OAKLAND, Calif. – He was a Northern California kid with a big right arm and some grandiose dreams.
Back in the day, Tommy Brady envisioned himself returning home as a grownup to perform in the stadiums near his San Mateo home – Candlestick Park, where his beloved 49ers played, and across the San Francisco Bay at the Oakland Coliseum.
On Sunday afternoon, walking from the visitors' locker room to the parking lot at the latter facility now known as the O.co Coliseum, Brady recalled the youthful fantasy.
"I thought I was going to play baseball," Brady said. "I'd be a catcher – maybe catch a no-hitter against the A's. That was my dream."
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The reality, as Brady was reminded in his first Bay Area performance in nine years, turned out to be even more fantastic and satisfying than he could have anticipated during his childhood. On Sunday, in front of 62,572 fans – about 50 of whom were guests of his parents, Tom Sr. and Galynn – Brady led the New England Patriots to a 31-19 victory over the Oakland Raiders while burnishing his credentials as one of the best quarterbacks the game of football has ever known.
Early in the fourth quarter, Brady threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch(notes) that was the 274th of his career in the regular season, moving him into ninth place on the NFL's all-time list, one ahead of the 49ers Hall of Famer whom he once idolized.
Yeah, his homecoming was that good. And so, too, was (and is) Brady, who four games into his 12th season is well on his way to a third NFL MVP award and, he hopes, a shot at a fourth Super Bowl ring.
You know, like the four that Montana owns.
"It's kinda nice that the kid has passed Joe Montana, his hero, in his first game back here in so long," Brady Sr. said Sunday evening. "Growing up, he always thought Joe was the greatest. It depends on how things work out, but it looks like he's gonna be in a conversation with some pretty great ones."
This is the moment at which, as a card-carrying Montana-phile who as a young 49ers beat writer got to cover him on a daily basis, I am obligated to step in and restore order. When Montana retired after the 1994 season, I was convinced he was the best quarterback ever to play, and I'm not about to change that opinion less than two decades later.
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At the top of my list there is Montana, he of the preternatural calm, unfathomable accuracy and unmatched magic. And then there is The Conversation, in which we ponder the substantial credentials of all-time greats like Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas and John Elway, among others. Surely, there is Peyton Manning(notes), whose phenomenal career may or may not be in jeopardy. And there is Brady, very much in his prime at 34 and currently on pace for the greatest statistical season in NFL history.
It was a mere 20 months ago that Manning, the only four-time MVP in league history, was being popularly anointed as the best ever as he closed in on his second Super Bowl appearance. At the time, I stuck up not only for Montana but also for Brady, insisting it was premature even to declare that Manning was unequivocally the best of this era. After Manning and the Colts lost that game, and Brady rolled out an MVP season in 2010, it seemed very premature.
And now? Well, this era just got dealt an uppercut to the jaw when Manning, shortly before the start of the regular season, had a third neck surgery in 19 months, ending his 227-game consecutive starts streak and likely costing him the entire 2011 season. Some doctors have speculated that Manning's career could be in jeopardy. Gulp.
If Manning can't come back – and if Brady, now three years removed from reconstructive knee surgery, continues to play at this level for the foreseeable future – well, a certain Boston-based Montana-phile is going to have to answer some awkward questions like the ones he tried to brush off on Sunday.
"Well, Joe … I'll never be in Joe's category," Brady said at his postgame media session. "We throw the ball a lot more than they threw it back then. It's much more of a passing league than it's ever been."
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Later, as Brady stood outside the Patriots' team bus, I broached the subject once more.
"Heck, he's Joe Montana," Brady said. "Touchdown passes, it's an overrated stat. When you run it in or throw it in, it's all the same. It's about winning."
Ah, yes, there is that. Last week, after a pair of season-opening victories, the Patriots went to Buffalo and jumped out to 21-0 lead on the Bills, an AFC East rival they'd defeated 15 consecutive times. The Pats' day ended with a stunning 34-31 defeat in which Brady threw four interceptions, matching his total from the entire 2010 season.
It was predictable that a Bill Belichick-coached, Brady-quarterbacked team would take the negative outcome to heart and channel the energy toward rapid improvement – "It was one of those weeks," veteran tackle Matt Light(notes) said – and sure enough, by Sunday's end the Pats (3-1) were back in a first-place tie with the Bills.
Though Brady's numbers (16-for-30, 226 yards, two touchdowns) were tepid by his recent standards, he did not have a turnover, and he's still in position to achieve some obscenely ostentatious milestones by season's end.
Brady has already thrown for 1,553 yards in 2011, the second-highest four-game total to start a season in league history, just four behind Kurt Warner's(notes) quarter-pole effort of 11 years earlier. He's on pace to finish with 6,212 yards, which would shatter Dan Marino's record of 5,084 that has stood since 1984.
With 13 touchdown passes Brady, if he produces at his current rate, would finish with 52, two better than the single-season record he set in 2007. And on Sunday he matched Manning's record with a 13th consecutive game of at least two TD throws.
It should be noted that Brady's favorite target, wideout Wes Welker(notes), is also on a record-setting pace, and if you shrug him off as a gritty overachiever feasting on possession routes and soft spots underneath zones, you're way behind the times and missing a hell of a show.
Of Welker's nine catches for 158 yards against the Raiders (2-2), the most impressive wasn't his 15-yard touchdown in the first quarter; it was the 21-yard sideline grab midway through the second quarter that set up the score which would put the Pats up for good.
Trailing 10-7, Brady drove the Patriots to the Oakland 22-yard line. On first-and-10 he looked to Welker angling toward the left end-zone pylon with rookie cornerback Chimdi Chekwa(notes) applying tight coverage.
Brady lofted a gorgeous spiral toward Welker's back shoulder, and the receiver, right on cue, rotated his body into position and made a tough, acrobatic grab at the 1 while dragging his toes on the sideline. At first, one official ruled that Welker was out of bounds, but after a quick discussion the play was rightfully called a catch.
Forget the collectively impressive physical feat for a moment – how do Brady and Welker know to do these things when they do them, in unison?
"It's an adjustment," Welker said. "We just sort of processed it the same way."
From that point on the game went the Patriots' way: a one-yard scoring run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes); an unconscionable Jason Campbell(notes) end-zone interception to New England safety Patrick Chung(notes) (with four other Patriots and zero Raiders in the vicinity); a 44-yard Stephen Gostkowski(notes) field goal to make it 17-10 at the half; a 33-yard touchdown run by rookie running back Stevan Ridley(notes) to put the Pats up by 14 less than four minutes into the third quarter.
The Coliseum, still abuzz from the Raiders' victory over the New York Jets the previous Sunday, quieted considerably after that. As some may recall, Raider Nation has a history of heartbreak involving this particular quarterback, and it soon became clear that it would not be avenged on this particular day.
It probably won't make the silver-and-black-clad crazies feel much better in retrospect, but on Sunday they were witnessing one of the all-time greats, at the height of his powers, in a context that very much resonated with his inner child.
Brady, who played collegiately at Michigan and relocated to New England in 2000 as a sixth-round draft choice and fourth-string Patriots quarterback, hasn't had a whole lot of professional homecomings. He faced the Raiders in 2002 but was robbed of a return engagement – and a far more meaningful visit to Candlestick to face the Niners – by the season-ending knee injury he suffered in the 2008 opener.
When the Patriots decided to fly west last Friday, a day earlier than usual, Brady checked his old high school team's schedule and realized he could see Serra, for whom he starred in the mid-'90s, face St. Francis in Mountain View, not far from the Santa Clara hotel at which the Pats were staying.
Brady Sr. was preparing to scoop up his son and head to the game before the travel gods intervened. "It was all set up," the younger Brady said. "But we were [expletive] an hour late, and I didn't get to go. And we beat 'em at their place for the first time in 42 years!"
Though Brady didn't get to see the Padres' landmark victory, he and his padre did get some satisfaction on Saturday. First they stopped at a Belmont deli called Gracie's Delectables: "Special stop, and so worth it," Brady said. "Turkey sandwich on this oatmeal walnut bread … amazing."
Then, said Brady Sr., "We went to Millbrae [Racquet Club] and watched his mom and one of her best friends win a doubles tournament. It was very exciting, though we did have to quiet him down for being too raucous."
It was good to be home, as it was good to be in Oakland on Sunday, when Brady was winning and grinning with an ease that would have made his idol proud.
And here's a statistic that Brady might treasure a bit more than his rank on the career touchdown-pass list: He's now eighth all-time among starting quarterbacks on the list of regular-season wins with 114, three behind Montana.
As he left the Coliseum and headed outside to greet friends and family members on a glorious Bay Area afternoon, Brady was reminded that he's still one short of Montana (and Terry Bradshaw) in Super Bowl victories, with a plausible chance of claiming the record before he's done.
"That," Brady said, "is all that matters."
The Lions are officially legit – they went into Cowboys Stadium, shook off a 24-point third-quarter deficit and rallied to beat Dallas 34-30, becoming the first team in NFL history to produce consecutive comeback victories from 20-point deficits or more. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was clearly peeved by Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's declaration last week that Dallas receivers Miles Austin(notes) and Dez Bryant(notes) were "better" than the Lions' Calvin Johnson. After returning to Detroit on Sunday night, linebacker Stephen Tulloch(notes) was still fired up. "That was crazy," said Tulloch, whose leaping interception of Tony Romo(notes) with just over four minutes remaining set up the winning score – Johnson's two-yard touchdown catch with 1:39 to go, his second scoring reception of the fourth quarter. "Coach Schwartz talked about that before the game, and we all thought that was a joke. The guy's so good. I see him every day in practice, and I've never seen anything like it before. It's almost like he's unreal, like he's a 'created player' in a video game." In his postgame media session, Schwartz went heavy on the sarcasm, saying, "I'm just glad the third-best receiver on their team is on our team." Hey, when you're 4-0 and one of two remaining undefeated teams (along with the Packers, with whom the Lions share first place in the NFC North), you can show some swagger. … Meanwhile, Tulloch's former team, the Tennessee Titans, is among the NFL's biggest early surprises, with three consecutive victories after a season-opening defeat in Jacksonville. Despite last week's season-ending knee injury to star wideout Kenny Britt(notes), the Titans' offense kept right on humming in a 31-13 thrashing of the Browns in Cleveland, with newly acquired, 36-year-old quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) throwing three first-half touchdown passes. "That part's been really hard," Hasselbeck said of losing Britt as he prepared to board the Titans' flight home to Nashville. "We've had to work at it, but we've gotten some good bounces and found a way to compensate. At the end of the day, if you could point to one thing, our offensive line's really good. And our defense is playing great, too." In fairness, so is the quarterback. … The Ravens' defense looks mighty again – it scored three touchdowns in Sunday night's 34-17 victory over the Jets. Three? Are you kidding me? When Baltimore gets up for a game, watch out. … Congratulations to the Bears' Devin Hester(notes), who set an NFL record with his 11th punt return for touchdown in Sunday's 34-29 victory over the Panthers (he set up another score with a 73-yard kickoff return). I've said it before and I'll say it again: Don't kick to Hester, the greatest return man in NFL history. Also, more cowbell. Eleven really is a great number, whether we're talking about my daughter's soccer or field-hockey jersey or Spinal Tap's amps. And the Packers' Charles Woodson(notes) went to 11 on Sunday – his 11th career interception for touchdown in a 49-23 thrashing of the Broncos tied him with Darren Sharper(notes) for second on the NFL's all-time list, one behind Rod (No Relation) Woodson. … Finally, the Chiefs (1-3) defeated the visiting Vikings (0-4), 22-17, in the Suck For Luck Bowl – but for starry-eyed fans dreaming of the No. 1 overall draft pick, perhaps Minnesota was the real winner. Don't worry, Chiefs loyalists – Kansas City can get back in the mix next week against the Colts in Indy, or when the Dolphins come to town on Nov. 6. And no, I don't think these teams would ever tank on purpose, even though many of the people rooting for them would surely approve of that strategy.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The movie "Inception." I tried – really – but I guess I'm just not that smart.
2. How the Dream Team could have devolved into such a nightmare, so soon. "It's a disaster here," one player told me after the Eagles blew a 20-point lead at home to the 49ers and lost their third consecutive game, meaning Philly will take a 1-3 record into Sunday's meeting with the Bills in Buffalo. Yep, despite a career-high 416 passing yards and 75 rushing yards from Michael Vick, 171 receiving yards by DeSean Jackson(notes) and three sacks from defensive end Jason Babin(notes), one of the team's key offseason pickups, the Eagles let a San Francisco team that came into the game with the NFL's lowest-ranked offense ride Alex Smith's arm to a 24-23 victory. Among the Philly atrocities: halfback Ronnie Brown's(notes) ridiculous shovel-pass-attempt-turned-fumble near the goal line; fourth-quarter misses from 39 and 33 yards by rookie kicker Alex Henery(notes); and Jeremy Maclin's(notes) fumble as the Eagles were driving into range for a potential game-winning field goal. Last-place Philadelphia is now two games behind the Redskins (3-1) and Giants (3-1) in the NFC East and faces a sure-to-be-surly Bills team coming off a blown lead in Cincinnati that resulted in its first loss of the season. If the Eagles can't get it together in Buffalo, it'll be time to start pondering whether they're the 2011 version of last year's Cowboys. Some of us – ahem, ahem – are feeling a bit duped at this particular moment.
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OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
What is it with the NFL and ridiculous rules (and/or interpretations thereof) that make sense only on a theoretical level but have no intuitive resonance with fans or people who actually play the sport? I've written an entire column on this previously and I'm ranting again after a Sunday which featured another confusing application of the dreaded Tuck Rule (nullifying a Bills defensive TD against the Bengals) and a dubious officiating decision that likely cost the Arizona Cardinals a victory over the Giants.
With a little more than three minutes to play and Arizona up 27-24, Eli Manning(notes) connected with wideout Victor Cruz(notes) on a 19-yard pass. After slipping by one Cardinals defender, Cruz spun around and saw three others descending, flopped on his stomach and, without being touched, got up without the ball. Arizona's Richard Marshall(notes) recovered and started running toward the end zone, but an official had already whistled the play dead. The explanation: Cruz had "given himself up," which by rule is supposed to kill the play. (Specifically, a play ends when a ballcarrier "declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and makes no effort to advance.") Some thoughts? 1) Really? This isn't college football, and there's no logical reason that Cruz's abrupt dive should fall under this particular category of legislation. If the fear is that a player in such a situation would subject himself to a dangerous hit while prone, I think that's ridiculous – the way rules are currently interpreted, any sort of spearing or violent pile-on by a defender would likely have triggered a personal-foul penalty. 2) If something like that happened in a pickup game (with pro rules and a two-hand touch requirement), 99 percent of the people would say it's a fumble. In other words, it's a bad rule. 3) As awful as the rule is in the first place – it should be tailored specifically to clock-killing or ball-downing situations – I'm not sure it was interpreted correctly in this case. It's a judgment call which, by the way, means it can't be subject to replay review, meaning the Cardinals were out of luck. 4) Oh, by the way, Manning went up top to Hakeem Nicks(notes) for a 29-yard touchdown on the next play and won 31-27, pushing the Giants' record to 3-1 and dropping the Cards to 1-3. People's jobs are on the line. Can we try to make rules that are logical and which comply with the general spirit of the sport – and stop deciding games on interpretations of overly judicious exceptions to simple concepts, i.e. when you cough up the ball without being tackled, it's live? Thank you.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Anytime tommy's name is mentioned in the same sentence as JM, it's an awesome day!!! "
– Text Sunday night from Nancy Brady, Tom's sister and fellow Montana fan.
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- Joe Montana