ATLANTA — Jamie Martin had a problem. He needed to play quarterback like Tom Brady, and this was back before anyone wanted to play quarterback like Tom Brady, or even knew what that meant. Martin was the St. Louis Rams’ third-string quarterback, and before the 2001 Super Bowl, he drew the assignment of serving as scout team quarterback.
For one week, Martin wasn’t certain whether Brady or Drew Bledsoe, the incumbent Brady had replaced midseason, would start — Brady had sprained his ankle in the AFC championship game. Once it became clear Brady would play, Martin had to figure out how to play like a 24-year-old with 17 career starts.
“He wasn’t the Tom Brady we know now,” Martin said. “There wasn’t a lot of film on him.”
Martin was one of the first players who took on a unique role quarterbacks have found fun, challenging and maybe a little daunting for almost 20 years: being Tom Brady on an NFL scout team. As Brady has captured Super Bowl trophies and become one of the world’s most famous and celebrated athletes, a collection of journeymen and practice squadders have tried to copy him for the benefit of a defense.
As Brady prepares for the ninth Super Bowl of his career, things are different from when Martin aped him. Every football-crazed little boy in America dreams of growing up and being Tom Brady. Every week in the fall, and most years into the first week of February, one handsomely paid adult man lives the dream.
“You get geeked up when you get to be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady,” said ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck, who emulated Brady as a backup with the Titans and Colts. “You know their mannerisms. You don’t have to study their mannerisms, because you know it so well.”
This week, the fortunate adult is Brandon Allen, a second-year Rams practice squad quarterback out of Arkansas. So: What’s it like to be Tom Brady?
“It’s great,” Allen said, chuckling. “They do a lot of good stuff on offense, so it’s really fun to emulate him. You kind of see watching film on him where he likes to go with the ball in terms of direction.”
Backup Sean Mannion has taken some scout team reps, but the primary Brady impersonator has been Allen. He spent most of his film study watching the Patriots’ defense, in order to help starter Jared Goff prepare. But he devoted time to watching Brady, too, in order to better understand what the Rams defense needed to see.
“The biggest thing was getting the ball out quick,” Allen said. “You can tell, he does not hold the ball back there very long. A lot of his completions are, he’s getting the ball out before the rush can even get there. That’s kind of what I was trying to show our defense: The ball is going to come out, he’s going to be decisive with his reads, and he’s probably going to know where he wants to go with the ball. I was trying to be quick this week.”
A scout team quarterback’s attention to detail can help topple the Patriots. In 2008, Anthony Wright, Eli Manning’s backup, mimicked Brady as the New York Giants planned for the undefeated Patriots. Studying Brady, Wright gained an appreciation for how he operated in the pocket. He hardly ever took off to run, but he always bought extra time with subtle footwork.
Wright noticed Brady’s dropbacks took him to the same spot, eight or nine yards behind the line. He dropped to that precise spot in practice to give Giants pass rushers an accurate, consistent target. In the game, the Giants’ defensive line throttled New England and battered Brady, leading to a colossal, 17-14 upset.
“By you doing it in practice, they rep it all week to get to that spot, to win that battle against the tackle or the guards and get to that point,” Wright said. “It was key for us that two weeks to make sure we stayed on those spots and gave those defensive ends and defensive tackles that look they needed.”
When Hasselbeck imitated Brady, including before the 2015 AFC Championship, he replicated Brady’s verbal ticks. Brady was one of the first quarterbacks who aggressively identified the middle linebacker at the line of scrimmage, which sets up blocking schemes. Rather than letting his linemen figure it out, Brady would point at the middle linebacker — or “mike” — wearing No. 54 and scream, “54 is the mike!”
The aesthetic infiltrated the league: Pilots try to sound like Chuck Yeager, and quarterbacks try to identify middle linebackers like Tom Brady.
“People were always in agreement on who the mike was,” Hasselbeck said. “You didn’t need to say [Brian] Urlacher is the mike. Tom Brady made it cool. He made it a point of emphasis. Every offensive coach I had after he made it really cool, would say, ‘I want you be to really demonstrative with your mike calls!’
“I made a joke about it one time. We were getting ready to play Chicago. Coming out of the huddle, I said, ‘On one, ready break, 54 is the mike!’ I could be blindfolded right now and know Urlacher is playing middle linebacker.”
Hasselbeck delighted in copying Brady’s other mannerisms, like pointing both index fingers at his head while making an audible and looking at a receiver. Hasselbeck had closely watched enough Patriots games on national television, where microphones pick up sounds around the line of scrimmage, to crack Brady’s cadence.
The Patriots used a double cadence: If Brady yelled, “Blue 80! Blue 80! Set, hut!” it meant a play was coming. If he said, “Brown 80! Brown 80! Set, hut!” it was a “dummy” call, a fake meant to get the defense to jump offsides or reveal a blitz.
“But the Patriots are hard to get a beat on,” Hasselbeck said. “Even when you do get something, they change it up or they use it to their advantage. They’re so good at those small things. And they just add up. They add up to things that matter.”
Brady and the Patriots did not always carry such mystique. When Martin watched Brady before Brady’s first Super Bowl, he saw a decent young quarterback who leaned on his running game and limited mistakes. If Martin claimed he spotted looming greatness, that would be pure revisionism.
“It wasn’t something at the time that wowed you,” Martin said. “I don’t think they threw the ball a ton. It wasn’t like an overwhelming thing, here’s this young guy in his second year like Patrick Mahomes. He was steady and improving every week and trying to keep his job after replacing Drew Bledsoe.”
As the Denver Broncos prepared to play the Patriots in a 2011 divisional round game, Brady Quinn — Tim Tebow’s backup — quarterbacked the scout team with unique insight. Quinn’s college coach, Charlie Weis, was Brady’s first offensive coordinator in New England. At Notre Dame, Quinn consumed Brady’s film and literally used the Patriots’ playbook. Even in high school, Quinn had modeled his footwork and release after Brady. He asked defensive coordinator Dennis Allen if he could call the plays and audibles, because he knew the offense, and understood how Brady would think, better than Denver’s defensive coaches. Allen agreed.
Even then, Quinn knew that piloting an offense like Brady, to let a defense understand what he sees and how he reacts, wouldn’t happen.
“It’s an impossible role to play,” Quinn said. “Peyton Manning, Tom Brady — you can’t play those roles. You can only do your best impersonation.”
Patriots backup Brian Hoyer has never played Brady. He faced the Patriots twice on other teams, but once he was a starter and once he was on injured reserve. He relishes playing other quarterbacks, especially ones unlike him. When he mimicked Patrick Mahomes, he could quickly escape the pocket and attempt “ridiculous” throws. His favorite quarterback to ape, he will answer immediately, is Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s like an actor,” Hoyer said. “You get to play a different role.”
Unique players receive unique treatment from scout teams. This week, the Patriots put a No. 99 jersey on practice squad outside linebacker Trent Harris and lined him up offsides to replicate the violent speed of Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. “He doesn’t weigh 280 pounds, but he has really good quickness,” New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. “He’s an explosive guy. He gives us the kind of movement we need to see.”
The Patriots’ concessions to Donald underscore an opponent’s challenge to preparing for Brady. A scout team quarterback can pretend to play like Brady, even down to minute detail, but he’ll never capture him. How do you mimic Brady’s competitive spirit? How could you fully understand, let alone transmit to a defense, what’s happening inside his head as he scans a field? There are no tricks a scout team quarterback can use to help make that happen. Being Brady is a short-lived dream, not one that ever comes true.
“At the end of the day,” Quinn said, “no one’s going to be able to replicate Tom Brady.”