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These Kids Can Play With Tom Brady of the Patriots Showing the Way

A new generation of explosive young quarterbacks is lighting up the NFL
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Managing a young starting quarterback in the NFL is a balancing act. Very quickly, a coach must ascertain his passer's strengths and weaknesses; then, he has to formulate game plans that aren't so complex as to overload his student yet have enough variety to keep opponents off guard. All the while, the new leader of the offense has to remain focused on his weekly task while adjusting to the media attention, fame and fat contract that come with the job.

It's a seesaw experience, but once a coach and quarterback are in sync, the result can have the impact of a Barry Bonds homer into McCovey Cove. Consider, for instance, what the New England Patriots' 25year-old Tom Brady accomplished on Sunday in a heavily hyped game against the Buffalo Bills and his former teammate Drew Bledsoe. Abandoning a wide-open pass attack for shorter throws and a stepped-up ground game, Brady had the most accurate passing day in club history, completing 23 of 27 attempts (85.2%) for 310 yards and four touchdowns in a 38--7 rout.

For the first time in more than a month the Patriots' offense was in perfect harmony, and it was because the New England coaches and Brady had returned to the notion of defining Brady's strength and revising the game plan accordingly.

In the first two months of the season offensive coordinator
Charlie Weis used a spread offense with Brady doing his best Dan Fouts imitation. The defending Super Bowl champs bolted out of the gate, averaging 38.3 points during a 3--0 start. But then the offense stalled, and the Patriots dropped their next four games. That's when New England acknowledged that its quarterback couldn't carry the offense by himself, in the manner of a Fouts, a Dan Marino or a Brett Favre.

So against the Bills, in addition to throwing a lot of screens
and dump-offs and flares, Brady handed off to running back
Antowain Smith a season-high 29 times for 111 yards and a
touchdown. Throwing the short stuff, Brady was 17 of 18 for 222 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. "Those screens, in all honesty, don't work every week," Brady said on Monday. "But against this opponent, that's what kept working. If they hadn't, we'd have changed, and we had a bunch of different stuff in. Out of about 70 pass plays in the game plan, we had 15 that I'd never seen before. That's Charlie trying to put me in the best position not just every week, but every play."

The NFL is more reliant on young quarterbacks like Brady than at any other time in the last two decades. In a review of the league's starting quarterbacks at the midpoint of the past 20 seasons, the 17 current starters under age 28 constitute the largest number of such players in any season since 1983. (Last year 13 starting quarterbacks were under 28; in 2000, the number was 11.) In fact, not since the great quarterback draft of '83, when Marino and five other passers were drafted in the first round, have so many young QBs been handed the stewardship of their teams so early.

Among the 17 young starters, eight have fewer than three full
seasons in the NFL. With Brady, the Atlanta Falcons' Michael
Vick, the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees, the Houston Texans' David Carr, the Detroit Lions' Joey Harrington and the New York Jets' Chad Pennington leading the charge, the new wave is surely here. Plus, inexperienced passers such as the St. Louis Rams' Marc Bulger and the Cleveland Browns' Kelly Holcomb have been impressive as stopgap injury replacements. "The Elways and Marinos are gone, but a bunch of young guys are stepping up," says Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, "and they're going to get better in a hurry."

Even Marino, now a CBS and HBO analyst, concedes that newly anointed franchise quarterbacks have it much tougher than he did. "Today a rookie is expected to be the savior of the franchise, because the franchise isn't very good," Marino says. "I came in with a Super Bowl team, and there's no way I saw the kind of exotic defenses that these quarterbacks see."

The first pick in the 1989 draft, former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro
Troy Aikman, pointed out to Brady a few weeks ago how times have changed. "Troy told me that when he started out, he had a wristband with 12 passes and six runs on it," Brady says. "Yesterday, on one play, I had three tight ends, a back and a wide receiver in the game, and on the next play it was five wides. So the game has changed dramatically for us."

These signal-callers not only have to prepare for what defenses throw at them, but also for what their teammates will think of a rich-kid leader in a locker room typically dominated by veterans. Pennington, for one, has been walking on eggshells for a month, ever since Jets coach Herman Edwards tabbed him to replace Vinny Testaverde, the slumping but highly respected veteran.

Says the Denver Broncos' 37-year-old backup quarterback, Steve Beuerlein, "The veteran pressure on a kid who has to step in and be a leader is huge. He comes into a locker room with guys a lot older than he is, and who are probably already giving him a hard time because he's making more money than they are. It's hard for him to get confidence in himself, and it's hard to generate confidence from those veterans. That's a relationship that evolves as everyone gets to know each other, but it's very hard for a guy to establish."

A sixth-round pick in 2000, Brady went from a player who was just happy to make the roster one year to a starter who was named Super Bowl MVP the next. That was hard enough in a locker room where the players so admired the veteran he replaced early in 2001, the injured Bledsoe. Then, in the off-season, Bledsoe was traded, and Brady, who had been making the NFL minimum, got a fat contract extension. When New England started to struggle this year, Brady's relationship with his teammates became rocky. He called out some unnamed Patriots after the fourth loss, a 24--16 defeat to the Broncos on Oct. 27. "It might need to be a little more important to them," he said at the time. "Maybe guys aren't
playing like it's their livelihood." Several players took
exception to Brady's comments.

"There's a fine line between being a leader and going overboard," Brady says. "As a young guy, you can't walk in and say, 'This is the way to do it.' Some veteran will say, 'Shut up. You've been here five minutes.' The thing about being a quarterback, no matter what age you are, is that you're not a custodian. You're the coach on the field. So even though it's tough sometimes, I don't give a crap that I'm 25. I'm a captain. I'm the quarterback. I'm going to say what I think."

In the balancing act that is life as a precocious NFL
quarterback, you live and learn--mostly learn. Brady's performance on Sunday confirmed that he's settling into the
full-time role. The other seven starting quarterbacks with three years or less of NFL experience are facing their own adjustments. SI asked scouts and personnel directors around the league for their midseason evaluations of these young guns (statistics are for each player's career).

Drew Brees
Chargers, 32nd pick in 2001

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
266 164 61.7 1,745 11 8 82.0

"He's a natural leader who has great moxie. That makes up for his biggest flaw, which is lack of arm strength. He gets himself out of a lot of jams with his feet, but I don't think he wants to run too much; he picks his spots. He's also so aware of what's
happening that he'll be running toward the sideline, and at the last second he'll flip a pass to a guy for a 10-yard completion. He has great instincts, and he's very accurate. He also has a great running back [LaDainian Tomlinson] to take the pressure off him, which is the kind of setup that Marty Schottenheimer wants."

David Carr
Texans, First pick in 2002

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
207 107 51.7 1,387 7 8 68.2

"He's a tough son of a gun, has great arm strength and
understands what's going on around him in the pocket. He can make all the throws, and when things break down, he doesn't hesitate to take off. He doesn't get much time to throw because their line is so beat up, but he has the size and the toughness to deal with that. He's not a movement guy like [Michael] Vick or [Donovan] McNabb, but he has enough athleticism that he can get out of trouble when he feels the pass rush. Like a lot of young guys, he'll make a bad throw into coverage, but that's part of the learning process."

Joey Harrington
Lions, Third pick in 2002

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
233 117 50.2 1,312 6 9 59.9

"He's become such a leader for that team. You can tell by the way the Lions are playing how much confidence they have in Harrington (page 44). You can see that he's comfortable running that offense. His mechanics are really impressive for a rookie, and his arm and accuracy are good. You can get to him with pressure because he doesn't always look comfortable on the run. He'll take chances with that arm [and force the ball into coverage]. Teams have bothered him by making adjustments during games, and he'll have to show that he can deal with it. He's getting better every week."

Chad Hutchinson
Cowboys, 2002 free agent

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
63 34 54.0 353 1 0 75.7

"He has a very impressive arm--throws a good deep ball and has outstanding touch, especially for a guy who's been out of
football for [four] years. Even though he's such a big quarterback, he's still mobile; he's got good feet and nice
mechanics. He'll make bad decisions if you get pressure on him. And he'll hold the ball too long, but that's inexperience.
Because he's been away from the game for so long, if you show him several looks and constantly change them throughout the game, he's going to be in trouble."

Chad Pennington
Jets, 18th pick in 2000

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
193 131 67.9 1,508 8 4 96.4

"I've liked him since he was in college. He has good accuracy and a nice release, but he's not very athletic. He'll scramble around and get tripped up pretty easily. Still, he's shown enough mobility to make tough throws on the run. He's a throwback, a classic drop-back passer. I've been really impressed with his accuracy on downfield throws. He sees the field very well and has a good feel for what the defense is throwing at him. He's done the little things that make life easier for his receivers. You don't see those guys having to make a lot of acrobatic catches to make plays. He usually puts the ball right where it needs to be."

Chris Redman
Ravens, 75th pick in 2000

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
185 99 53.5 1,053 7 3 76.3

"He's not spectacular. His arm strength is good but not great.
His best throws come between the hash marks. You can tell he's a student of the game and a leader. He doesn't have much mobility, but in that system they're not asking him to make plays with his feet. They only want him to avoid a lot of mistakes, and he's done a good job of that."

Michael Vick
Falcons, First pick in 2001

Att. Comp. Pct. Yds. TDs Int. Rating
272 146 53.7 1,880 6 4 76.8

"He has the prettiest release, and he puts a lot of velocity on
his throws. I haven't been around Brett Favre, but I can't think
of a quarterback with a stronger arm than Vick's. I also don't
think there's anyone in the NFL faster than him. They like to use him on sweeps and draws, and there's no scarier sight than watching him running down the field. The guy made some plays against us that left our players mesmerized. Atlanta doesn't appear to be holding him back. He's running everything in Dan Reeves's offense, and he's not making many mistakes."