Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO – Exactly one year ago today - two days after The Kansas City Game – Tom Brady walked into a nearly empty Patriots locker room. Fresh off a press conference in which he was asked if he was “past his prime”, Brady was smiling as he cruised past.

“Tough crowd today,” I said to him.

“Talk to me in November,” he said as he pushed through the door and out of sight.

By the time November began, the Patriots had won four straight, winning by an average score of 40-20. In their next two games, they beat both the Broncos and Colts by 22 points.

I don’t think Brady knew it would come together that quickly, but he did know the hysteria was hysterical.

Mainly because he’d lived it the year before. In 2013, the Patriots looked particularly inept in a rain-soaked 13-10 win over the Jets. In 2014, it was the offensive line? In 2013, it was the receivers. Brady – Welker-less for the first time in six seasons –  spent that night screaming into the wind as Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins tried to determine what they needed to do to keep the future Hall of Famer from killing both of them.

But they figured it out then. They figured it out in 2014. Hell, they figured it out in 2006 when they lopped Deion Branch from the team, trading him to Seattle and left Brady throwing to stiffs. That year – like 2013 – could/woulda/shoulda ended with a Lombardi, but didn’t.

The uncertainty Brady faced coming into this September had nothing to do with on-field issues. The question was whether or not a federal judge would allow Brady to play. Once that mess got resolved, this – a 3-0 start and a transcendent level of performance from Brady – should have been a fait accompli.

Give Brady a season in which his guys aren’t learning on the fly and everyone’s healthy? Meat.

“Continuity certainly helps,” Brady said Wednesday. “Hopefully, you can get off to a really good start, and you can build on things over the course of a lot of practices, a lot of throws, a lot of conversations. When you start fresh all the time, I think that can get challenging. So, I think the passing offense is all about anticipation. It's about trust, being on the same page. The only way to do that is to have experience. It doesn't always necessarily need to be together. I mean, if someone has a lot of years of experience in the league, you have a lot of belief that that person knows how to get open in a pro-style offense against a pro-caliber corner or safety. So you just try to build up on those types of things. We worked pretty hard in the spring, had a good camp and we got off to a decent start. So hopefully, we can keep it going.”

Brady is currently working with in-their-prime skill guys. Gronk – for the first time since 2011 – started the season truly healthy. Julian Edelman is probably at the confluence of his physical and mental peaks as a receiver. And the role guys get their roles.

“You look at like the receiver position – Danny [Amendola] has been here for a long time now, Jules [Julian Edelman] obviously, AD [Aaron Dobson] has been here three years – and those are guys who have been playing mostly. Even bringing in Keshawn [Martin], he's been in the league for a while. It'll be exciting when Jo [Brandon LaFell] gets back. And then [Scott] Chandler, he's been in the league for a long time. Hooman [Michael Hoomanawanui] has been here for a while, and Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] has been here for a while.”

It got ugly in 2014 – in Kansas City especially – because multiple things hit critical mass. It was a good defensive opponent in prime time on the road and Gronk wasn’t Gronk and the protection was poor and Brady’s mental clock was sped up, impacting his fundamentals and his decisions.  

This season, even though the offensive line has three rookies in the middle, they worked together all offseason. Last year, Logan Mankins was traded a week before the season began and new OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo was running with Jordan Devey starting and Ryan Wendell watching in the first few games. The team was making evaluations on the fly. This season, they made their decisions early, it seemed.

It still isn’t easy for them, said Brady.

“This year, the offensive line is going through some of that (transition) where you lose [guys] – [Ryan] Wendell hasn't been in there, [Dan] Connolly retired, and you have young players up front. So, I'm sure that's challenging for Nate [Solder] and Sea Bass [Sebastian Vollmer] who have been playing next to guys who have been very experienced, and then at some point, based on the way pro football is, the burden, it's got to fall somewhere. You can't keep everybody together for 15 years. It just doesn't work that way. It's just that constant turnover, and one year it may be the offense, one year it may be the defense, it may be the specialist, it may be the offensive line or the receivers, and you've just got to find a way to keep building.”

Brady believes in the process. Even last year when it was reported there was internal discussion about Brady’s decline and turmoil between he and the offensive staff, it was never as dire as advertised. At least that’s how he saw it.

“It's a long season, so you try to do it over the course of a year,” Brady explained. “The Super Bowl isn't played in Week 1. Even though you'd love to be in mid-season form at that time, it doesn't always happen that way. So you've just got to believe in what you're doing, believe in your process, and I think that we've been pretty consistent here for a long time based on what our OTAs are, training camp.

“It's not like one year it's different from the next, but I think you gain trust in what you're doing based on the past results that we've had that, ‘OK, we're on the right track. This is how we're going to be coached. This is the expectations we have for what a practice should look like. Regardless of who's in there, this is the level that we need to get to if we want to be able to compete on a week-by-week basis against really good football teams.’  We're going to be challenged throughout the whole season. Every game has its different challenges. There are different matchups. There are different situations in the game that come up that everyone has to be prepared for. And obviously the more veteran players you have at certain positions, the easier that may be or may appear to be.”

And that’s why the discussion isn’t whether Brady’s prime is passed but whether he’s just entering it.