FOXBOROUGH -- Here's why the comparisons to Joe Montana don't work. Yet. Joe Theismann won one Super Bowl. So did Jim McMahon. And Phil Simms. And Doug Williams. Jeff Hostetler. Mark Rypien. Trent Dilfer. Brad Johnson. Tom Brady is closer to that group than he is to Montana. For now. Brady's 34-12 regular-season record (.739 winning percentage) as a starter is nice. Quite nice. Montana-nice. In fact, Montana and Roger Staubach are the only other quarterbacks in league history to win 70 percent of their first 40 starts. But that's where it ends.
Here's why the comparisons to Montana will work. Soon. Perhaps by Feb. 2. Brady's career is just beginning. He's already the youngest quarterback in league history to win a Super Bowl, having done so at 24 years, 184 days old. Before Brady, Montana and Joe Namath were the youngest at 25 years 227 days. Brady has as many postseason starts as Montana has Super Bowl MVP trophies. For now.
That's why there's a little extra pep in Brady's step this week. That's why he stares at the Super Bowl XXXVI MVP trophy that sits by his bedside. This is his season. The postseason. It was two years ago in the playoffs that Brady went from being a story to a star overnight.
"I want another [title]," Brady told ESPN The Magazine for its Jan. 19 issue.
"Can you imagine? Two Super Bowls?" Then we can talk. Maybe even about Brady and Montana in the same conversation, sans the qualifiers. Right now it's not even close.
"They're both righthanded quarterbacks," Bill Belichick said. "You're talking about Joe Montana. The guy is a Hall of Fame quarterback. He's won however many Super Bowls he's won. How many guys can you compare to him?"
He was "Joe-Cool" cool in his first postseason appearance two years ago, right up until the spike to stop the clock for Adam Vinatieri's championship-clinching kick. He's been clutch in this, his third year as a starter, finishing third in league MVP voting after leading the Patriots to the league's best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which for them begin Saturday night at Gillette Stadium against the Tennessee Titans. If New England wins its second title in three years, Brady already will be halfway to Montana.
"He's the best of all time," Brady said yesterday. "Joe Montana, he was everything. Everything that he did was great. He threw the ball great. He managed his game great. He made his other players great. He really had some great qualities. I think as a quarterback you have to emulate some of those things.
"There will never be another Joe Montana. Can guys do some of those things? [Dan] Marino could throw the ball great. [John] Elway could improvise great. Do I think I have any of those great qualities? I'm working at it. I'm working to try to become that, but it's going to have to take a lot more playoff games and a lot more Super Bowl wins to ever mention those two names in the same sentence."
Mention the postseason to Brady, and you see in his face what his teammates see when they're looking back at him in the huddle in the fourth quarter: It.
"These are the type of weeks that in February and March and April and May you just think about," he said. "What greater of an opportunity could you ever have than to be a starting quarterback in this game?"
"We had a walk-through [Monday] and he was a little bit more upbeat about it," rookie center Dan Koppen said. "You can definitely sense the urgency from him."
"Is he more tense or uptight? No," backup QB Damon Huard said. "He's just Tom. He's focused. He loves this."
All of New England loved him by the morning of Jan. 20, 2002 -- if they didn't already. Hard to believe it's been almost two years since Brady's first playoff start, Jan. 19, 2002, against Oakland at Foxboro Stadium. No one on the team seems to remember seeing any nervousness in Brady during the two weeks leading up to the game. "The same as he was the week before," Belichick recalled yesterday. "The same as he was going into Carolina. The same as he was going into Miami. The same as he was going into whoever we played before Miami that year, the Jets, I can't even remember [Buffalo]."
Brady went into the Raiders game unproven in the playoffs. He came out of it a local legend, having rallied the Patriots from a 13-3 deficit after three quarters by passing for 138 yards in the fourth and overtime -- with a little help, of course, from the "tuck" rule.
Brady established Patriots postseason passing records in that game for attempts (52), completions (32), and passing yards (312). He also ran for a touchdown. He hit on 26 of 39 passes in the second half for 238 yards after he and his teammates were booed off the field at the end of the first half when they trailed, 7-0.
"One thing about Tom is, he's smart, he prepares very hard, and he's resilient," said Belichick, who took the liberty to add two things. "Pressure doesn't really bother him. He is, I think, pretty much unaffected by the score or the situation, the field position, the crowd noise, what happened the play before, all of those things. I think that he has the good ability to put those in the background and focus on what's in front of him."
Or who's above him. Brady isn't quite on Montana's level. Yet. But give him time. (How's three weeks?)