PHOENIX - Even now, after three rings and a season that is one victory shy of unprecedented perfection, the man shakes his head when you put him alongside Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and the other immortals in the signal-calling pantheon. "Those guys, as far as I'm concerned, are in a league of their own," Tom Brady says.
And yet, if the Patriots beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLII Sunday night, their quarterback will join Montana and Bradshaw as the only four-time winners of football's ultimate game. And since a victory also would cap a flawless season, Brady could well be considered the best who has ever played.
"If Tom wins this game and is part of a team which went undefeated in 19 games, then it strengthens his argument," says former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls and who lists Montana as his No. 1.
Comparing quarterbacks from different eras is an inexact science. Bradshaw and the Steelers won their four titles in the 1970s, Montana and the 49ers in the '80s. Since then, the NFL has added expansion teams, gone to free agency, adopted a salary cap, and changed its scheduling to promote parity. Its players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever.
"Today's game has changed so much," says Aikman, now a Fox analyst. "When Roger Staubach retired from the NFL [in 1979] he was the leading passer of all time with an 83.4 rating. That's not even a good game now. You see quarterbacks with a rating over 100 as if it's nothing."
What Brady, Montana, and Bradshaw all have in common are the champion's intangibles - leadership, competitiveness, calm, heart, toughness, and unshakable optimism. "His drive and motivation [is] to be the best," says receiver Randy Moss, "even in bad situations."
Low expectationsWhat sets Brady apart, though, is that almost nobody envisioned him as a superstar. Bradshaw was the top pick in the 1970 draft. Montana piloted Notre Dame to the national championship in 1977. Brady was a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, the 199th player taken in 2000.
"Nobody expects anything of you," Brady says. "You just show up and you're trying to make the team. You're trying to bring your playbook to the meetings and not forget it in the room. When you're a first-round pick, everybody's counting on you to come in and save the franchise."
All the Patriots wanted Brady to do was run a scout team. He was fourth man on the depth chart as a rookie, an unknown face with a thin résumé. "When he walked into the locker room I was like, 'Who is this skinny little kid?' " recalls wide receiver Troy Brown. "He wasn't very big and nobody had any idea who he was . . . He wasn't a very flashy guy. The girls didn't think he was as cute as he is now that he is winning and rich. He wasn't really anybody that caught your eye at the time."
But Bill Belichick quickly noticed Brady's knack for command and control. "You could really see some of Tom's leadership taking over at that point, even though it was with other rookies," the Patriots coach says. "You could see him handle the team, handle the call, getting people lined up and making sure everybody knew what to do."
Nobody in the locker room worked harder or studied more diligently, then or now, than Brady. He was driven, he later acknowledged, by the insecurity of the perennial backup, the kid who couldn't play on a winless high school freshman team, who began Michigan as a seventh-stringer. "You don't forget where you came from," Brady once said. "The scars that you have from those days are deep scars."
His obsessiveness, though, always moved him up the ladder. By the end of his rookie season in Foxborough, Brady was No. 2. When Drew Bledsoe went down early in 2001, Brady coolly took over. Once the Patriots upset the Rams for their first title, it was his offense, his era. The kid who'd grown up wearing a Montana jersey was on the same path as "Joe Cool" himself.
Yet the first ring simply stoked his hunger for a second and a third. Every night during the week before Super Bowl XXXIX, Brady insisted on sitting down with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and going over the game plan for the Eagles. His passion for preparation, Weis complained half-jokingly, was making Brady a pain in the butt.
"Every game, you're playing for perfection," says offensive tackle Matt Light. "That's what Tom's doing, and it trickles down to everybody else."
There is always another film clip to watch, another bit of strategy to discuss, another technique to perfect. "He is hard to coach," concedes Belichick, "because he is so well-prepared and knows his job so thoroughly that you have to be prepared just to deal with him on his level."
Zen master's giftEight years of compulsive fine-tuning have made Brady a master of his craft. No quarterback in the game has his evolved awareness of time and space; none is better at sorting out multiple options and executing decisions.
"The things he does amaze me," says Jimmy Johnson, who coached the Cowboys to consecutive Super Bowl triumphs in the early '90s. "I talk to Bradshaw and I always preface it by saying, 'Now Terry, I know how great you were, but . . . ' Tom Brady is so knowledgeable about the offense and where the open receivers are. Back in the shotgun, which is so beneficial for him, he is able to get rid of that football even with a free rusher."
Brady has a Zen master's gift for slowing down and simplifying a rapid and chaotic environment. "He's calm in the pocket," says Giants quarterback Eli Manning. "He has a great feel for how much time he has. He's never thrown off. He's fun to watch."
And maddeningly difficult to catch, particularly with a formidable line protecting him. "Tom's back there moving like he's on ice skates," testifies New York defensive end Michael Strahan, who'll be trying to prevent Brady from doing quadruple toe loops Sunday. "He knows how to glide and how to turn."
More importantly, Brady can perform under extreme pressure. From the time he led his mates down the field for the game-ending field goal that beat the Rams for New England's first Super Bowl triumph, he has been able to keep the chains moving while the clock is ticking, just as Montana could.
"Through the course of a game, players start to panic," says Moss. "When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, nail-biting time, Tom has been a player. To be able to show that much poise and not show a lot of emotion . . . "
The immortals in the pantheon - Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, John Elway, Bradshaw, Montana and the rest - all had that unflappability, especially when the stakes were highest. If Unitas invented the two-minute drill, Brady has turned it into a fine art. He has played beat-the-clock twice at the Super Bowl and won both times.
By now, his teammates' belief in him and respect for him is absolute. "By any measurement he's a superstar, and yet every guy in that locker room has a piece of him," says Aikman. "Tom makes himself accessible to every guy. There are times when quarterbacks, when they reach the level Tom has reached, without even trying, can alienate themselves from the rest of the team. He's not done that."
Possibly because, even after three titles and two Super Bowl MVP trophies, Brady doesn't believe that he's yet at that level. "I've got a long way to go for that," he was saying this week. "I've still got a lot of playing left. I'm not done."
Montana was 33 when he won his fourth title. Bradshaw was 31. Brady is only 30. He's healthy and he's playing for the same coach in the same system with a better team than he started with. By the time he's done, he may need a thumb-sized ring.
For now, though, the guy who was a toddler when Bradshaw won his last one and hadn't started school when Montana won his first is content just to be mentioned in the same sentence.
"It's a great bond that you have with people who you've shared experiences with, and more so than anything, people who I looked up to when I was younger," Tom Brady says. "Now I have some things in common, and that's probably the best thing about it."
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.