NEW ORLEANS (Jan. 29, 2002) -- In September, the only television face time that Patriots understudy Tom Brady could look forward to involved him holding a clipboard. Twenty weeks later, former leading man Drew Bledsoe seemingly was relegated to a coin-flip cameo in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh.
Some time in between, Bledsoe passed the torch and Brady passed the clipboard. But an ankle injury to Brady and a Bledsoe revival against the Steelers might recast the pair yet again. Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't announce Monday which quarterback will start Super Bowl XXXVI, opting to wait until Wednesday to reveal which roles Bledsoe and Brady will play in the latest, biggest game of their very different careers.
The morning after Belichick's noncommittal commitment, Bledsoe and Brady were confronted with the juiciest story going at Super Bowl Media Day at the Superdome. Both quarterbacks were sticking to the company line.
"Obviously, I want to play as bad as any guy. And I'm sure Tom feels the same way," Bledsoe said. "[Belichick] is the coach, we're the players. He's going to make the call. If it's me, I'm ready to play. If it's Tom, I'll be ready to play, too."
Brady wouldn't budge from the politically correct platform, either, selling it with a dose of youthful panache.
"Whether I'm 70 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent, the fact of the matter is that we both have to be ready to play," Brady said. "[If I don't play,] I don't think there is any disappointment. We're in the frigging Super Bowl. How can you be disappointed with that?"
In the bizarre world that became the Patriots' quarterback situation, down is up, left is right, and Bledsoe was on the bench after a sideline hit opened a blood vessel in his chest in Week 2. Brady, a sixth-round draft choice in 2000, made the best of his audition by fire, leading the 0-2 Patriots to 11 victories in 14 starts.
Brady played like a veteran, making plays when needed, becoming a team leader, and rarely making the mistakes or throwing the costly interceptions that most second-year quarterbacks -- and Bledsoe -- had become susceptible to. Brady's streak of 162 passing attempts without an interception set an NFL record for the beginning of a career.
Weeks later, when Bledsoe was deemed healthy enough to return to action, he did so as a backup. Most New England fans had switched their allegiance to Brady, and Belichick agreed that the kid had staying power. Few questioned the decision after Brady helped deliver an unexpected AFC East title to New England. Most Patriots fans were more interested in Bledsoe's trade value than his possible return to the starting lineup.
Bledsoe and Brady contrast from the typical up-and-comer versus seasoned veteran dynamics. In this case, the elder statesman Bledsoe owns the bigger gun, putting more velocity on his throws. But the younger Brady has displayed more moxie, displaying a cool factor in the heat of battle that belies his age and experience.
"I want [playing time] as fast as I can get it. It's been an exciting year," Brady said. "It's been a great opportunity. To be able to step in and play when you're young in this league, and to have a little bit of success from a team standpoint, to win football games, to play with guys that have been successful in this league, how they prepare. It's been quite an opportunity.
Brady also has shown an ability to make things happen, as he did during the Patriots' comeback victory against the Raiders in the divisional playoffs. Bledsoe's critics had a hard time remembering the last time he had lifted a typically outmanned Patriots team onto his shoulders the way Brady did in a blizzard at Foxboro.
Bledsoe gave those doubters something to reconsider the next week against Pittsburgh. In the midst of a momentum-shifting drive, Brady was sidelined by a sprained left ankle, forcing Bledsoe to shake off 20 weeks of rust without benefit of warming up. He connected on his first three attempts, including an 11-yard touchdown pass on a timing pattern to David Patten right before halftime.
In the midst of their tag-team situation, Bledsoe and Brady have remained friendly.
"I don't want to get too much into specifics," Brady said. "When we talk, it's not much about football. When it comes down to talking about stuff like this, throughout the week he gives me bits of information that are always helpful."
"The bottom line is that no matter who starts at quarterback Sunday, we want to win this game," Bledsoe said. "That's more important."
Their teammates have not taken a side during the season or in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXVI.
"It's not like we'll be getting any different plays," wide receiver Troy Brown said. "I really don't think anyone cares. If Drew's there, great. If it's Tom, that's great, too."
While Belichick and the Patriots won't lean one way or the other until Wednesday, the opposing coach has weighed in. Mike Martz, whose Rams defeated the Patriots 24-17 on Nov. 18 despite a solid performance by Brady (19 for 27, 185 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions) thinks Belichick will start the veteran.
"[Bledsoe] has the strong arm and he's able to get the ball into the small spaces. Plus, he's the more veteran player. I think he'll be their guy," Martz said. "Sure, it's the same offense for both guys, but they are different and have different levels."
On Wednesday evening, Belichick either can make Martz look like more of a genius or stay with the quarterback he rode in on.