Years after Saturday’s Orange Bowl is over, it’s likely few people will be talking about Michigan quarterback Tom Brady. The Wolverines have had their share of star players over the years and, frankly, Brady’s numbers don’t stack up.
But that's okay, because everybody at Michigan is talking about Brady now. After shedding an early-season challenge from hotshot Drew Henson, the fifth-year senior has been the steady and resilient leader who calmly has guided the Wolverines to an Orange Bowl date against Alabama on New Year's Day in Miami.
"I think that Tom was a lot like all of our seniors this year. Tom is very consistent and he is not an up-and-down type of guy, either as a performer or as a person," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "He's just a very tough individual."
Brady has led Michigan to the Orange Bowl in a most unassuming way. Drew Brees he is not. Brady's gifts are more understated. He is rattle-proof. He is smart. And he doesn't give up easily. Not when his team is trailing late in a game. And not when he is being pushed by a younger and more agile quarterback for the starting job.
Brady and Henson, a sophomore, alternated at quarterback at the start of the season. Brady played the first quarter and Henson the second. During halftime, Carr would decide who would finish the game. Sometimes it was Brady. But sometimes, like the Syracuse game, it was Henson.
Finally, against Indiana, the eighth game of the season, Brady took the reins for good. Including that game, Michigan has won four straight, most notably wins over Penn State and Ohio State.
Speaking like a team captain and fifth-year player, Brady said Carr's platooning didn't bother him.
"I really don't think it's made a whole lot of difference," he said. "When I'm out there on the field, I perform as well as I can perform and it has little to do with any other circumstances. We split time in practice and Coach was just making sure we were both ready to play. It was the best thing for our offense to have that type of situation because if one of us got hurt, the other one would be experienced and ready to lead the team the rest of the way."
Brady's performance made Carr abandon the two-quarterback system. It started with the Michigan State game. Henson got the nod to play the second half, but he couldn't move the offense, so Carr went back to Brady with his team trailing 27-10.
Michigan lost 34-31, but Brady engineered three scoring drives in the fourth quarter to get the Wolverines close.
He showed similar fortitude against Penn State four weeks later. Michigan fell behind by two touchdowns partly because of Brady, who threw three interceptions.
But instead of getting frazzled, he was the picture of calm in the huddle, encouraging and almost commanding his teammates to keep fighting. Eventually, Brady threw the touchdown that pulled it out for Michigan 31-27. That it took place amid 96,840 fans at Penn State made Brady's leadership all the more amazing.
"Tom Brady has the one quality that I feel is very underrated by some people. A quarterback obviously has to have some skills, but without toughness, you cannot be a great quarterback. And Brady is extremely tough," Carr said before the Ohio State game. "He did not play his best game at Penn State, but he still had the mental toughness to go in and do away with all the negative things that happened."
Now, Brady has proven himself enough that he doesn't have to share the controls with anyone. That has been good for his confidence, but is also brings added pressure because much of the Wolverines' fortunes against Alabama rest squarely with Brady.
Brady will be facing a team that has a highly respected defense. In the SEC Championship Game, 'Bama held then No. 5 Florida to seven points and 114 total yards.
Throughout the season, few teams have been able to run well against the Tide, which is surrendering an average of 74.5 rushing yards. That will likely put pressure on Brady to throw effectively.
Brady, of course, is used to being on the hot seat. Nothing that Alabama does figures to bother him.
“As a fifth-year senior and as a captain, there’s a lot of people looking at you, so you’ve got to be in the right place and doing the right things,” he said. “And you want to make sure you perform as well as you can so that everyone else looks at you and uses you as an example of how to play.”