward it. I always got enjoyment out of my dad's games when I was little, when they were playing in the snow. And I definitely got to play in it a few times in high school. It's the way it's supposed to be. It's like when you go back and watch NFL Films, and you hear, 'Green Bay Packers, Lambeau Field,' in the snow, it's the way football is supposed to be played every now and then."
RB Carnell Williams on the coldest game he's played in: "I think one time about 12, 15 degrees. It was the state championship game my ninth-grade year of high school. It was pretty cold that day."
Williams on whether he gets excited about or dreads playing in cold weather: "I wouldn't say I dread it. I've only played in cold weather once or twice so I'm kind of looking forward to it now. Maybe I'm kind of dreading it a little bit. I feel like it's going to be a fun game."
Simms on how the team prepares for the weather conditions: "You can't prepare. You just have to be mentally ready, to know that you are going to have to deal with it and not let it get to you. I was talking to some guys on the team earlier, and if it snows, really, it probably won't be as cold. It's those nights that are clear and brisk that end up being 10, five degrees. So snow might actually help us out."
Spires on the snow: "I'd rather it snow. That means it's not that cold. It really freezes when it's crisp, and it's 16 below or whatever, that's when it's really cold. When it's snowing, it's not that bad."
Simms on if he would use gloves for the cold weather: "I have thrown with gloves. I've never done it in a game. Honestly, I don't prefer to. I'm kind of old school, in the fact that I like to feel the ball and I feel like that's when I'm at my best. I have pretty big hands, as is, so I don't really have any problem gripping the ball. I don't know, if it got extremely out of control, if it was five or 10 below [zero], I might have to think of an alternative plan."
TE Alex Smith on December games: "December football, that will win you a championship. How you play in December will win you a championship. How you play in December can make or break your season, really, no matter what you did the first couple of months. That's just something we have taken into account. You know, we had our first three games in December on the road. So, we are trying to knock those out. It's a big one, against the defending champs. And you just have to take it one game at a time."
CB Ronde Barber on holding a players-only meeting to emphasize the importance of December football: "It was just a scheduled meeting; we have a couple of them a year. The captains get up there, mainly [Derrick] Brooks. I don't do a lot of talking; Brooks does most of the talking, being the senior captain around here. He put up a little graphic about winning in December; what New England did; playing on the road in December; what we did in 2002."
Simms on giving advice to the rookies on how difficult the stretch run will be: "I think it goes back to a few weeks ago, and we had a team meeting with just players only, and our leaders, Ronde Barber, [Mike] Alstott, [Derrick] Brooks, they gathered the team up and put the schedule up in front of us, and pretty much said, 'this is what we need to do in December.' They gave us a little example of what we have done in our last two Decembers, and I think that opened some rookies' eyes, saying, 'hey, if you want to play in January, this is the month to earn your money.'"
LB Derrick Brooks on playing a team like New England in December: "We are just playing who is next on our schedule. Obviously, going into New England, the defending world champions, we look forward to the opportunity. Again, just keep going about our business very humbly. Continue to keep it one game at a time. Realizing that we are in a fight, for a division title and a playoff spot. And we get a chance to show what type of team we've got, really to the country. I think this is our only national TV game this year. We're very excited about that. But, we're going to come in very humbly, go about our business this week, and go out there and give the maximum effort that we can on Saturday. And hopefully it'll be a win."
Simms on if he thinks the Buccaneers will be picked to beat the Patriots: "I would think not. I'm sure they are the favorite. I don't really look at the spread, or things like that. We are going up there, Tampa, we are a warm weather team, we aren't supposed to win in the Northeast in December, and, of course, they are the two-time defending Super Bowl champs. So, we have our work cut out for us, and we definitely have to play a good game to get out of there with a [win]."
Barber on playing the Patriots: "They're the World Champions until someone knocks them off. We were the last team other than them to get there, and we still kind of hold that dear to ourselves, that we're that team."
C John Wade on how much the team has used the idea that nobody believes in them as motivation: "I can't speak for everybody, but in my opinion that's not a motivator. My motivator is to go out and play every week against good competition. Every team is good no matter what their record is. They've got players who are getting paid as well and their game-planning us. So my perspective is, you've just got to go out there and prepare every week to execute your game plan better than theirs. I don't even worry about who said what because that doesn't make any difference. That's somebody else's opinion and right or wrong it doesn't make any difference. What happens on Sunday is what makes a difference, the win and loss columns are what makes a difference."
Simms on how much Head Coach Jon Gruden uses the idea that nobody believes in the team as motivation: "You know, it's come up, but honestly we don't really need to hear it from him. We watch all the sports shows and see who everybody's picking every week. I didn't watch one sports show last week where anybody picked us. It was undisputed. We're not stupid. We hear what people are saying out there."
Wade on if he thinks the Bucs have proven non-believers wrong: "I don't know. Maybe. There were probably some people who thought we were going to do exactly what we're doing. I don't know what the percentages are. For those who were with us, thanks, and for those who weren't, it doesn't bother me either. Everybody's got their own opinion in life, and they've got that right. I'm worried about wins and losses and this team, the men in this room."
Brooks on not getting the national attention they may deserve: "Again, it's all about winning. If we win games, we'll get what we deserve, period. I kind of like the position we are in to be honest with you. We've earned the right to share first place. And again, we have to go to New England. Show more poise than we did last week. More intensity than we did last week. And play a lot better than we did last week. I think we can with all three of those things."
Simms on if the lack of respect among national media upsets him: "No, but I do think it's motivational, to know that no one out there believes in you. We have played pretty solid football throughout most of the year, except for maybe a one-or-two week span. Maybe we've been slighted a little bit, but it doesn't matter. We are just going to continue and do what we do, and try to win some games."
Williams on if the Patriots look like the same team he's watched in the past: "Of course they've had some injuries. Some of the names that play aren't there right now. But overall they're an impressive team, so we're going to have our work cut out for us."
Spires on the Patriots: "They have a few injuries. They have lost a few people. But as long as they have [Tom] Brady, and [Bill] Belichick, they've got the defense, they are a dangerous team. They are not going to back down when we get up there. They feel like they can win. And it's up to us to take that from them."
T Anthony Davis on the Patriots' pass rush: "We've faced a three-down front before, but like I said they're the Super Bowl champs. You've just got to go out there, play hard and play tough against these guys. Once I get in and watch film and study my opponent I'll get a better grasp on what they're doing."
Davis on if he feels like the offense is coming together: "Definitely. As a whole team, the camaraderie is great. And as an offense, especially the offensive line – myself, Dan [Buenning] and [Sean] Mahan playing with [John] Wade and 'Yatta [Kenyatta Walker] – we're just jelling. They give us great leadership, you've got [Mike] Alstott in the huddle giving us great leadership, and we just come out and execute the game plan and play ball."
Simms on the young talent on the Buccaneers: "We definitely have some potential, I will tell you that. I think the most impressive things about our young guys, is just their demeanor. Guys like Alex Smith, Dan Buenning, 'Cadillac', Mike Clayton, who is still a second-year guy, [they] are very calm in the huddle, no matter what the situation is. I think that's really been one of the keys for us. We haven't made a whole lot of mistakes going down in the fourth quarter of games. Of course, they are talented [also]. We feel like [if you] give us a little time together, we could do some special things."
Davis on if he still feels like a young guy: "Yeah, I feel young and fresh. I still get nervous before every game and I'm still excited after every touchdown. You see some of those old guys, they just walk off the field. Me, I try to run down the field and celebrate a little bit."
G Dan Buenning on adjusting from the college schedule to NFL schedule: "There's not much. It's football all the time. That's the biggest thing. I like it. The mindset is that every game is a bigger game than it was the week before. Just to try to prepare harder. Make sure that we are ready physically and mentally for the game."
Buenning on being in a routine of playing football: "It is a routine. We all go through it, we all know what it is. If you change anything, it's taking less time off."
Simms on how well Williams is running: "He makes my job a whole lot easier, that's for sure. I think, just the confidence that our offensive line is playing with right now, they are just playing with a very physical presence. Of course, if you just get him the ball, and get him a little space, he can do a lot of great things.
Davis on if he was the one who jumped over Williams in the end zone after a touchdown in Carolina: "Yeah, I didn't mean to do that. I was trying to celebrate and he stood up and I was like, 'Oh, man.' But I kept my balance. It looked good, but I didn't mean to do that."
Smith on blocking well: "It's just part of the job. You've got a lot of tight ends that like to get the ball and go downfield for the big scores. At the same time, that's what my coach always says. It's part of the job description to get down and getting with the blocks. Whenever my name is called, and they need me to step up for them, that's what I am going to do."
Wade on how tight the offensive line is: "Oh, great. This is one of the better groups I've been around as far as just hanging out together, watching film together, just talking about life together, whatever."
Williams on how he feels about approaching 1,000 yards: "Of course I feel good about it because that was one of my goals coming into the season, but the most important thing is what we do as a team right now. The guys up front are doing a great job blocking. Chris Simms is doing a very good job of running the ball team. That's what I'm most impressed by."
Barber on if this defense reminds him of 2002: "We're looking forward to the rest of 2005. It's easy to make comparisons because we've been doing good things for a lot of years. If we continue to do our job the way we're doing it, those comparisons will work themselves at the end of the year."
Barber on the defense making big plays again: "The opportunities are there, you've just got to make them. They're always there. If the opportunity's there you've got to cash in. We've been doing that."
DT Anthony McFarland on how his hamstring is doing: "It's starting to feel better each day. Maybe this week. Maybe next week. The quicker the better."
McFarland on his injury: "It's a hamstring. Let's not make more out of it then what it is. Let's keep it in perspective. That's what it is. This is not bone graft we are doing here. It's a simple hamstring. That's it."
Simms on how Quarterbacks Coach Paul Hackett has helped him develop: "He's been my best friend, in a lot of ways. I know I've said this to you before, but it's the little things he brings to the table. A very calming presence and, of course, he's been in this offense for a number of years. It's not like I haven't been in the league for a while, I pretty much get the gist of the game, but little things such as when to expect the blitz, or maybe a safer audible to go to if you're not sure. Little things like that, he's been huge for me."
Simms on if he watched the 'tuck rule' game: "I do remember watching the game. My dad announced that game. Maybe, up to this point, one of the most memorable games of my life, really. It was just such a neat atmosphere to watch the Raiders and the Patriots, up there. [You] pretty much knew that those two teams might be the best in the NFL that year. It was an awesome game to watch. I was shocked by that. I thought the game was over. Now, the tuck rule, it seems to come up every few weeks on somebody. I was sitting in my apartment in Texas with a few friends and we were just watching the game. It was awesome."