FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Late in the second quarter of the 16th meeting between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, on a second-and-21 with the Patriots leading the Broncos 20-7, Tom Brady faked a handoff, dropped back to pass, and saw a sight all too familiar during this strange year: a disaster.
The Broncos were in quarters coverage, with four defensive backs blanketing Brady's two deep options, including receiver Julian Edelman on a curl. Then Brady saw defensive end Malik Jackson slipping free from his double-team and closing fast. Brady shuffled a few feet to the right, living up to the image of a quarterback who, as he says, doesn't "have a cell in my body that tells me to run." In short, it was exactly what the Broncos, badly in need of a stop to get back in the game, hoped for.
It's no secret that as Brady and Peyton Manning age, one of the few reliable lines of defense is to keep them from setting their feet. That's what the Patriots did to Manning much of Sunday afternoon -- really, what they've done in most of their successful efforts against him over his career. They made him drift and reset and most of all, made him aware that the clock was ticking faster than he wanted, just as the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl, causing many of his passes to flutter and sail.
Brady has always been a proud fixture in the pocket. He often doesn't even step up. But over the years, he's seen how Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson and Alex Smith and yes, Manning, move in the pocket and extend plays. Manning has worked especially hard at becoming more nimble, always trying to limit any deficiency. And his chief rival for the greatest quarterback of their era has noticed and been inspired to do the same, because, as Bill Belichick says, "The longer the play extends, then the more separation there is between that underneath level and the deep level."
This past spring, Brady decided he wanted that club in his bag. "I focused a lot this offseason on those mechanics to allow me to make a couple of those plays this year," he told me early Monday morning.
On its face, that notion seems absurd. Aging legends usually learn to navigate the confines of their limits. Nobody gets quicker -- especially not a quarterback who's never been known for his foot speed.
But unlike Manning, Brady has not had to rebuild his mechanics but rather refine them. Most of that has revolved around timing and balance, as his throwing coach, Tom House, once told me. Last year, the primary difference was Brady's throwing motion. They ran his release through 3-D analysis to find, as House said, "small things that are hard for the human eye to see." Stuff like eye level, timing of his foot stride, and hip and shoulder separation. They realized that if Brady's left, non-throwing arm wavered as he threw, his release wasn't consistent, which affected his accuracy. So they worked to keep his left arm tight and across his chest. If you look closely, Brady's follow-through the past two years is dramatically different than it was in his previous 13; his arms almost cross. It was, as Brady says now, "a solid transformation."
But the transformation from Brady's arm to his feet has been harder. Even Brady admits that it's challenging to rewire his mind to consider that scrambling is even an option. One of the drills that House and Brady used to quicken the process was called the Fogel Drill, a high-intensity workout designed for pitchers in which Brady shuffled his feet as quickly as possible for 30 seconds while making simulated throws to varying targets. That drill, House said, not only increased his balance and foot speed but also upped the velocity of his throws as he's on the move. "Ground force production through the body," as House says, in throwing-science speak.
That force has been clear this year in the Patriots' still-jelling offense. With new offensive linemen and receivers, Brady's instinct to want to be shiftier seems prescient, as if he anticipated being in a few binds. He's always had great pocket presence, the best since Joe Montana. But he has moved beyond buying himself more space to buying more time. Sunday's win over the Broncos was the proof. For instance, late in the first quarter, on a third-and-10, he bounced left, dodged DeMarcus Ware, and fired a bullet over the middle to Rob Gronkowski for a first down.
Then came the key moment late in the second quarter, when the Patriots faced that daunting second-and-21, wanting to put the Broncos into an insurmountable hole before the half. Brady danced right, into a "soft spot in the rush," he says. It's strange to think about the Patriots having a scrambling drill, but Edelman saw Brady on the move and rerouted inside. A play that looked dead began to open up.
Brady collected himself and threw a tight spiral into the wind. His mechanics -- all of the reps in the offseason with House that have now become muscle memory -- held up beautifully. Edelman made the catch between two defenders for the first down. Three plays later, Brady hit running back Shane Vereen for a touchdown, putting the Patriots up 27-7. The Broncos were as mystified as they were frustrated. "He was just able to make some big plays," said linebacker Von Miller. "You try to keep that from happening. We just weren't able to do that today. That's really all I can say."
In chasing an elusive fourth Super Bowl, Brady has spoken often about trying to close margins of error. His sliding outside of the pocket didn't provide any of the spectacular plays for which he's become famous in his older years. But it did produce plenty of chain-movers, the stuff for which he was famous in his younger years, the type of unquantifiable ability that helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls and, with Sunday's 43-21 win, might end up helping to determine home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"I hope it keeps paying off," Brady says.