Funny story. In 2001, when Dave Wannstedt was coach of the Dolphins, the Patriots came to Miami for the fourth game of the season. It was the first career road start for an unknown quarterback named Tom Brady, who had been thrust into action two weeks earlier by an injury to Drew Bledsoe. Miami won by 20.
"I think he threw for 80 yards or something," Wannstedt said Friday. Actually, it was 86. "I remember the next day going in and asking our defensive coaches, 'What do you think of this Brady guy?' You know how guys are. 'Aah, this kid won't last long. Belichick will be looking for somebody else.' "
Wannstedt chuckled at the memory. Ten years later, Brady is going strong and headed for the Hall of Fame. He has two MVP trophies, two Super Bowl MVPs, the best regular-season winning percentage of any QB in the modern era. Today, Brady is in town to face the Bills, who have beaten the Pats once in his career.
Those Miami coaches couldn't have known that Brady would become one of the greatest to play the position -- in my mind, the best ever. That's the remarkable thing about Brady. Just when you think he's done it all, he finds a way to improve. At 34, in his second decade as an NFL starter, the guy keeps on getting better.
Before this season, Brady had passed for 400 yards in a game just once. He has already done it twice this year. He threw for 517 yards in the opener against Miami and 423 last week against the Chargers. Yardage-wise, those are the best two games of his career.
Brady has seven TD passes and one interception. Last season, he had 36 TD passes and four interceptions, the highest ratio ever. The Pats have scored 30 points in 10 straight regular-season games. So how do you slow down a pass attack that seems unstoppable?
Well, it can't hurt to have a guy like Wannstedt around as assistant head coach. People wonder how much influence he has over the Bills' defense. He coaches the inside linebackers. Wannstedt makes it clear that George Edwards is the coordinator.
Wannstedt, 59, is a wise, veteran defensive mind, a man who has coached against some of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. "I think he can bring the voice of experience," said coach Chan Gailey. "He's seen it all."
As Miami's head man, Wannstedt saw plenty of Brady from 2001-04. He had his share of success, too. The Dolphins beat the Pats twice in those years under Wannstedt. The Pats never scored more than 28 points. Miami held them under 20 four times. Of course, those were Brady's formative years, before he developed into one of the most efficient and confident passers the game has ever seen. Brady is a far better QB than he was when Wannstedt was in Miami.
"Oh, right now he's doing so much more," Wannstedt said. "Back then, Bill was running the ball more. A lot more two-back stuff. It was a little more play-action stuff. It wasn't the spread, the open. He didn't have the free rein of making as many or all the decisions as he does now. That's the biggest change. He's running the show."
Wannstedt coached against Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning. He was the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys in their 52-17 win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. That game launched him to a head job in Chicago. He spent six years with the Bears, five with the Dolphins, then six as head man at Pitt.
That's 17 years as a head coach, as the face of a football team, the man whose vision and intellect drive the operation. Wannstedt said it's been a joy to return to the more quiet, fundamental routine of assistant coaching.
"I love the football part of it," said Wannstedt, who spent half his time on non-football matters as a college coach. "Getting back to it, the meetings and the players all day, I've enjoyed it. I really have.
"George can use me as a sounding board," he said. "There's not many things I haven't seen or experienced from the defensive side. I think it's another avenue for him, another person to bounce things off and generate ways to figure out what's best for our guys."
Finding ways to defend the passing game is a greater challenge than ever. Offenses are more diverse, more willing to use three- and four-receiver sets. Teams throw a lot more than they did when he coached in Dallas two decades ago -- or when he was in Miami at the start of the millennium.
"The same thing is happening in college," Wannstedt said. "In college now, you have a lot of spread and empty backfields. It's trickled down to high schools, too. Teams are taking their best athletes and putting them at quarterback and running the spread. Things have changed a little bit. We were a two-back I formation team at Pitt and we were dinosaurs.
"So the passing game has changed," he said. "They don't all have Tom Brady throwing it, though."
Brady isn't a running threat, but he still leaves NFL coaches shaking their heads in exasperation. Do you drop eight into coverage? Blitz him like crazy? Mix up your defensive looks? Try to keep the ball away from him? Shine a mirror in his eyes to blind him?
You're trying to stop Brady. But you're also coaching against Bill Belichick, the top football mind of his generation. People talk about Belichick as a defensive coach, but he's an offensive mastermind, too. Charlie Weis and other offensive coaches leave, but the passing attack keeps getting better.
During Brady's run, the Bills' coaches have always seemed a step behind. Belichick coaxed Gailey into getting away from the run last December. Gailey needs to establish the sort of offensive rhythm he had last week against Oakland and stay ahead of the Hooded One. Above all, the defensive coaches need to find a to slow down Brady. There's talk that it might involve pressure up the middle, plus a lot of substitutions and exotic defensive packages to confuse Brady, the way the Jets did in last year's playoffs.
"When I was in Miami, we were able to put steady pressure on him and we had good coverage guys," Wannstedt said. "I think you've got to have the combination of both to beat him. You've got to force a bad throw, try to create a few drops. Come up with a turnover or two. Play a little field position. You don't beat one guy when you beat the Patriots."
Yeah, but beat this Brady guy and I really like your chances.