Tom Brady(notes) has been around long enough to realize that there’s no room for sentiment in an NFL locker room. However, that doesn’t make the sudden departure of a good friend, longtime teammate and fellow three-time Super Bowl champion any easier to take. On Sunday, after Brady heard the surprising news that defensive end Richard Seymour(notes) had been traded from the New England Patriots to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round draft pick in 2011, the quarterback picked up the phone and said goodbye to a warrior he hoped he’d never have to worry about dodging in the pocket.
“I’ve been through it a lot over the course of my career, and it’s always a reality check,” Brady said Monday during a short break in preparations for the Pats’ regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on Monday night, his first real game in a year. “There is no unconditional love in the NFL, you know. It’s strictly based on convenience, and how you fit with that team at that time.
“The reality is it’s going to happen to all of us. Joe Montana got traded, and so did Brett Favre(notes). [The 49ers] got rid of Jerry Rice(notes) and Ronnie Lott. Randy Moss(notes) got traded twice. At this point it’s just the way it is here, and it’s every coach. The only guy that’s not expendable is the one who signs the check.”
If Brady feels particularly vulnerable as he prepares for his 10th NFL season, none of us should be stunned. A year ago, coming off a record-setting MVP season that cemented his place among the greatest to ever play the position, Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the Pats’ opening-week victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. He subsequently underwent surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, suffered a postoperative staph infection and endured a second operation to clean out the joint.
Now Brady, 32, is anxiously awaiting his official return. Though the quarterback suffered a painful injury to his throwing shoulder after absorbing a hit from Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes) in an Aug. 28 preseason game, he plans to be out there slinging it without restriction against the Bills in Foxborough.
On Monday, the one-year anniversary of his injury, Brady sounded like he’d rather discuss Spygate, the struggles faced by the paparazzi or Ohio State’s rich football tradition than answer another question about the stability of his knee.
“It’s just such old news at this point,” Brady said. “I don’t know what I should’ve felt [during the preseason], or could’ve felt, but the reality is I’ve felt like I’ve always felt out there, to tell you the truth. I’ve just moved on to other things.”
Then Brady laughed and added, “I was hoping that getting hit in the shoulder would’ve taken attention off of the knee. Unfortunately I chose the biggest guy in the league to make that point. Nice decision.”
On a more serious note, Brady conceded that he doesn’t expect the Pats’ offense to pick up where it left off before his injury. In ’07, energized by the offseason acquisition of wideouts Moss and Wes Welker(notes), New England scored an NFL record 589 points while completing the first 16-0 regular season in league history. Brady threw for an unprecedented 50 touchdown passes and came within 35 seconds of earning his fourth ring.
As dominant as New England was in ’07, Brady would like to see a less pass-happy attack this year.
“I always think the very best football we’ve played is when we’re balanced,” he said. “Because you can’t control the game when you’re throwing it all the time. I always think the best offenses are the ones who control the tempo of the game by running it, and that’s what we want to be. We’ve got a great group of running backs, a line that’s been together for a long time and three very solid tight ends. We definitely want to have that balance.”
Brady went so far as to say that if he were to assemble a fantasy team, he wouldn’t draft himself first among passers.
“I’d draft Peyton [Manning],” he said, laughing. “That’s who I’d draft. He’s my quarterback. I might take Moss and Welker, though.”
It’s safe to assume Brady won’t be devoting his time to such trivial pursuits. He’s too busy preparing for every possible scenario against his upcoming opponent, beginning with the Bills. With the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was hired as coach of the Denver Broncos after last season, the Pats will rely more than ever on Brady’s mastery of the offense. While new quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien took over some of McDaniels’ responsibilities, coach Bill Belichick is expected to be the primary play-caller.
“We’ve been through a lot as a team, and I’m ready to get rolling for the next six months,” Brady said. “Football’s always in my head. The games come so quickly, and you need all of those days of preparation – for the game-planning, the practices, the walk-throughs, the film preparation. You want everything right, and when you’re neurotic like me and our coaches, you never feel like you’ve done enough.”
Given that Brady married supermodel Gisele Bündchen over the offseason, there would seem to be obvious potential for distraction. Yet cohabitation, he insists, will not cramp his style. While he may have exaggerated his wife’s prowess in the kitchen during his recent “Entourage” appearance – “Uhhhhhhh … yeah, she does [cook] … from time to time,” he said Monday – he gives her an A-plus for understanding and coping with his neurosis.
“It’s football season, and it actually goes over pretty well,” Brady said. “She gets it. Those six months we have off, we have so much freedom, and they go by so fast. This time of year, I’m glad I don’t have that freedom.
When I’m home, it’s great. It’s how I’ve always envisioned it being when you’re married. Obviously, my mom and dad have given me a great example. They’re the foundation of who I am and what I want a family to be.”
As for his football family, Brady has taken some hits in recent months. After the season, special teams ace Larry Izzo(notes) signed with the New York Jets as a free agent. One veteran linebacker, Mike Vrabel(notes), was traded to the Chiefs in February (along with Brady’s former backup, Matt Cassel(notes), who filled in admirably last season), and another, Tedy Bruschi(notes), retired last week. With Seymour’s departure, Brady is one of just four players on the New England roster – running back Kevin Faulk(notes) and offensive linemen Matt Light(notes) and Stephen Neal(notes) are the others – who were there for each of the three championship seasons (2001, 2003 and 2004).
In the past, Brady was known to get angry when he felt his friends on the team weren’t being afforded the proper measure of respect by their superiors. He openly bristled after safety Lawyer Milloy(notes), who’d balked at the organization’s demand for a pay reduction, was released shortly before the start of the ’03 season. The quarterback was similarly upset during wideout Deion Branch’s(notes) contract dispute three years ago, which ended with his favorite target being dealt to the Seattle Seahawks a week into the ’06 campaign.
By now, Brady has become a realist, as evidenced by his reaction to the Seymour trade: “Richard’s been an incredible player, teammate, father. He’ll be missed. There’s no doubt players are the ones that miss each other. All you can do is try to be part of the solution. With everything that’s gone on the last two years, I’m excited to do my job and play quarterback for the New England Patriots. That means a lot to me.”
Excitement won’t be the only emotion Brady feels as he takes the field Monday night. “Do I get nervous? Yeah,” he conceded. “There’s always nerves, anxiety and excitement. I think I’ll feel a combination of the three, just ‘cause you don’t know the outcome in advance. You think you know – that’s what all the preparation is about – but in reality, you just don’t have any clue how it’s really going to go down.”
As his longtime teammates fall by the wayside, will Brady be the last man standing? On Monday, we’ll get our first of many clues.