Bledsoe for MVP
Really nice read on Tom Brady
FOXBORO, Mass. -- The latest long, sweaty training camp practice has wrapped for the afternoon, and Tom Brady plunges in. Working a rope line with the skill that another less famous Massachusetts celebrity named John Kerry would be envious of, Brady smiles and scribbles his way through the throng of admirers, which as usual, on this day seems comprised largely of screaming teenage girls wearing replica No. 12 Patriots jerseys.
Think of The Beatles deplaning in New York in 1964 and you start to get the picture of the rock-star treatment that New England's GQ QB inspires on almost a daily basis.
"I guess I get embarrassed a little bit,'' said Brady moments later, cringing a bit at the mention of his off-field fame. "I don't know why I get embarrassed, you know? But I do.
"The most fun I have is playing, or even when we're practicing. To tell you the truth, I don't think I enjoy a lot of the other stuff. I enjoy it. Well, I don't enjoy it. Because I don't think it's part of my personality. I just like playing ball.''
It's the playing ball that begets all this other stuff, and the great thing about Brady as he enters his fifth NFL season is that he has never lost track of that. He knows the order of things. Yes, he's comfortable in the company of the president or the Pope, sitting beside the First Lady at the State of the Union address, or strolling up and down red carpets in Hollywood, a starlet on his arm.
But if you want to see Brady really happy, really engaged in the moment at hand, watch him in the pocket. Or even, as I did this week at Patriots camp, over on the sideline as he practices shovel pass after shovel pass to receiver Troy Brown. The guy simply loves his work. And he absolutely doesn't take short cuts, even thought half the known world is holding the door open for him, inviting him to.
That's why this spring, on the day the Super Bowl champion Patriots were scheduled to visit the White House for their obligatory Rose Garden photo op, Brady was spotted getting his weight lifting in at Gillette Stadium at 5:30 a.m., rather than taking an excused pass on the workout as so many of his teammates did. And why for four years running he has earned the preferred Gillette parking spot among Patriots quarterbacks, based on his position-best offseason workout record.
"I realize the reason why we've been really successful here,'' Brady said. "There's a lot that plays into winning Super Bowls and winning all the games we've won. It goes back to me knowing there are things that I struggle with, in terms of being a good football player, and there are certain things that I need to work at. And one of them is my strength and conditioning.
"It's important to my game. I can't take a day off. I think other things come easy. I don't think I have to study quite as hard this time of year, because I can pick up the stuff. But my conditioning and my workouts and my growing will suffer, because that's stuff I need to do.''
And that's no lip service with Brady, who has grown himself a decent little training camp beard the past couple of weeks. He's proud of the fact that he's put on about 10 pounds of muscle this year (he's up to 220) and he's stronger than ever from being able to consistently lift weights for the first time since suffering a first-degree separation of his throwing shoulder in December 2002. After playing through some pain all of last year, Brady had the shoulder surgically fixed this offseason, and he believes the added size will only increase his pocket stature.
"I'm just trying to escape a little bit better, trying to shrug off defenders,'' he said. "Trying to be more sound in the pocket and stronger in holding onto the ball. Not fumble. That all leads for me back to my physical strength and good decision-making. My physical strength is something that's very tough for me, because I guess God did not want me to be strong.
"I didn't bench at all last year, because of the shoulder. Now I'm benching and I'm squatting and it feels good. I feel like I'm more stout in the pocket. I feel like I can stand in there and take some hits.''
And the Patriots are putting more on Brady's (bigger) shoulders than ever in the way of orchestrating the offense. No, he's not up to Peyton Manning's standards of calling generous amounts of the game from the line of scrimmage, but Brady year by year has been given more leeway to change plays as he sees fit.
"(Offensive coordinator) Charlie [Weis] very rarely calls plays that are going to put us in bad position,'' Brady said. "But the few times that it might come up in the course of a game, I think he's allowing me to say, OK, let's get out if it and call this. Or let's go to this pass, or this weak-side route.'
"Which is good for me. It's something that challenges you mentally, and those three or four plays might be critical plays in the game. Whereas three years ago, it was like, 'Call this play and run it, and I don't care if they've got 12 guys over there.'"
Brady says he feels better and more confident than he ever has upon entering training camp, and so far he has looked scary good. Watching him in practice is like seeing a ball machine in a No. 12 jersey, with almost every throw right on his receiver's hands, perfectly in stride. By comparison, you feel bad for the other Patriots quarterbacks, Rohan Davey and Kliff Kingsbury, when it's their turn to offer up a pass.
And here's the really frightening part: Brady is just 27 and realistically just entering his prime as an NFL quarterback. That's the proverbial catbird seat when you already own two Super Bowl rings, a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies, a league-best 40-12 record as a starter (.769) since 2001, and a 46-game starting streak.
We forget, because he has come so far so fast, but it hasn't even been three full years since Brady burst onto the NFL scene, replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe in a late September 2001 game. In other words, Brady's rise has all been post-9/11. Imagine that. There are times when even he can't quite yet fathom the ascent.
"I had a weird moment a couple days ago where I was sitting there during stretching, and I was like, 'I can't believe I've won two Super Bowls and I'm 27 years old and I'm sitting here playing professional football,'" Brady said. "I guess I never thought I could possibly do that."
Brady indeed is one of those lucky few whose reality has far outlived their wildest dreams. Meeting the Pope was never one of his career goals, per se, but there he was in Rome earlier this year, a lifelong Catholic getting a thrill of a lifetime.
"I know the Pope didn't know who Tom Brady was. No idea, no clue,'' Brady said. "But I was just so happy to be there and get that chance. I know I'm lucky to get those opportunities. I don't think you could ever dream any of this. You'd be letting yourself down too often. There are so few people who have experienced it.
"Growing up I had dreams of being an athlete, of being a baseball player or a football player. But to win Super Bowls and stuff like that, I could never even have imagined. I don't take any of this for granted. I don't think you ever could.''
Sure you could. That much has been done before. Just not by Tom Brady. He's too busy playing ball.
Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.