Sometimes the smartest plays do not result in first downs or scores, but simply keep a drive alive or keep a team in position to win. This is often lost on most players in big moments, but not players like Tom Brady. Dave Archibald highlights how Brady’s smarts in the big moment resulted in the best throwaway in NFL history.
Starting on his own 17-yard-line with one minute and 21 seconds left against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, quarterback Tom Brady led the New England Patriots on the drive that would launch his legend by completing five passes for 53 yards, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. One of the drive’s most impressive plays, however, was a pass he didn’t complete, a game-saving play that foreshadowed the judgment and understanding of defenses that has defined Brady’s Hall-of-Fame career. Given the situation and the stakes, it stands as perhaps the greatest throwaway in NFL history.
The Patriots line up on first-and-10 in the shotgun on their own 41-yard-line, with three receivers and a running back to the right. With just 33 seconds remaining and no timeouts left for the Patriots, the clock is a major factor. The Rams blitz, sending linebacker Tommy Polley (#52) and safety Adam Archuleta (#31) through the offensive left side while dropping defensive end Chidi Ahanotu (#72) into coverage on the right. This creates an overload on the left side of the offensive line, with too many rushers for the blockers to handle. But, the 24-year-old Brady sees the problem and sprints to the right, getting outside the tackle box and throwing the ball out of bounds to stop the clock.
Brady is able to recognize the blitz because he understands how his line will block the defense based on the protection called. The 2001 Patriots typically used a “man” protection scheme, with the five offensive linemen responsible for the four down linemen and the “Mike” that the quarterback identifies before the snap.
Brady clearly points to middle linebacker London Fletcher (#59), who walks up to the line of scrimmage to simulate a blitz. However, when Fletcher doesn’t rush but Polley and Archuleta do, Brady knows that he doesn’t have enough blockers to account for the rush. The quarterback is not always going to pick the right Mike ‒ defensive coordinators get paid, too ‒ so he needs to understand when the play is not unfolding as expected and react appropriately. Few quarterbacks in the history of the NFL are as skilled as Brady at diagnosing what the defense is doing, and he displayed that here in just his 17th career start.
Had the Rams been able to sack Brady, events might have unfolded very differently for the Patriots. With no timeouts to stop the clock and unfavorable field position, New England likely would have taken their chances in overtime. Instead, the play gave Brady and the Patriots another chance, and he connected with Troy Brown for a 23-yard-gain on the very next play, setting up Vinatieri’s kick three plays later. New England’s first Super Bowl run contained so many memorable moments that it is easy to forget this particular one, but Brady’s savvy throwaway proved key to the Patriots’ first Super Bowl championship.
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