FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On the top shelf of Tom Brady’s locker rests a green helmet, shaped closer to a catcher’s headgear than a quarterback’s. It is an emblem, not intended for use, a curious item until closer inspection. In small white lettering in the front, just above the brim, is a name: “Brady.” In large white print on the left side is a number: “199.”
For Brady, it is a symbol and constant reminder. Arguably, Brady has accomplished more than any player in NFL history. In his last meaningful appearance on a football field, he passed for 466 yards and led the New England Patriots back from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to win the first overtime Super Bowl, the fifth Lombardi Trophy of his career. The performance, perhaps his greatest, capped a season that started with a four-game suspension, which the league handed down on the dubious claim he deflated footballs. Over the offseason, he turned 40.
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And yet every day he shows up for work, Brady sees the green helmet in his locker. On the front is his name. On the side, that number, is his draft position. He will not let himself forget. He clings to the slight, 17 years later, as daily ammunition.
The Patriots’ utter rejection of complacency, from the top down, is one reason they again find themselves at the center of the league. The NFL has revolved around the Patriots for nearly two decades, perhaps never more than the season about to dawn. They are a standard and a target, a lightning rod and a model franchise.
Every team that fashions itself a contender knows the Patriots, at some point, will stand in their way. Five of the last six Super Bowls — and 10 of the last 16 — have been won by either the Patriots or the team that knocked out the Patriots.
The Patriots’ pre-eminence flows from their inability to feel satisfied. The Patriots may not repeat, but they understand how to avoid the traps to which other champions succumb.
“It’s knowing that it’s a process,” safety and team captain Devin McCourty said. “There’s no letting off the gas or thinking we can relax. We know how hard it is. Getting to play longer seasons teaches you that you can never really be comfortable. You have to keep trying to get better, keep pushing. I wouldn’t say it helps a lot on the field. But the day-to-day of what you need to do and how you need to buy in, you learn.
“Until you do it, you don’t really realize how hard it is. Once you win it, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s worth it.’ That teaches you to keep doing it. That’s the experience guys that have done it bring to the team.”
This offseason only enhanced New England’s status as the NFL’s epicenter. Despite a 17-2 record, the Patriots reloaded. They are heavy favorites to defend their Super Bowl title after the headlining additions of elite cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency and No. 1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints.
The rest of the Patriots’ roster overflows with talent and flexibility. They acquired running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, adding versatility and power to their backfield, while replacing departed tight end Martellus Bennett with Dwayne Allen. They lost Rob Ninkovich to retirement but re-signed key linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Their offensive line returns intact. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed eight games and the Patriots’ entire playoff run, has returned with enough confidence in his health to play in a preseason game for the first time since 2012.
The Patriots face two key questions, both owing to developments late in the preseason. They waived defensive end Kony Ealy, whom they had acquired from Carolina in March. The failed experiment leaves them with a thin pass rush, especially with third-round pick Derek Rivers out for the season.
More troubling, the Patriots lost Julian Edelman, Brady’s most trusted receiver and perhaps the best third-down weapon in football, for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The injury puts pressure on oft-injured Danny Amendola to stay healthy, but the Patriots should be able to survive with second-year improvement from Malcolm Mitchell and using Burkhead in the slot.
While others contemplate their ceiling, the Patriots obsess over details. At one joint practice this summer with the Houston Texans, Brady erupted at teammates over one stretch of poor execution. “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.”
The Patriots also have rare calm on their side. Between Deflategate and Aaron Hernandez’s murder case, the past three training camps have been drenched in controversy. Last year, Brady remained entangled in a dense legal battle against the NFL, and the Patriots didn’t know until days before their opener who would line up under center. At the end of this year’s training camp, a Patriots staffer could joke, with a high degree of truth, that the most onerous controversy they faced all summer was continued questioning if they could go 19-0.
The headgear inside Brady’s locker this summer has received far less attention than the model in last year’s: a red Make America Great Again hat. The Patriots’ connection to President Trump cranks up the spotlight on them, too. While several Patriots skipped their White House visit, their brain trust has close ties. Brady considers Trump a friend. Belichick dined at Mar-a-Lago before Trump became a candidate and wrote a letter to Trump, which the then-candidate read on a New Hampshire stage the night before the election. Owner Robert Kraft attended Trump’s inauguration party and gave him a Super Bowl ring.
The Patriots are in the middle of the NFL universe in every way, but they are also at the top. This season, with a star-laden roster and a motivated Hall of Fame quarterback, it may be harder than ever to knock them off.