Yesterday ESPN+ dropped the first episode of "Man in the Arena," the collaborative effort of Tom Brady's production team and NFL Films, that every week is going to focus on one of his 10 Super Bowl seasons. I'll admit that I've had high hopes for this one. First, due to an obvious interest in the subject matter. (Even the 2007 Patriots one should be fascinating despite the fact the ending killed a part of my soul like Harry Potter destroying a Horcrux, because we've yet to hear anyone on the 16-0 really open up about that surreal season.) Secondly, because I was hoping for it to be a blend of his "Tom vs. Time" series and the Patriots own "3 Games to Glory" and "Do Your Job" documentaries. And third, because even the worst work NFL Films does is still better than anything anyone else puts out. And one episode in "Man in the Arena" succeeds, to borrow a phrase, in all three phases.
The interviewees in this one, in addition to Brady, are Drew Bledsoe and Willie McGinest. And short of maybe Belichick himself (we don't live in a reality that beautiful), it's hard to imagine more qualified to talk about Brady's rise from, in Bledsoe's words, a "skinny little twerp out of Michigan" who annoyed the shit out of shit out of him by asking so many questions to the grownass man who changed the course of pro football.
We get some back story about Brady spending every day in the weeks leading up to the draft checking the mocks to see where the gurus have him going. Then watching with his family over the weekend as the first 198 picks crawled by until finally the Patriots ended his misery. But as Tom Sr. started popping bottles, Tom Jr. was getting blanked on the US Geography "Jeopardy!" category. "I remember my dad opening a bottle of champagne, not even realizing where New England was," he says. "I mean, I was like: 'New England Patriots, I don't even know ... where is that?'" I blame America's schools. Even if technically we weren't on the map until that first Super Bowl win.
The big story arc, as you can well imagine, involves the personal and professional dynamic between Brady and Bledsoe. A year after Brady was drafted, the Patriots made Bledsoe the NFL's first $100 million+ player, with a 10-year deal. One that I think was negotiated by Pats then-VP Andy Wasynczuk, in the days before Belichick took over full control of all football ops. So no one was thinking that Bledsoe was one Mo Lewis hit away from holding a clipboard for a living. Least of all Brady. Once I realized he was good," he says. "I thought: 'I just got to fill in and do my job.' Because, certainly, I didn't think I was going to take over and be the quarterback of the Patriots."
I've said before and I'll say now, I was a big Bledsoe guy. And the moment I finally turned my lonely eyes to Brady was Drew's first game dressing after being out eight weeks with that ruptured artery in his heart that damned near killed him. I wanted to see how Brady would do with the highest paid player in NFL history staring laser beams at him from under an official Patriots Starter[tm] hat. The result was a 19-for-26, 258 yard, four touchdown, zero picks masterpiece. With 143.9 passer rating. And to the 1-4-3 spelled I-LOVE-YOU, I gave Brady the final rose and never looked back.
One of the great things about this doc, is that we hear from two of his teammates about what it was like for them. There's some behind-the-scenes where Brady and Bledsoe talk about getting called up to Belichick's hotel room to find out who the starter is and the coach not mincing any words. Just, "We're going with you, Tom. Go get ready." And McGinest's stunned reaction to one of the balliest personnel moves in NFL history. "It's now this 6th round kid out of Michigan who’s been holding things together for I don’t know how many weeks, we’re going forward with him. I know in everyone’s minds they were like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’”
A lot of it is ground that's been well trod over. The regular season Sunday Nighter against the Rams that dropped the Pats to 5-5 but convinced everybody - themselves most of all - they could play with anyone. And they never lost another game the rest of the way. There's of course the Tuck Rule, which is something Brady has been talking about since the first Super Bowl video that was among the earliest DVDs in the collection of 95% of the people in my life. Brady Then of course the win over the Rams, complete with John Madden saying the Pats should take a knee and play for overtime, and Pat Summerall nodding off in the middle of Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard game winner. So nothing new there.
Two things are, though. And revealing as hell. One, is Brady admitting that there was one time when he was actually afraid. And that was the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh. “The moment was definitely bigger than I was ready for," he says. Adding, “From the start of the game, I was confused. I didn’t know what was coming.” And when he got his ankle rolled up on, Belichick sensed his fear and took pity on him. “For as much as my ankle was hurting, I was scared too,” he says. “Coach recognized that in me too. I think he probably looked at me and said, ‘Okay, Tom we’re going to let someone else play the game.'” That is a shocking revelation. Like Rocky at the beach in LA admitting to Adrian he's afraid of Clubber Lang. You just don't expect natural human reaction out of these superhuman beings.
That, like the final moments, is great. Exactly the sort of thing you come to a sports documentary for. To see athletes as they really are. Which you get at the end, with Bledsoe telling a story I don't think he's ever shared publicly before. How after the Super Bowl 36 win, he went skiing in Whitefish, Montana. And found himself on a chairlift by himself and was so conflicted about what had just happened, he broke down in tears. Watch it for yourself. I can't do it justice. It's indescribable.
But what I can hopefully do some justice to, because it directly relates to what is happening to Belichick's team exactly 20 years later, is the message he gave to his team then, and how it was processed by his young quarterback seeing his first NFL starts.
“On offense, we had to recognize what we had,” Brady says. “Bill always used a line, ‘You can’t win until you can keep from losing. That was a good lesson for us. If we could keep from losing, I think our defense was going to keep us in every game. We just kind of scrapped together these wins."
Oh hell yes, they could. One can only hope Mac Jones is hearing the same speech, and learning the same lesson. Well that, and that it turns out the same way. Twenty years from now I'd love to be watching a series reboot of "Man in the Arena" starring Jones. Until then, this will do just fine.