Matt Cavanaugh did not meet with Tom Brady before the 2000 NFL draft. In fact, though he is a former New England Patriots quarterback who has lived a distinguished football life, and has competed (sometimes successfully) against Brady as an assistant coach, Cavanaugh has never met the most prolific winner in league history.
But 17 years ago, Cavanaugh came to know the Michigan senior in a Baltimore Ravens film room. As an offensive coordinator who was assigned about a dozen prospects to review before the draft, Cavanaugh was most intrigued by the images of a tall, athletically-challenged quarterback who was making plays that most scouting reports said he couldn't make.
"I was a big advocate of Tom Brady's," recalled Cavanaugh, now the Washington Redskins' quarterbacks coach. "He looked like he belonged. He was comfortable in the pocket. He had good delivery mechanics. The knock on him was that he was slow-footed, but he played the game faster than he ran. He just stood tall in the pocket, scanned the field well, made his progressions from one receiver to the next. He looked like a team leader on the field, a decision-maker, and his ability to get the guys around him to play hard jumped off the tape.
"I wasn't brilliant enough to put a first-round grade on Brady. I think I put a second- or third-round grade on him. I really liked him."
No, it wasn't fashionable to like Brady back then. He would famously get picked 199th in his draft. He was the seventh quarterback taken that year, and the seventh player selected by New England. In other words, the Patriots missed on their future Hall of Famer six times, too.
So as Brady makes yet another Super Bowl tournament appearance Saturday against Houston (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS), and seeks to add to his NFL-record 22 postseason victories, it's interesting to imagine what might've been had one of the few talent evaluators who believed in the Michigan quarterback persuaded his team to pick him before New England finally did in the sixth round.
Head coach Bill Belichick had charged Dick Rehbein, then his quarterbacks coach, to do a pre-draft study of Brady and Tim Rattay of Louisiana Tech. Rehbein came away thinking one of the two had a chance to be a big star. "Twenty years from now," he told his wife Pamela, "people will know the name Tom Brady."
Bobby Grier, the Patriots personnel man then, was the only NFL executive to call Michigan coach Lloyd Carr about Brady, and Carr told him he'd never regret drafting the kid. But the Patriots had an in-his-prime franchise player in Drew Bledsoe, 28, and no apparent need to jump on a quarterback early, swinging open the door for a believer the likes of Cavanaugh to pounce.
The Ravens had Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer on their roster, and neither player seemed capable of helping them win the Super Bowl title they'd seize at the Giants' expense -- with Dilfer under center -- 10 months after that draft. Cavanaugh was more than qualified to evaluate the position. He'd won a national championship with Tony Dorsett at the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, and in '78 he'd been drafted in the second round by the Patriots. Cavanaugh had played 13 years in the league, mostly as a backup, and he'd won two Super Bowl rings with the 1984 49ers and 1990 Giants.
He wasn't too worried about Brady's physical limitations, or a scouting combine performance that bordered on comical. "The combine is a nice get-together in one building if you need to talk to somebody," Cavanaugh said. "But you don't play the game in a pristine environment while you're throwing against air and everything is scripted.
"There are Hall of Fame quarterbacks who weren't great athletes, but who understood the position. Tom wasn't going to scramble and make people miss, but he did have good pocket awareness, he knew how to find the find the open slot in the pocket, and he always had the ball up and ready to deliver. He did things that made up for not being able to escape and create on the perimeter like an Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Cam Newton."
Cavanaugh made his pitch in a pre-draft meeting with Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore's chief personnel man, and a circle of coaches, scouts and cross-checkers. Newsome has long been one of the league's best executives, and Cavanaugh called him "as good as it gets as far as listening to other people's opinions." Newsome went around the room one by one, asking for his subordinates to share their reports, and when he got to his offensive coordinator, Cavanaugh didn't sell Brady as a can't-miss prospect.
He merely spoke of his intangible characteristics, his competitiveness, all those winning traits so obvious on the Michigan films. Cavanaugh didn't care that Brady wasn't on the field nearly as much as many four-year hopefuls, and that Carr often had him in a rotation with a younger, more gifted Drew Henson. The coach saw what he saw when Brady ultimately sent Henson back to the bench, and when he threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns in his signature Orange Bowl victory over Alabama.
There were dissenting voices in the meeting, ones Cavanaugh either doesn't remember or doesn't see the need to identify. But during the draft, when Baltimore was strongly considering a quarterback in the third round, a person in the Ravens' draft room confirmed Cavanaugh wanted Brady selected with that pick, No. 75 overall. The Ravens instead chose Louisville's Chris Redman, who would start 12 games in his career and win four of them.
Brady has started 266 games in his career, including the postseason, and he's won 205 of them, including four Super Bowls.
"And that's OK," Cavanaugh said. "I've also put first-round grades on guys who turned out to be busts."
After Brady became Brady, Cavanaugh said he didn't spend much time considering how the balance of AFC power would've changed had others shared his viewpoint. He was too busy rooting for Brady to get sacked or intercepted when he was competing against the Patriots.
As a Rex Ryan assistant with the 2010 Jets, Cavanaugh was part of the only AFC East team to beat Brady and Belichick in the playoffs. "You've got to get Tom off his spot," Cavanaugh said. "You've got to pressure him and be creative doing it, because he's so smart and recognizes what the defense is doing. ... You have to show pressure one way and bring it the other way at the last second. You've got to be at his feet as much as you can, and make him uncomfortable. It's not easy to do."
The Texans are expected to learn the hard way Saturday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where a 39-year-old Brady will try to enhance a brilliant season shortened by his four-game Deflategate suspension. Cavanaugh will be watching. He said he might even start looking through some old boxes for his 2000 scouting report on Brady he's been unable to find.
He won't waste any time or energy on the question of whether he would've become an NFL head coach, rather than a career assistant, had he persuaded his Ravens to pick a player who was drafted 198 spots later than he should have been.
"If we'd taken him," Cavanaugh said, "we probably would've won a couple more championships. But it's not about me. I would've loved working with him, and it's rewarding that I felt I did a good evaluation on him. I just don't puff my chest out when Tom Brady's name comes up. I thought he had the qualities to succeed, but I didn't realize he could turn into what he did."
Nobody realized that 17 years ago, not even the New England Patriots, the beneficiaries of the greatest draft pick of all time.