For Trace McSorley, Sunday night will be start No. 1 in his career after being a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2019.
For his quarterback counterpart on the other side, it’s a tad different. Tom Brady, also a sixth-round choice, will be starting the 331st regular-season game of his career and it’s No. 378 including the post-season.
One thing McSorley has on Brady is that he was selected 197th overall while Brady was famously the 199th pick in the 2000 draft.
The significance isn’t lost on McSorley, who is starting because Colt McCoy suffered a concussion in last Sunday’s loss to the Broncos and won’t be active. McCoy remains in the concussion protocol although he did return to practice Friday on a limited basis.
McSorley said he is “definitely excited” about his first start being “against” Brady and said, “He’s the GOAT and there’s no two ways to put that, but I’ve just got to focus on what I can control. I’m going against their defense, not against him, so that’s kind of the way I try and look at it. But it is cool to kind of look back and realize that I’m starting against him (in my) first time.”
McSorley, who is merely 28 years younger than the 45-year-old Brady, was 6-years-old when Brady started for the first time in 2001. He also said one of the first Super Bowls he remembers watching was when he was 10 in 2005 and the Patriots won their third championship in four years, defeating the Eagles.
“That was one of the first Super Bowls I remember sitting down and really being into the game and watching it, as opposed to just being a kid running around on Super Bowl night having fun,” McSorley said. “His record and his career speaks for itself. I think there’s not much else you can say about that. Everything he’s done, he’s the GOAT.”
After coming in for the injured McCoy against the Broncos, that became McSorley’s seventh game of his career, three with the Ravens and four with the Cardinals. While Brady has passed for 101,466 yards and 730 touchdowns in all the games he’s played, McSorley has totaled 256 yards and one touchdown.
The score, coincidentally, was a 70-yard pass play to Cardinals receiver Marquise Brown when both were in Baltimore in 2020.
Brown said this week, “I have a lot of confidence in Trace. He’ll come out ready to play, ready to prove himself.”
Mutual admiration society
Cardinals safety Budda Baker will be playing against Brady for the first time and noted that his 23 seasons in the league is longer than some players have been alive.
On the Cardinals, only linebacker Camron Thomas is 22, while linebacker Zaven Collins, cornerback Marco Wilson and tight end Trey McBride are 23. Baker will be 27 on Jan. 10 and was 5-years-old when Brady made his first start.
Baker said the challenge of facing Brady for every player is that on every play, “you have your specific job to be in that perfect spot at the right time because Tom Brady is Tom Brady and he’s going to know what type of defenses you’re in. And he’s going to want to get the ball out quick, as you guys can see, throughout the whole season, so guys just have to be very detailed in their job and very detailed in whatever the defensive scheme is and whatever call VJ (defensive coordinator Vance Joseph) gives us.”
When Joseph was asked if it’s different than preparing for other quarterbacks because of how defensive players might see Brady, Joseph said simply, “It is. Tom’s a guy that you can’t fool with looks. He’s obviously seen every look in football. So he’s never confused. He has answers for every single play. And if players give him any kind of tell, he’s gonna find it and expose it. That’s what’s made him great. It was never his physical tools, obviously. The talent’s always been there, but his mind is special.”
Joseph admitted watching tape is “scary because he has answers for every single look. Every coverage, every max drop, every Cover 2, 3, he knows where the ball is going right now. And that’s been his strength his whole career. So you have to try to speed him up, slow him down, make him hold the ball some, but that’s been hard to do. And it’s going to take us rushing him and playing some soft zones and tackling the ball and being great in the red zone. Because no one really stops him, but red zone and third downs, you gotta bear down and kind of challenge sometimes.
“But as far as Tom, he’s the best that’s ever played the game. And when you watch him play, it’s like a coach playing quarterback. It’s that special; his knowledge of football. And he’s never fooled, so no one goes in blitzing him, confusing him and hitting the guy. He throws the ball away. It’s what a QB should look like. And not very many can do it that way. But he has.”
Joseph believes Brady has lost very little at his age, saying, “Physically, he’s not what he was probably, but mentally, man, he’s sharp as a tack and it shows.”
Baker wonders how long Brady will play. Who knows; for Arizona fans this could be the last time they will have the opportunity to see him in person.
Brady hasn’t played against the Cardinals since 2012 and not in Arizona since 2004 although there were the two Super Bowl appearances for the Patriots here.
Baker said, “I feel like it might be either his last year this year or next year, maybe the next year after that, but soon he’s not going to be on the field, he’s not going to be in the NFL and that’s going to be kind of different and weird. It’s kind of like when LeBron (James) leaves the NBA, it’s gonna be kind of weird because they’re just kind of the foundational GOATs of our sports.”
He realizes how special this will be for him Sunday night.
“It’s another opportunity to play the game I love, but also an opportunity to play with one of the GOATSs or arguably one of the best players in this league, so it’s definitely going to be special,” Baker said. “I like to see how guys kind of play against you as a team and me especially sometimes because there’s different types of rules on defense sometimes when I’m on the field so I definitely kind of want to see what he sees and what he kind of checks into when I’m down in the box or where he doesn’t check into so stuff like that it’s definitely gonna be special going against him.”
Baker admitted he has one other wish. When it was mentioned that in a recent game, 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw intercepted Brady and then the quarterback signed the ball after the game, Baker said it was special for Brady “to have that type of ego that Tom has to be happy for guys and smile still and sign the football on the field. If you do that to another QB in this league, he’ll probably look at you crazy. So definitely special and hopefully I’ll get to pick him off and maybe he just signs it.”
The Kliff connection
It has been well-chronicled that Kingsbury was selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2003 draft (201st overall). He was on reserve/injured for the entire 2003 season and then departed the Patriots in the cutdown to 53 players in 2004. He spent time on practice squads or camp with the Jets, Broncos and Bills, played in NFL Europe in 2006 and the CFL in 2007 and 2008 before starting his coaching career in 2009. His NFL regular season consisted of one game with the Jets in 2005, completing 1 of 2 passes for 17 yards.
But his brief time with Brady was special and they remain friends. He is actually two years younger than Brady and their Leo birthdays are six days apart in August.
Recently, Kingsbury mentioned regrets he had with his playing career and was asked about that this week in advance of Sunday’s game against the Bucs and Brady.
He said, “I think watching him work and how almost maniacal he was about it; that that’s what it takes at that position to be that good. At times, I probably was trying to just run around with Tom Brady instead of trying to be Tom Brady going up there to Boston. I just think when you look back, it’s such a short window, such a small opportunity looking back that (I) definitely could have put more into it. I think, you’ve just got to live with that regret.”
As for the relationship with Brady when he was with the Patriots, Kingsbury said, “He was awesome. I think you can see the friendships that he’s had over the years. He’s been good to all those guys and that’s why whether it’s (Matt) Cassel, Jimmy G (Garoppolo) or (Jacoby) Brissett, he definitely tries to mentor them and work with them. He was phenomenal and every guy that’s gone through there I think would say the same thing.”
Kingsbury was asked if during his experience as a coach or player he has seen anyone with a similar work ethic to Brady. He said, “No, not the total commitment, lifestyle, sleep, eat, study, and work that he’s put into that. It’s insane. When I got there, I remember thinking I thought I worked hard and then I watched what he did and put into it and it was just on a whole different level. To watch where it’s come, there’s a reason he’s the best there ever was and it’d be hard to catch him at the rate he’s going.”
Now, with Kingsbury’s future with the Cardinals potentially in doubt, a topic that was ratcheted up even more following Friday’s ESPN report, it makes comments he made this week stand out.
After talking about his regrets as a player Wednesday, the subject turned to his approach to coaching.
Asked how his playing experience shaped his coaching career, he said, “That’s a huge part of it. When I decided to go full speed ahead into coaching, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have any regrets as to how much I put into it, how fast I could try to climb the ranks and become the type of coach I thought I could be. That definitely was kind of a second opportunity to try and take advantage of a really good opportunity I had getting into the college ranks right out of my playing career really.”
Any regrets so far?
“No,” he said. “No. I think you learn every year as a coach and you try to get better, but I really don’t have … there’s certain players I’ve dealt with throughout that and there’s experiences I wish I had back with players, but as far as just how I’ve approached it, no I don’t. I just tried to attack it and any opportunity I had, I just tried to make the most of it.”
Finally, he was asked if he’s become the type of coach he wanted to be when his career started. He said, “Remains to be seen. Remains to be seen. I think I always wanted to be authentic and try to do things my way. I was at Coach (Mike) Leach’s funeral yesterday and that was brought up a bunch. He did it his way on his terms and that’s something that has always inspired me more than ever. He never listened to, ‘Hey, you should run the ball more, you should do it this way or that way.’ He always had a strong belief in what he was doing and the people he was doing it with, so he definitely has influenced me in that area.”
Budda in the Pro Bowl
Even though there are those that refuse to believe there can be positives in a bad season, there are.
While there is a long list of things that have gone wrong, the “culture” narrative is a popular one that is hard to reconcile considering the leadership of guys like James Conner, Kelvin Beachum, Zach Ertz, J.J. Watt and, yes, Budda Baker.
Baker was named to his fifth Pro Bowl this week, his fourth as a safety, and was voted a starter.
When Joseph was asked if Baker has a chance to be a generational player, Joseph said, “I think he’s heading that way. I’ve coached a lot of great players, guys who are going to be Hall of Famers. Pat Willis and those guys in San Fran and I was around J.J. for a long time in Houston. Budda making his fourth straight Pro Bowl; it’s special. Obviously if he’s healthy and playing he’ll make four more.
“That position, it’s hard to have production. But he’s had 100-plus tackles and he’s taking the ball away at a high rate now. And that’s been different for his game. But Budda makes us better. The plays that he makes to keep big plays from hurting us; that’s always quiet. But he is the heart of our team. And he’s the same guy every day. He works hard. He’s tough. He’s a great teammate, a great leader. So he’s definitely a special person and a player.”
Keep an eye on Ledbetter, No. 93
Not too many people know much about defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter, but he had the first full sack of his career Sunday against Denver and has been improving since being signed to the practice squad a year ago after being waived by the Dolphins in the cutdown to 53 players.
Ledbetter is another player that credits Watt, saying, “He’s helped me a lot. He’s one of those guys that actively tries to help the younger guys, teaching techniques, gives you confidence and fundamentals. It’s been great for me to have a guy rooting for you. It’s been an honor just to play with him, be on the field with him.”
Watt has joked about how often now-injured defensive end Zach Allen asks questions and Ledbetter said, “He’s a wily old vet. It’s not always easy to answer questions all the time, but J.J. does a good job with everybody.”
Joseph said, “He’s had a good year; he’s had a really good year. I mean, he’s quietly … you need guys like that, right? You can’t have everyone making big money. There’s guys that you develop and guys that come along strong and he’s a guy that’s been consistent all year for us as a rotational guy, so I wasn’t surprised that he played good again because he’s played good all year.”
Added Kingsbury, “He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s gotten better and better and I think he’s one of those guys that every time we ask him to do something, even if it’s more snaps than he anticipated, he plays at a high level and competes. I’ve been impressed with his progress this season.”
Ledbetter readily admits his goal is to sack Brady Sunday, and he recalled a chance he thought he would have during his rookie season.
As an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins in 2019, he made the team and started the season opener against the Ravens, registering a half-sack. The Patriots were next on the schedule, but Ledbetter suffered a serious ankle injury in practice and was placed on reserve/injured where he spent the entire season.
Things went sideways after the season when COVID-19 hit and he suffered a knee injury while working out. Because it wasn’t at the off-limits team facility, he was placed on reserve/non-football injury and missed the entire season. Teams can elect not to pay players with non-football injuries, but he said the Dolphins took care of him by at least paying him a practice-squad salary.
“My path has never been easy,” he said. “I’ve accepted the way it is. I was an undrafted guy. I made the team, which was no surprise to me. I know my ability. I’m confident. I just have to put in the work every day, put your head down and keep going. This league is hard. Whether you’re a drafted guy or an undrafted guy, it’s still hard.”
Now, three years later, he will finally have that opportunity to play against Brady.
“It’s full circle,” he said. “I have a chance to make it happen and not be hurt. It’s a blessing. We’ve got a good group and I’m glad to be here with these guys.”
Right tackle Kelvin Beachum, the only offensive player to have started all 14 games, returned to practice Friday with limited participation after suffering knee and ankle injuries against the Broncos.
Listed as questionable, Kingsbury said, “He’s from Texas, so he’s tough by where he grew up geographically, but he’s trying to push it. I’m not sure if he’ll be ready Sunday or not, but he was out there trying to move around and we’ll get him out before the game and see how it looks.”
Beachum admitted “it wasn’t pretty” when he returned Sunday after being injured, “but we got through it.” Cody Ford replaced him, but with Rashaad Coward now recovered from a pectoral injury, either he or Ford will start if Beachum can’t.
Cornerback Antonio Hamilton, who injured his back in practice before the Denver game, practiced on Friday for the first time this week and was also limited and is questionable.
“He looked good moving around at times, but I think he has to feel the pain tolerance on Sunday and see if he’s good to go and if he can handle the contact,” Kingsbury said.
Quarterback Colt McCoy won’t play Sunday and remains in concussion protocol, but he did have limited work in practice Friday. Kingsbury said, “Everything is trending in the right direction.”
Wide receiver Marquise Brown was limited in practice Thursday after his groin tightened up. He was limited again Friday and is questionable, but Kingsbury said, “He felt a lot better today and looked good, so I’m hoping he can play the whole game and we’ll have him and (DeAndre) Hop(kins) out there.”
Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. will miss his sixth consecutive game because of a back injury, so Kingsbury was asked if he might be shut down for the remainder of the season.
He said, “We want to win, but he’s gotta feel good. He hasn’t felt good enough to play, so that’s basically been the reason. We’ll see the next couple of weeks how that goes. If he felt good, he’d be out there.”
Finally, with recently signed David Blough the backup to McSorley, Kingsbury was asked if there’s the thought of having McSorley not take off and run and put himself in danger.
Kingsbury admitted, “That’s the fine line you walk because that’s a big part of his game. He’s one of those gamers that moves around and makes plays, so you don’t want to take that away from him. So, we just said, ‘Cut it loose.’ David Blough has done a nice job of picking it up in a short time, so we want him (McSorley) to play his game and obviously there’s shots you don’t want to take, but we gotta let him do what he does and see if he can make some plays.”
Blough was signed off the Vikings practice squad Dec. 14 and speaking to how tough that is to grasp an offense quickly, Kingsbury said, “David’s a smart cat. He’s very cerebral. He’s picked it up.”
As for potentially playing, Kingsbury said, “We’re going to try to really limit his game plan and make sure the stuff he’s comfortable with he can do and concepts he feels great about, but I’ve been impressed with how he’s picked it up.”
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: email@example.com