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Week 12 Notebook: Tom Brady's rise began vs. Peyton Manning

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Why Johnny Manziel's latest ordeal was the straw that broke the camel's back.
» Two must-see college prospects on the national stage this Saturday.
» One of the most intriguing potential free agents of the coming offseason.
And much more, beginning with a trip down memory lane, back to the beginning of something truly special ...

The greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history started with a skinny kid out of the University of Michigan carrying only the burden he put on himself faced with the prodigy of whom everything was expected.

That was Sept. 30, 2001. The Colts were 2-0 and rising. The Patriots were 0-2 and sinking.

Everything was about to change. And no one knew it.

"Let me say this: Everyone is standing in line now to take credit for Tommy Brady," Charlie Weis, the Patriots offensive coordinator from 2000 through '04, recalled on Monday. "Here's what I do know: Starting with Bill [Belichick], throw in [former Pats exec] Scott [Pioli], and include [former QBs coach] Dick Rehbein, and then me and the rest of the coaches ... His rookie year, we kept -- and this was really Scott and Bill's decision -- four quarterbacks on the roster. Who does that? ... We saw something. But not this."

This was supposed to have its potential grand finale on Sunday night -- a battle of quarterbacks who played at such a high level, and so frequently against each other, and for such rich stakes, that there's little question that this matchup is the best of its kind in the 96-year history of the NFL.

And just as it began, it looks like there's a good chance it'll end with a whimper. Peyton Manning isn't playing this week, and it's fair to ask now if he'll play another snap for the Broncos. Brady isn't going anywhere. But barring a playoff showdown with a resurgent Manning back in the saddle, or Manning finding a starting gig for 2016 with a club playing the Patriots, this spectacular series' final chapter will have been played on Nov. 2, 2014.

So it's instructive now to look back to that temperate 2001 Foxborough fall afternoon -- just 19 days after 9/11 -- and, given the importance of the position, glean any signs possible of what was to come. The Patriots won the game 44-13 behind two defensive touchdowns, 177 yards rushing, and an efficient, even-handed effort from the first-time starting quarterback (13 for 23, 168 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs).

Here are five key insights, from the guys who were there:

Looks aren't everything. A pretty common knock on Brady coming out of Michigan was that he was too skinny and unathletic to play the role. And that didn't end with Brady falling into the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

"I remember walking out on the field before the game, before the teams got out there, and Brady was just standing there throwing the ball," former Colts coach Jim Mora said on Monday night. "It looked like his helmet was too big. He was kinda skinny. I'm thinking, 'Who in the heck is he?' They beat us handily. They won the Super Bowl. ... But I honestly didn't know who he was, and physically, he wasn't special. Some things you can't predict."

Brady's play that day was unspectacular, but steady. And as it turns out, that was a pretty important trait he had, something that's tougher to evaluate before a guy plays for you. "We evaluated Peyton correctly," Mora said. "No one evaluated Brady correctly."

The evaluation doesn't stop on draft day. As Weis intimated, keeping Brady in 2000 was difficult to do -- the roster needed competitive depth all over the place, and the cap problems ran so deep that New England carried fewer than 53 at times. But the Patriots felt like Brady merited more work. So they kept him. And the reason he was in position to step in when Drew Bledsoe went down a week before the Indy game was the staff's willingness to relegate well-paid backup Damon Huard to third string. And even after that, nothing was certain.

"I don't think we really knew at the time," Weis said. "In the preseason, it was too close to call between Damon and Tommy. Bill and I sat down, and we went back and forth, and we gave it to Tommy by a nose. It really was too close to call. I'd say the intangibles, that's what everyone bet on. That was one of the key components."

Of course, that day was a positive one for Brady, if not overwhelmingly so, and it showed the Patriots what they'd seen already away from the game field -- that the second-year pro would improve with each opportunity. "He kept getting better and better the more he played, and the more we did," Weis said. "Later in the year, Drew was healthy and ready to go back. It was uncomfortable. But we had something special rolling. We got input, but it was Bill's decision and he decided to stick with it."

Want more than stats and scores? Head to Sidelines, where NFL Media reporters dig deep to find the compelling, thoughtful stories that are the heartbeat of this game.

Intangibles count. One thing that then-Colts GM Bill Polian had his radar up for going into the game, after evaluating Brady as a collegian, was the QB's ability to handle challenging situations: "We were extremely impressed by what he did after [the quarterback platoon with Drew Henson started] at Michigan. The way he came back, it told you he had something special."

Those same traits showed up on that Sunday in 2001.

"The first touchdown we scored, Antowain (Smith) scored it, and I remember his energy," Pioli said. "It was infectious. The guy you see now after every touchdown, it came out after the first touchdown. I remember that distinctly. And I also remember the calmness and confidence. Part of it is natural with him, and he knew the people making the football decisions believed in him."

Physical tools matter, of course, but this is a good example of how incalculable traits -- competitiveness to hold off the uber-recruit at Michigan and the deeply-invested-in Bledsoe in New England, demeanor to be calm to handle big spots -- carry over from one level to the next, and one circumstance to another.

Circumstances matter. Speaking of circumstances, the Patriots came into that 2001 week with a game plan built to protect the young quarterback.

"We were gonna pound the hell out of the ball," Weis said.

Manning, on the other hand, was expected to win games with, in Polian's words, "a very unreliable defense" in Indy. At that point, Manning already had 50 starts under his belt.

"A quarterback has four stages," Polian said. "First, they learn to call a play. Second, they learn what the defense is doing to them. Third, you learn how to use your personnel to counteract what the defense is doing. And fourth is the ability to do all of the above and manipulate the defense. Very few get to stage four. [Manning] was already there."

The larger point that underscores is how Manning had teams built around him, and how the weight of all of that has been felt, at times, in the biggest spots. Brady, conversely, was brought along slower, making him more point guard than playmaker. And he's always been capable of hitting the proverbial game-winning shot, maybe in part because it hadn't always been all on him.

That game, to Pioli, was the epitome of that. He remembers a thunderous hit that Pats LB Bryan Cox laid on Jerome Pathon that set the stage for how New England would defend Manning and the Colts for a decade, by dragging games into a proverbial dark alley. In that way, the day was a coming of age for Belichick and the rest of the Patriots, as much as Brady.

"No disrespect to Peyton," Weis said, "but our defense usually got the best of him."

Luck counts, too. And luck is probably a strong word. This is more luck in the sense that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The Patriots liked Brady enough. But the roster in disrepair caused them to wait. And wait. And wait to take him. So to this day, Pioli has a trading card from 2000 in his office in one of those old plastic protective cases. It reads "Rookies To Watch" and says "Patriots" diagonally across it, with a picture of one player below the lettering and another player above it.

The player below the line is Brady. Above it is Dave Stachelski, a tight end from Boise State that he and Belichick selected with the 141st overall pick, 58 slots (two more of which belonged to the Patriots) ahead of Brady. Bottom line there: If they knew Brady would be anything close to what he'd become, they would have taken him long before the 199th pick. And of course, if the rest of the league knew, there'd be no "Brady 6."

"We win three times in four years, and everyone's blowing smoke at you about how smart we are, how wonderful we are, what a great job we did, how we were the only ones who knew the player," Pioli said. "And we liked Tommy. We talked about him in the third round, we liked him more than a lot of people did. But the narrative became how much smarter we were. To me, [the card] is always a good humility check -- we were so smart we drafted six guys before him."

And here's one more: While calling any injury a stroke of luck is probably bad form, the timing of Bledsoe's injury allowed Brady time to put on a little weight, acclimate to the pro game and put himself in position to seize the opportunity.

*****

Memories, of course, have faded. None of these guys remember too many specifics, probably because no one regarded it then as anything much more than a September game. Manning may be done, while Weis says about Brady: "Just so you know, he's not close to finished. Hasn't even entered his mind."

Pro Bowl ballot

In any case, a decade-and-a-half later, maybe the biggest thing we should all take away, now that the final chapter of the rivalry might be in the books, is an appreciation for what we just witnessed.

"They're unique," said Polian of the quarterbacks. "People can't just readily do what they do. People try to mimic it, and recreate it, but that's kindergarten stuff. It's impossible to replicate."

Polian's correct, too. What started as nothing appears to have become something so great that we never see anything quite like it again.

Four downs

1) Jets' descent. The Jets' 4-1 start was nice, but the players and coaches in New York walked away from Sunday's loss in Houston with a clearer picture of where the program is headed than they ever could've gotten from the wins. Todd Bowles lit into the team postgame -- a scene that Muhammad Wilkerson detailed vividly to the New York Daily News on Tuesday -- leaving very little doubt about where he stood not just with their performance, but how accepting they'd been of failure. The truth is, the new regime saw a culture left behind that's probably best summed up in two words: "It's OK." As in, It's OK if we come up short this week or it's OK if things don't quite go our way. And Bowles' message was, frankly, that it's not OK. And he drove that home by cutting Quinton Coples, who was a card-carrying member of the old guard. So, what's next? Well, a strong finish wouldn't hurt. But this is about more than having the right attitude or being prepared or playing mistake-free on game day. The Jets need more players. The roster in place was never championship-worthy, and the expectation all along was that the issues in the middle of the roster created by years of shaky drafting eventually would catch up with the team. Consider that now, with Coples' release, the 2012 class is down to Demario Davis and Antonio Allen, two mediocre players who could be gone after this season, and two of only five players left from the team's 2009 through '12 drafts. The Jets did get the potentially great Sheldon Richardson in 2013 -- though his off-the-field issues remain concerning (Richardson served a four-game suspension at the beginning of this season and could face more punishment after a July arrest goes through the court system in January) -- and solid starting safety Calvin Pryor in 2014. But those two years, with GM John Idzik commanding three first-round picks and 19 selections total, provided far too little quality of depth. So here the team is. There's a lot of work to do. Assuming they tag him, Wilkerson could be an interesting trade chip for the Jets to pursue a quarterback with in April. And they need numbers, so GM Mike Maccagnan, already down a pick (a conditional pick that'll be a sixth-rounder, headed to Houston for Ryan Fitzpatrick), is a good bet to try to accumulate more draft capital on the trade market. As for the kinds of guys the Jets will be looking to bring in? Bowles pretty much let the players know what they won't be looking for the other day.

2) Johnny Football deflated. The shame of the Johnny Manziel situation is that it really, really didn't need to be this way. This is Al Capone getting busted for tax evasion. It's a bank robber caught stealing a pack of gum. But it's also not that hard to understand. The Browns saw this situation -- shots of Manziel partying in Austin last weekend surfaced early this week -- as an affront, and not because he was out at the club on an off night. It's more like this: They gave him the starting job, timed it for the bye week to give him a cushion to prepare, and it didn't take more than a few days for Manziel to do something that fit right into the Manziel narrative. The Browns haven't micromanaged the former Heisman winner off the field since he got out of rehab this past offseason. I remember asking Mike Pettine about Manziel in August. He spoke highly of the 22-year-old's progress, then said, "I can really only speak for when he's here. There's no news out of the building, which is obviously a good thing." Then, three weeks ago, following the incident with Manziel's girlfriend, Pettine and I talked again, and the coach said, "What happened off the field is unfortunate. It's still lingering, we're waiting to hear from the league. But from the standpoint where I can evaluate him, from the moment he steps in the building to the moment he leaves, he's very professional. He's all about football." The NFL ultimately decided not to discipline Manziel in that case, and the quarterback has continued to put in the work. One veteran teammate I talked to Tuesday night described Manziel this way: "Johnny's been incredible all year long -- night and day from last year. The way he interacts with teammates, the work he puts in, the way he is in meetings. ... He was young, man, coming out of college. He's different now." But the bottom line here is that Pettine's stance has always been that Manziel had to earn the job. And while everything they've seen over the last four months has been pretty good, the stuff they don't see counts, too. In the end, as the club saw it, Manziel simply didn't hold up his end of the bargain there, and blew a golden opportunity in the process.

3) Texans' revival. The Texans trailed 42-0 to the Falcons after three quarters in Week 4, and somehow that wasn't rock bottom. The coup de godawful appeared to come three weeks later, when Houston fell behind 41-0 at the half to a team led by an interim coach. That was followed by murmurs of internal dysfunction between the front office and coaching staff. And it was easy to ask the question of whether Bill O'Brien was losing his team. So that week, I asked a prominent Texans player, who responded that wasn't the case. It wasn't the easiest thing to believe at the time, but the guy assured me that O'Brien's frank and straightforward nature would carry the team through. As it turns out, more than anything, O'Brien has been able to pull it off in the time since, according to those there, by taking ownership of what went down early in the year. On Monday, a day after Houston won its third straight game to even the record at 5-5, I circled back and asked the player about how it happened, and he answered, "He's a great coach. We just knew we weren't playing up to our capabilities and had trust in him that we'd all turn it around." Another vet echoed the sentiment on Monday night: "Bill's a great coach. He's made great adjustments across the board. ... It's never been about [the staff losing the team]. The games we got blown out, those were just those days where nothing works and literally everything is working for the other team." Both players also pointed to how the Texans finished those rollicking routs: They scored three consecutive fourth-quarter touchdowns in Atlanta, and outscored the Dolphins 26-3 in the second half in Miami. According to those in the building, two other things that have made a difference: The game-plan-by-the-week philosophy of O'Brien (a staple of his former boss in New England, Bill Belichick) has made the Texans more adaptable to change when it struggles; and the state of the AFC South made it clear that every goal was still in front of them. That allowed O'Brien to stay consistent with the players. And he has. As a result, things look a lot different now than they did a month ago.

Every game, all season

4) L.A. impact. The three teams that have spent the last year making eyes at Los Angeles -- the Chargers, Rams and Raiders -- are a combined 0-8 over the past three weeks, leaving each of them outside the playoff picture with an aggregate season mark of 10-20. And that raises the question of whether these franchises, if approved to go to L.A., will go through an overhaul in the offseason. Four teams relocated in the '90s, and three of them fired their coaches while packing up the moving trucks. (Interestingly enough, then-Oilers coach Jeff Fisher, now the boss in St. Louis, was the only one to survive.) The Raiders were one of those clubs, replacing Art Shell with Mike White on the way from L.A. to Oakland. And while former Raider exec Amy Trask explains that pulling that ripcord was "the antithesis of the way Al approached the move," and that it was just coincidental timing, she did allow, having gone through it, that there's merit to change in that circumstance. "The league as a whole cannot afford to fail when it comes to Los Angeles," Trask told me on Monday. "Any owner granted permission to move would be wise to assess their team in every regard -- not just coaching, but everything. Do I have the best people? And do I have the right people for L.A. ... It's just an easy time to part with staff -- relocating gives you a chance to clean house in an easier way. And it's a smart time to do it, from a business, legal and HR standpoint." Trask said the question any owner moving has to ask is, "Do you like the brand you have in place? ... That's a very fair discussion to have. It's one we had: Should there be a fresh-start approach?" Its clear change could be coming in the Charger organization, and the Rams are in Year 4 of the Fisher regime without a playoff berth yet to show for it. A shift in Oakland seems less likely, although if someone like Jon Gruden were to become available to Mark Davis, the discussion could change. In any case, it's worth watching as we get closer to the league making decisions on L.A.

Three checkdowns

1) Two big things to note on Wednesday's International Series announcement that will serve as tests of the London market. First, leaving one of the six spots open (with the Rams playing the NFC East team that finishes in the corresponding spot in the standings, on Oct. 23) is designed to test how the UK fan base will react without knowing one of the teams, since tickets go on sale next week. Second, if that NFC East team winds up being the Redskins, it will test having a team over there for back-to-back weeks, and how that works for players and coaches and staff, which is a way of looking at how a permanent London team would operate.

2) Staying with the theme, in 2014, the NFL passed a resolution where teams that are either a) hosting an upcoming Super Bowl or b) playing in a temporary stadium can be compelled to play an International Series game. The Vikings, playing their home games at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium while their new place is built, were in that spot last year. The Rams could be next year -- as a team in Los Angeles. That also makes the Chargers and Raiders, each of which have fan bases south of the border, teams to watch for a Mexico City game next year. The NFL has made two trips to Azteca Stadium this month, and will play a mid-November 2016 game there if one specific logistics issue can be worked out by the end of January.

3) On Wednesday, in referencing the change in going from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen as defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said to the local media that "we can't have guys looking left and right before they snap the ball." He added that in one game last year, there were players in the wrong spots on the first eight plays. That further bolsters the knock on Ryan: He's great at getting a first-year bounce out of a defense, but as he settles in, he makes the scheme way too complex for anyone's good.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott (at Michigan, Noon ET, ABC): There are few backs who've been as productive as Elliott over the last 12 months, but this week, he's been in the headlines for very different reasons. After the reigning national champions lost their first game since September of 2014, Elliott took aim at the play calling and said he'll forgo his senior season and enter the draft. And so on Saturday, the spotlight for the 112th edition of the greatest rivalry in all of sports (yeah, I'm biased) is squarely on the 20-year-old from St. Louis. Now, it's on Elliott to give everyone something to see. "He's built like a brick [expletive]house," one AFC executive said. "A lot of people like the kid. It was stupid to say what he did, but it's not accurate to judge him on that." An AFC college scouting director added, "He's a big, balanced, aggressive, downhill, athletic back -- I love his power and balance. And he's a selfless guy, Urban [Meyer] demands that, in the way a back carries out fakes and blocks in that system. He's tough and productive. Just look at last year in the playoffs -- as impressive as Cardale [Jones] was, he was more so." Indeed, Elliott ran for 696 yards and eight touchdowns on 76 carries in Ohio State's three postseason games, and has 1,458 rushing yards this year, putting him over 2,000 yards in his last 14 games. And one source in Columbus affirmed that Elliott's outburst was, indeed, more of a blip than part of a pattern: "Great kid from a great family. He was just frustrated and emotional because we lost. He's a team-first guy." Elliott isn't the caliber of back that a Todd Gurley or Leonard Fournette is, but likely will be regarded by NFL folks as being at the top of the next tier.

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

2) Auburn DE Carl Lawson (vs. Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): If you're assessing Lawson, you're gonna have to do your share of digging. After winning freshman All-America honors from a host of publications in 2013, a torn ACL cost Lawson his true sophomore season. And a hip injury has limited him to five games in this, his third season on campus. But as far as talent goes? Lawson is more gifted than Dee Ford, the guy he followed as an edge rusher at Auburn. "Physically, he's more talented. He's not as fast as Dee was, he's not that kind of player, but he's a stronger, more physical rusher," said the aforementioned AFC college scouting director. What's opened eyes of late on Lawson was his performance on Halloween against Ole Miss and Laremy Tunsil, generally regarded as the best college left tackle in America. This week, Lawson gets another test against mammoth Alabama sophomore Cam Robinson, one that should bring more clarity on a guy who still has a lot of mystery to him. "He's so explosive, but we don't have a lot of exposure on him," said one AFC area scout assigned to Auburn. "For a guy that's got short arms, he has good body control. ... He just needs to develop as a pass rusher. And as a shorter, more compact guy, facing Cam will be good, because Cam is big and powerful, where Tunsil's game is more finesse and explosion. It'll be good to see him get knocked around a little, and get a look at if he can finish on the quarterback." The scout said the potential is there for Lawson to become a "better version of [Eagles OLB] Brandon Graham."

Extra point

The 2016 free-agent quarterback market could well be fascinating. And yet, much is still unknown.

There, of course, is the looming presence of potential divorces involving Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel. And then, there are tougher decisions facing teams.

One of those will need to be made on Kirk Cousins.

The fourth-year pro, last week's blowout loss in Carolina notwithstanding, has blossomed over the last month, as the Redskins coaches hoped he would. After throwing eight picks in Washington's first six games, Cousins has only thrown two in his last four games -- and one was off a tip. Even better, the team remains squarely in contention in the NFC East.

But all of that doesn't make the decision here -- and the Broncos could face a similar one with Brock Osweiler, if he finishes strong -- any less complicated. The going rate in 2015 for quarterbacks is around $20 million a year, which will be about 13 percent of next year's expected salary cap. So these calls are ones where you want to be sure. And that'd probably explain the answer that Jay Gruden gave me on Thursday when I asked if Cousins is a franchise quarterback.

"That's what we need to find out," Gruden told me. "The quarterback position, you gotta be consistent. And if there is a knock on Kirk, it's that he played great here for a quarter or a half, and then he has a couple brain farts and throws a couple bad balls. He needs to be highly consistent over time. But arm talent-wise, leadership skill-wise, there's no question he can be a very good quarterback for a long time. You just keep repping him, keep coaching him. Every week is different."

Sources say that the Redskins and Cousins' reps have had very preliminary contract discussions, with the team expressing its desire to keep the former Michigan State star and both sides acknowledging that it's unlikely that talks will really accelerate until after the season.

As is the case with Osweiler, it's hard to envision Cousins being franchised, given the price tag. The salary cap is expected to be set at between $150 million and $155 million. The quarterback tag would project to $19.3 million under a $150 million cap and $19.9 million under a $155 million cap, with the corresponding transition-tag numbers projecting at $17.1 million and $17.7 million.

That said, there's a reason why Mike and Kyle Shanahan liked Cousins as much as they did, and why Gruden has stuck with him for as long as he has, even as the quarterback threw 17 picks in his first 13 starts for the second-year coach.

"His arm talent is special," Gruden said. "He can make all the throws -- short, deep, with touch. All that, you see it every day in practice. That's the biggest thing. And of course, he's got the personality. He really wants to improve, and not that the other guys don't, but he really studies, he really wants to be good. The preparation, he's hard on himself, he wants to be perfect in everything. And he's humble -- he knows he has a long way to go, so you can keep coaching him.

"Everything you say, he hangs on every word. You want to coach a guy like that; you feel like you can get to him."

Maybe the biggest difference, as Gruden sees it, is that this, finally, is Cousins' team.

In the past, Cousins was either filling in for Griffin or competing for snaps with Colt McCoy. There were never any assurances of anything, and that isn't the healthiest spot for any quarterback to be in, particularly one who's sometimes had a rep for overthinking things.

Together We Make Football

What Gruden did by saying "It's Kirk's team" in September was empower his new quarterback. The message was, in essence, to play through mistakes without concern of retribution, and command teammates where a fill-in might be hesitant to.

"Last year, he'd throw an interception and go into a funk and feel like he let the whole franchise down," Gruden said. "This year, it's not affecting him as much. I don't want him to do it, but every now and then, every quarterback will throw a pick. You gotta bounce back and come back firing. That mentality is huge for a quarterback. You can't let it affect you to where you say, 'I'm not gonna throw it now' and you're worried about another interception. You've got no chance being like that."

What Cousins can do next, over the season's last six weeks, is make things a lot more complicated for the Redskins.

It's a problem they'd probably welcome, of course. And whatever solution they come to will provide one piece of a very interesting free-agent picture across the league.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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