INDIANAPOLIS — Looking back 20 years, the thing most people remember about Tom Brady’s Combine was how unremarkable it was.
“He’s still running the 40,” said Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for the Patriots in 2000 when a new staff under Bill Belichick came to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis to see that year’s draft prospects, a lanky quarterback from Michigan among them. “You can go over there. He hasn’t finished yet if you want to go over to where they’re running the 40, it’s 20 years later and he hasn’t finished.”
You know this part of the story. A 22-year-old Brady with uneven bangs ran a 5.28-second 40-yard dash on the Astroturf and didn’t draw much attention from anyone.
You probably associate this story with its lasting image, the official Combine photo from that year of 211-pound Brady standing expressionless in baggy, gray shorts looking decidedly unathletic. It was an instant classic: Brady’s rookie year, Drew Bledsoe pranked his backup by printing out a blown-up copy of the photo and hanging it above a stairwell in the Patriots’ facility, “I know why tigers eat their young” scrawled over it.
Now, the picture makes the rounds this time every year as a reminder that things can change.
And they have. A lot. Two decades after Brady came here the stadium used for the Combine is new, the drills have changed and the baggy shorts have been swapped out for spandex. Draft and pre-draft coverage has become a staple of how fans consume information about the NFL; there are infinitely more bloggers here than there were in 2000. Football is different, with one of the biggest questions for those who play Brady’s position being whether he’s still the type of pocket passer they’d best model themselves after. Brady himself, who barely made an impression with his own Combine, is the biggest story this week without even being here.
Nothing he did at the Combine had much to do with why the Patriots drafted Brady. Belichick and Scott Pioli, then a first-year head coach and first-year vice president of player personnel, had decided to target a quarterback in one of the later rounds and had sent out quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein to look at four prospects. Rehbein worked out Brady at Michigan and determined him the best of the four.
“I remember that conversation about having a guy spend a little bit more time with some of those quarterbacks and obviously Dick came back with rave reviews on Tom,” said Bob Quinn, now the general manager of the Lions, then a first-year player personnel assistant.
It was a transitional offseason. Belichick and Pioli had been in their roles for about a month and most of the scouting staff were holdovers.
“You’ve got a group of people that under the gun all of a sudden in four months have to start working together,” Pioli said. “And at the same time that you’re working together to the point of making a strategic decision you’re trying to educate everyone on what we’re looking for and why we’re looking for it.”
They wound up taking offensive tackle Adrian Klemm (second round, No. 46 overall) and running back J.R. Redmond (third round, No. 76) with the first two picks that year. In its totality, Pioli thinks they did a better job in 2001 with a year under their belts together.
“But when you’re fortunate enough to be part of a pick who is arguably the greatest player of his position of all time, I mean, that kind of gives you a little bump in the grade,” Pioli said.
It’s probably no coincidence that 20 years after that pick was made, the list of active general managers and major decision-makers in the NFL is dotted with people who were around when it was made.
Quinn and Tampa Bay’s Jason Licht, a college scout for the Patriots at the time, are GMs. Pioli and Weis had long careers and have moved into media roles, Pioli with CBS Sports and Weis as a host for SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Quinn and Licht were just starting out. Neither spent much time with Brady at the Combine that year.
“I just remember it being my first Combine and me making sure I was on time for whatever I had to do for Coach Belichick and Scott Pioli and not screwing that up so I didn’t mess up my first full-time job I ever had in my life,” Quinn said.
“I remember I had a steak that Combine,” Licht said.
But Brady’s draft process influences how they build their rosters now.
“You look at a guy like that, where you took him and what he’s turned into, it really adds to the importance of the late round picks,” Quinn said. “Those picks matter because if you hit on a fifth, sixth, seventh or a rookie free agent — Malcolm Butler — that can change history, that can change Super Bowls, that can change careers.”
In Brady’s case, all of the above.