WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — Tom Brady at age 40 looks very much like Tom Brady at age 39: like the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
Brady and the New England Patriots went through two days of joint practices with the Houston Texans here this week, and Brady threw the football with his usual crispness and accuracy. And on the rare occasion when he didn’t, Brady let his disgust with himself be on full public display, burying his head in his hands after an incompletion he thought particularly egregious.
“I mean, we’ve got to make that play,” Brady said. “It’s got to be a better throw. We’ve just got to come up with it. Sometimes you get that exact look you want versus a certain play and it’s not a productive play. Those are the ones that you kick yourself on. … Plays where it really should be a completion and a big gain, those are the ones you’ve got to come up with.”
Yes, that February evening in Houston was grand. It’s not as if Brady and the Patriots are forgetting about the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history or the overtime triumph over the Atlanta Falcons or yet another Lombardi Trophy or the sweet ending to a 2016 season that began with Brady serving his four-game Deflategate suspension or the further validation, as if any was needed, that Brady stands above all the other quarterbacks to have played the game. All of that certainly is nice.
But it’s also so last season. And the greatness of Brady and Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots always has been about their ability to zero in on the task at hand, to be ruthlessly competitive and maniacally focused on the details of what’s next, no matter how high the accomplishments already have piled. So what mattered to Brady as of Wednesday was that throw he missed on a training-camp practice field in West Virginia, weeks away from playing the next game that actually counts.
It really mattered.
So, too, did urging fellow members of the Patriots’ offense to tighten things up and make the entire operation a bit more efficient. Brady also could been seen doing that this week, going from teammate to teammate and asking for a little more.
“I’m always pretty frustrated throughout the day in practices,” Brady said. “You’re just trying to create some urgency. I ask guys to dig a little deeper. It goes like that. There’s some times things don’t go great in the first quarter of games. Sometimes they don’t go great in the first half. Sometimes they don’t go great for the first three quarters. But you’ve got to keep grinding. You’ve got to keep digging deeper.
“A lot of times, football is a lot about momentum. Things don’t go well early and then you find a little rhythm, and you start making some plays, scoring some points and then you can rattle off 28 points. That’s football. I think what you realize with this team [the Texans] is they’re not going to make it easy on you. There is no easy play. There is no easy throw. There is no easy run. They’ve got good players. They’ve got a good scheme. It’s really challenging and has forced us to raise our game.”
What should be most frightening to the rest of the league is that the Patriots pretty clearly are better than they were last season.
They signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency in the offseason. They added pass rusher Kony Ealy for more help on defense and traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks to bolster Brady’s offense. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels didn’t leave for a head coaching job. Cornerback Malcolm Butler stayed put, despite his unhappiness about his contract. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was re-signed. Brady is suspension-free and available for the entire season. There is the possibility that tight end Rob Gronkowski will remain healthy and available for an entire season.
There were losses, of course. Tailback LeGarrette Blount is among those who exited. There are issues. Brady must endure a full 16-game season instead of last season’s abbreviated 12-game regular season. But these Patriots do seem to have the potential to be improved over last season’s version, if things come together. And are you going to wager against Belichick and Brady making them come together?
“We had a good offseason to kind of regain our focus,” Brady said. “Life doesn’t seem to slow down much when you’re 40 years old and you have three kids. I think maybe it’s a little slower at work than it is at home. You come to work and you try to give it the best you can for your guys. It’s nice to be out here playing and that’s what I love to do.”
The key could be Cooks, who was obtained in a trade with the New Orleans Saints. He is a game-breaker who topped 1,100 receiving yards and had at least eight touchdown catches in each of the past two seasons with the Saints.
“I’m getting comfortable every day,” Cooks said Wednesday. “It’s just a matter of me doing my job, focusing on what I have to do and my task. I think I’ll catch up pretty well.”
Brady’s career has been spent usually taking underwhelming groups of wide receivers and making them look very good. It has been rare for him to have a wideout as talented as Cooks is. Perhaps 2007 comes to mind, with Randy Moss on hand at wide receiver. Brady threw for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns. Moss had 1,493 receiving yards and 23 touchdown catches. The Patriots had the first 16-0 regular season in league history and were denied a perfect season only by the memorable Super Bowl upset by the New York Giants.
Could something similar be in store?
Cooks is fitting right in. He declined to speculate Wednesday how good this offense can be. He refused to compare his role in this offense to what it was while he was with the Saints, playing with Drew Brees at quarterback. Cooks said “nothing has changed” about his opinion of Brady after having had some time to work with him.
“From afar, he’s a great quarterback and takes the game very seriously,” Cooks said. “And that’s what you see. And that’s what I see now playing with him.”
The view of Brady is pretty awe-inspiring these days, no matter where you’re standing.
“Obviously you’re going out there and you’re competing against new guys,” Texans quarterback Tom Savage said of the joint practices. “We want to compete. We want to beat each other, and that’s the goal. And also, we’re doing team periods where you get to watch the greatest quarterback of all time play. What’s better than that? … I’m still a fan of this game. And it’s fun to watch.”
Brady had his 40th birthday on Aug. 3. He is making absolutely no concessions to that.
“I think it’s a lot easier now for me than it’s ever been,” Brady said. “I feel like my routine is better than it’s ever been. You know, when you’re younger you don’t know what to do. After 17 years, going into my 18th year, I know what to do. I know how to prepare. I’m never sore. I could practice every day. I could practice twice a day if they’d let us do that. But that’s not the way it goes any more. It’s just fun being out here and competing. That’s what us football players are here for. It’s football season. That’s what football players do: We go compete.”
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