MVP poised, poignant on morning after
HOUSTON -- OK, so we know he is headed to the Disney gig -- the parade down Main Street and the obligatory poses with Mickey and Donald and Pluto -- that accompanies his status as the Super Bowl's most valuable player.
But after Tom Brady fulfills his myriad public relations commitments, and mugs for the cameras until he is nearly blind from the flashes, where is the New England Patriots' star quarterback really going following a second Super Bowl victory in three years?
To hear Brady tell it Monday morning, more bleary-eyed than starry-eyed and working the media after just a one-hour nap, it's back to the drawing board.
"There are still a lot of things to improve on," Brady said in accepting a new SUV for his second Most Valuable Player performance. "There is still a lot of room for growth. The thing is, I enjoy playing football, I enjoy the game. I like being in the weight room. I like training camp. I like practicing. And I hope to be doing this for a long time."
That is hardly the best of news for the other 31 teams in the NFL, who certainly would have preferred to hear that Brady was headed for some Caribbean beach for a couple of months with his actress/girlfriend. That he planned to chug-a-lug beer every day and get out of shape celebrating his latest standout performance. That he was going to hit the TV talk-show circuit, flash a cover-boy smile that rattles the knees of 20-something ladies everywhere, and forget about football for a while.
But nope, less than 12 hours after he became the youngest player to win a second Super Bowl Most Valuable Player trophy, Brady, 26, was already talking about getting back again -- about getting back on the field with the league's most selfless team and seeing if there was yet another Vince Lombardi Trophy waiting to be snatched up.
It is part of the maturation process of Brady, to be sure, and it seemed to surprise no one in the New England organization. Three seasons after Brady assumed the Patriots' starting job, it is suddenly very convenient to forget that he ascended to the top spot on the depth chart only because Drew Bledsoe sustained a serious chest injury, one in which he lost about half his blood volume.
Truth be told, not even the Patriots' coaching staff knew for sure how Brady, a sixth-round afterthought in the 2000 draft, would respond when Bledsoe was injured. But three years later, it is Brady who continues to rise steadily in the NFL firmament, and Bledsoe whose career needs salvaging.
He is now the league's golden boy, the poster child for clutch performances, a guy whose Q-rating rivals that of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis. Unlike a couple years ago, when Brady seemed almost awkward about what transpired after he took over for Bledsoe, the New England quarterback on Monday morning was glib, upbeat and articulate in framing responses to questions about Super Bowl XXXVIII, the team in general and his current status in the NFL galaxy.
Brady spoke rather poignantly about what it meant to win a Super Bowl for veterans like strong safety Rodney Harrison, who came to the Patriots as a free agent after being a San Diego Chargers salary cap dump, and who broke his arm in the late stages of the Sunday night game. Well-versed now in his public dealings, much more at ease than he was just two years ago, Brady related an anecdote about a practice bet he lost to Harrison, about how he now owes the strong safety two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world as a result of that friendly wager. He even revealed that he and Harrison, during Friday's final Super Bowl practice, had exchanged harsh words.
Said veteran wide receiver Troy Brown, whose salary-cap status could mean Sunday was his final game in a Patriots uniform, when asked about Brady's growth: "Let's just say the apprenticeship is definitely over now. There are still some critics who say, 'Well, he can't do this very well, and he's not too good at that.' Well, he's pretty good at winning Super Bowls, isn't he? And there are a lot of guys with the big arms and the mobility, and all that stuff, who don't have even one ring."
There have been comparisons to John Elway and Joe Montana but, for now, those may be a tad premature. Then again, if Brady is standing at the podium this time next year, trying to decide which Cadillac luxury vehicle he wants as booty for another Super Bowl MVP award, maybe those comparisons will be appropriate.
Brady grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from Candlestick Park, just about the time Montana was taking over the league. His parents were season-ticket holders for the 49ers games and he recalls being at the 1981 NFC championship game, the one in which wide receiver Dwight Clark authored "The Catch." It was games like that, Brady noted as he rubbed his eyes Monday morning, that got him hooked on football.
Years after taking the bait, Brady is now among the biggest fish in the league, but he is also a fisherman as well, ready to cast the line and see if he can hook another title.
Toward the end of his news conference, Brady spoke about a conversation he had in college with his trainer at the University of Michigan. The trainer had been at the school for years, been party to a lot of Big 10 titles and earned a drawer full of championship rings.
"I asked him once, which was his favorite ring, you know?" Brady said. "And he kind of thought about it for a little while and finally said, 'The next one.' That's how I feel right now. This is great but you already want to start thinking about the next one."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.