Tom Brady Has New Knee, Outlook
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seemed oblivious to the heavy rain that greeted the start of training camp Thursday as he barked instructions to teammates who struggled to get a grip.
As the most valuable player of two of New England's three Super Bowl triumphs works his way back from a devastating left knee injury suffered in last season's opener, he appears to be on firmer footing in his personal and professional life than ever before.
"I think it's been a great learning experience for me, and I'm using it as a positive," says Brady, who turned 32 on Monday. "Hopefully I can go out this year and be a great quarterback for this team."
Neal ElAttrache, who operated on the four-time Pro Bowler on Oct. 6 and performed two follow-up procedures less than two weeks later, is convinced he can.
He says the legs of the 10th-year veteran are stronger now than at any time before in his career.
"He's an unbelievable worker. He did everything you could have hoped for a patient to do."
Brady, who agreed to wear a knee brace at the insistence of Patriots trainer Jim Whalen, has showed early flashes of the form that allowed him to be the league's MVP as he threw for 4,806 yards in 2007. He acknowledges the brace might be costing him a step.
"Have I gone from slow to slower? That's possible," he jokes, knowing speed has never been a big part of his repertoire.
Otherwise, he looks like the same franchise quarterback to his teammates.
"We've been through minicamp. We've been working with him the whole offseason," wide receiver Wes Welker says. "It's no surprise he's able to get in the flow of things."
Brady tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament when the helmet of blitzing Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard crashed into his knee in last season's opener. That left the former sixth-round draft choice to cope with the first major setback of an otherwise storybook career.
Brady needs only to look at the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer for encouragement. After suffering a severe knee injury in the wild-card round of the playoffs at the close of the 2005 season, he threw for 4,035 yards and 28 touchdowns the next year.
Palmer says of Brady, "I would just tell him to be prepared for the mental obstacles when he gets back on the practice and the game field.
"You have to get over being uneasy about people being down around your feet and get over feeling like you need to step out of the way to protect yourself."
'It's (a) blessing in disguise'
But family and friends say he is better for the cruel turn that followed a magical season in which he led the Patriots to the NFL's first 16-0 regular season while throwing for a record 50 touchdowns. New England's bid for perfection ended with a 17-14 upset loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
"There's no question, it's (a) blessing in disguise," says his father, Tom. "He's got a renewed vigor. It was almost like a sabbatical in the middle of his career.
"When you lose a year following the best year of your career, it's an unfortunate occurrence. But the Lord works in strange ways."
Brady appears at ease as he strains to shake off almost a year's worth of rust during the early days of camp. He delights in his time off the field after previously being consumed by football.
He married supermodel Gisele Bundchen on Feb. 26 and dotes on his son, 22-month-old Jack. He shares custody with actress and former girlfriend Bridget Moynahan.
He says the perspective he gained while sidelined makes him better equipped to deal with everyday stresses.
"I'm more content, I think, in learning how to deal with those situations," he says. "A lot of things that have happened in my life you learn from, and, like I said, you use those as challenges."
Rodney Harrison, who played six seasons with Brady before retiring last offseason to become an NBC analyst, sees someone who added balance to his life.
"Obviously, he's gotten married and he's building a family," Harrison says. "Yes, there is a difference.
"A lot of times when you go through an injury such as what Tom went through, things start to fall into perspective. It's your family that's really important, because football comes to an end for all of us."
Scott Zolak, a backup Patriots quarterback from 1992 to 1998 who covers the team for radio station WBZ in Boston, also senses a difference in a four-time Pro Bowler who had started 128 consecutive games - the third-longest streak by an NFL quarterback behind Brett Favre's 269 games and Peyton Manning's 176.
"It seems there is some sort of peace about him," Zolak says. "That is the best way to sum it up."
Although Brady trails only boyhood idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, each of whom won four Super Bowls, he's not content with his place in history.
"I hope I have the opportunity to play for a long time. I think when you sit on the sidelines for an entire year, you realize how much you love it," he says. "Not that you need that to happen to be grateful to play, but you experience things in a much different way. I love being out here."
Coach Bill Belichick asked Brady to remain home on game days last year, apparently thinking his presence could create a distraction.
Brady's father says of his son's time away, "It was very hard on him. He was anxious. He watched every minute of every game and dissected it, but he was not part of the team."
It showed during that first practice how much it meant for him to be part of the team again. Only the threat of lightning drove him and his teammates from the field.
"Throughout the monsoon he was fired up. 'Let's get out of the huddle and get it right.' I like that," newly acquired wide receiver Greg Lewis says. "I'm trying not to have any mistakes. I don't want to get him on me."
'Leadership right in front of you'
Lewis, who spent the first six years of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, is among a number of key veterans added during the offseason by a franchise bent on toppling the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Free agent running back Fred Taylor, previously a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, is another newcomer who sees why the Patriots loom as top contenders to secure their fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy and first since 2004. The more he sees of his 6-4, 225-pound quarterback, the more he is impressed.
"Playing these guys a few times in the playoffs," Taylor says, "you look over and say, 'We can beat that team.'
"But then you get here, and you see his passion, you see the way he studies, you see how demanding he is of his players, the leadership right in front of you. You see why he's a proven winner."
The strength of an organization led by Belichick, in his 10th year as coach, and of the supporting cast that surrounds Brady was evident when New England responded to his loss by rallying behind former backup Matt Cassel.
Cassel, previously untested, threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions as the Patriots narrowly missed the playoffs at 11-5. It was their eighth consecutive winning season.
New England showed its confidence in Brady's recovery from an injury that typically requires an eight- to 12-month recuperation by dealing Cassel to the Chiefs at the end of February for a second-round draft choice. Some observers thought the Patriots would retain Cassel as an insurance policy.
Brady's injury was that severe. ElAttrache described the knee as "grossly loose and grossly unstable" when he first operated.
'As he goes, the team goes'
Brady hopes for stability in his knee and on the field. He has offensive weapons everywhere.
Randy Moss provides a tremendous threat every time he accelerates downfield and broke Jerry Rice's single-season record with 23 touchdown receptions in 2007. Welker leads the NFL with 223 catches since joining the Patriots two years ago. Free agent signee Joey Galloway, 37, still provides a long-ball threat. Taylor, who ranks 16th all time with 11,271 rushing yards, brings needed help for the running game.
They have a swagger when Brady is in charge. His 101-27 (.789) record is the best of any NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) with at least 100 starts. His postseason mark (14-3, .824) trails only that of the Green Bay Packers' Bart Starr (9-1, .900).
"Something's different when he steps on the field," Zolak says. "Montana had it. It's something a guy has when he steps in the huddle. It's that aura, that clout. As he goes, the team goes."
Brady still has physical and mental hurdles to clear. There is no telling how long it will take for him to develop a rhythm with his receivers. His rebuilt knee will be subjected to all kinds of hits.
"There will be plenty of guys to test it," Brady says. "I'm going to get hit plenty. I'm sure it will be just fine."