It would be next to impossible to lay out every morsel of information or nugget of insight gained after covering Tom Brady for the last half of his 20-year Patriots tenure. But ahead of his return to Foxboro, here are 10 lessons -- football-related and otherwise -- picked up along the way we thought you might enjoy.
1. It's on a quarterback to protect his teammates
"The concussion," Brady told me back in 2018. "The Cleveland game and the ACL. The Denver game, too. Remember in the snow? Yeah, he missed the Eagles game. Four times. You're right, bro. You're onto something."
Brady was recounting the number of times Rob Gronkowski had been injured running up the seam -- his bread-and-butter route for the Patriots. It bothered him. On the one hand, he was paid to help his offense create explosive plays. And those seam passes to Gronkowski were typically explosive. But on the other, he felt he owed it to Gronkowski and others to keep them out of harm's way.
"Honestly, most plays are like that," Brady continued. "You're always looking and seeing distances. You don't really want to get anyone hit, or throw it where they can't protect themselves. Yeah. There's no doubt, that play . . . There's other plays like that . . . You just gotta do your best to try to eliminate them."
Brady recently lamented how that part of the quarterback's job seems to have been forgotten as NFL rules have changed over time. It's not that other quarterbacks don't care about their teammates.They do. But as the middle of the field has become a safer area to operate for pass-catchers, the level of concern over ball-placement, Brady believes, has been diminished.
Add it to the list of reasons why, as someone who played quarterback through a different and more violent era in the NFL, he's the last of his kind.
2. It's good to get a little salt in your hair
I'd never heard of floatation therapy, or sensory-deprivation therapy, until it was mentioned to me in the Patriots locker room that Tom Brady was a fan.
The more digging I did, the more apparent it had become that Brady's fandom had spread. The team had installed float tanks in the facility, and when they went on the road for extended periods of time -- to Super Bowls, for instance -- they made sure they had float tanks nearby mapped out for player use.
That's right. It was a priority for the Patriots to allow their players to step into a tank with less than a foot of salty water warmed to the temperature of their skin and lay belly-up in the dark.
The lesson: Processes that help lead to elite performance usually aren't run-of-the-mill. Otherwise, what would be the point?
3. Those at the peak still look up to others
In 2017, I had a chance to chat with Brady about some of the quarterbacks he likes to watch on film. His approach to self-improvement had already verged on legend by that time. He was on his way to his third MVP and an eighth Super Bowl appearance. But I wondered how a quarterback at that stage of his career continued to stoke curiosity in his craft.
There were a number of quarterbacks Brady mentioned during our conversation. Russell Wilson's mobility came up. Drew Brees' consistency. How Ben Roethlisberger executed the Steelers scheme. Peyton Manning. Brett Favre. But when it came to mechanics, there was a clear front-runner. "Aaron Rodgers," Brady said without hesitation, "probably has the best mechanics in the NFL -- probably in the history of the NFL." Brady worked for years with the late Tom Martinez on his throwing motion. Over the last decade he's made adjustments with the help of former Major League pitcher Tom House. Together they harp on things like stride length, front-side rotation and torque. Though intimately familiar with his own mechanics, in the pursuit of finding every edge, he was unabashed in detailing his affinity for how Rodgers could manipulate a football.
4. Offseason workouts matter
Once Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay, Bill Belichick said in a statement that Brady was one of the team's founding fathers in terms of its culture. And part of the culture, there was no mistaking, was showing up in the spring. Deion Branch referenced it this week.
Brady was, at one point in time not too long ago, very forthcoming with his feelings on OTA work that was, technically, optional.
"I’m just willing to do whatever it takes, we’re here for one reason and that’s to try to go out and win as many games as we possibly can," Brady said back in 2013. "You just can’t decide, ‘OK, September, this is when it’s really important.’ You have to start in May, work through June, and into July... August is important because it builds for September. I think all the guys have put a lot of time in over the course of the spring and summer and hopefully it pays off. That’s why we’re out here doing it."
When Brady didn't show up to OTAs in 2018, Jerod Mayo told us on the Quick Slants podcast, "I think the culture is kind of taking a shift. It's not the old-school traditional culture. Not to say that's good or bad, but I think the culture is changing." The Patriots of course went on to win a Super Bowl that year. But hard not to view his springtime absence as a statement. Then and now.
5. Trust is everything
Coming off a 2013 season in which his lone trusted (and healthy) option was an emerging Julian Edelman, Brady spoke quite a bit about trust the following season. The Patriots had added Brandon LaFell. Rob Gronkowski was mostly healthy. Danny Amendola came on late. Edelman was established as a go-to guy. Brady trusted those to whom he was throwing. And as a result, we saw an uptick in back-shoulder throws when Brady attacked down the field.
"I think it’s a big trust thing," he said en route to his fourth Super Bowl championship in 2014. "You’ve got to trust that when the ball is in the air that they’re not going to make the play on it. And when you’re in those one-on-one situations, as a quarterback, you can only really control it until it leaves your hand. Even though the outcome may not be good, sometimes you may make the right decision. But as a quarterback, when you’re decisive and you trust that someone is going to make a positive play, it’s much easier to just let it rip...
"When you see certain quarterbacks play with certain receivers, like I see Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson – they are probably the best at it. It’s the timing of when to throw, how hard to throw. It’s when to look. If you look too early, if you slow down as a receiver, it’s a low percentage play. If you throw it too hard or too high, it’s a low percentage throw. It’s just a big trust throw, and both people really have to be on the same page. We’ll just keep working at it. Those are big plays. You have to throw to the perimeter of the field. And it’s 25 yards down the field and [when] you make plays like that where you can gain a quarter of the field in one throw, it’s a big momentum play."
6. PV = nRT
You never know when it might come in handy to know the ideal gas law.
7. Quarterbacks should be comfortable being in compromising positions
Peyton and Eli Manning, joined by Matthew Stafford on ESPN2's Monday Night Football broadcast, recently dubbed Brady as the best quarterback sneak artist in the game's history. Part of Brady's ability to pick up a yard when needed is his understanding of an opponent's weakness up front.
But part of it just comes down to will.
"I would have retired a long time ago if I worried about my body in compromising positions," Brady said in 2018. "I think it’s just part of the sport. I think it’s good blocking is what I think it is. I think it’s good blocking, good coaches scheming things up and finding ways for me to kind of squirt through there and wiggle my body when we need it.
"If they take it away, it gives us other opportunities. So, I think that’s part of it. Offensive football is making them defend every blade of grass, and if they’re covering you deep, you throw it short. If they’re letting you sneak it, you sneak it. If they’re not, you run it outside. If they’re guarding outside, you run it inside. You just keep mixing it up and it’s about execution, so whether it’s a sneak, whether it’s run-play or post-pattern, it’s good execution. That’s what matters."
8. Sometimes "it's complicated" applies
Brady told NBC's Michelle Tafoya back in 2019 that he was "the most miserable 8-0 quarterback in the NFL." Brady's last season was, of course, a complicated one. Behind the scenes there were factors at play that led those close to Brady to tell me mid-season, "Enjoy it while it lasts." They had a very sense early that year that it would be Brady's last in New England.
Brady himself seemed to be very much aware of that fact in the summer of 2019 when I asked him about his recently-signed "extension," which was really just a raise with placeholder years tacked on for salary cap purposes. It was clear then that the deal was indicative of an acknowledgement the Patriots were going year-to-year with him.
"I mean, it's really the reality for most guys in the NFL," Brady said. "I don't want to think that I'm different than anyone else. Football's a tough business. It's a production business, and I'm ready to go this year and that's really what matters.
"It's a unique situation I'm in. I'm (in my) 20th year with the same team and I'll be 42 years old, so pretty much uncharted territory I think for everybody, and I'm going to go out there and do the best I can this year and see what happens."
What happened was the offense around Brady wasn't what he wanted. Josh Gordon didn't work out. Antonio Brown didn't work out. And the young receivers sharing a huddle with Brady were very apparently leaving him disgruntled.
"You can pout about it and keep going this way," one Patriots executive told me when I asked about Brady's downtrodden attitude that year, "or you can do something about it."
The Patriots finished 23rd in the NFL in yards per pass attempt that season and lost in the Wild Card Round to the Titans.
9. Be on top of real estate movement
Because people tend to be interested in that sort of thing, apparently. And with good reason. When Tom E. Curran and I reported that Brady's home in Brookline was officially for sale, one day after Brady's cool responses to adjusting his contract in 2019, it ratcheted up the intensity of the we-may-be-looking-at-a-swan-song-situation-here conversation.
10. Avocado ice cream isn't for everyone
Brady's commitment to nutrition and exercise have become the stuff of legend, and like float tank therapy it rubbed off on Patriots teammates to an extent. But, Brady or no Brady, the team's dedication to optimizing nutrition for each player on its roster changed drastically over the course of Brady and Belichick's tenure.
"A lot of it was just more one-on-one," Belichick told me of the Patriots approach in 1996 when he was a Bill Parcells assistant on the staff. "It was a service the team provided, but they would talk to you and say, 'What do you like to eat?' Then the next guy might come up and say 'I'm trying to lose weight.' And the nutritionist would say, 'OK, do this or do that.'
"Now it's, 'Look here's the buffet. This is high protein. This is high carbohydrate. This is high recovery. This is for hydration. Whatever. And then there are complex things like caffeine, just to pick one, that has some performance-enhancing qualities and it limits performance in certain ways. Stuff like that, depending on what you hear, 'I should be doing it,' 'I shouldn't be doing it.' Then you have an expert that defines it and says, 'Here's what you can do. Here's what you shouldn't do.' There's been nutritionists, but the value, and the number of players, and the volume of information that they give players has increased exponentially."
It got to the point where even avocados, depending on a player's needs, were scrutinized.
"You hear a lot of people talk about eating healthy stuff like nuts and almonds," Vince Wilfork told me in 2014. "Well, I'm actually high on that end. I'm actually a little allergic to nuts and almonds and avocados and stuff... A lot of people go out with a generic diet method of, 'You gotta eat this.' Well, if your body don't accept it, you can't eat it."