FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady celebrated his 35th birthday Friday. Hard to believe the kid quarterback who supplanted Drew Bledsoe in “2001 a QB Odyssey” and provided one of the most improbable seasons in New England sports history is now older than Bill Russell was in his final triumphant season as a Celtic and the same age as Larry Bird when he last graced the parquet.
TB12’s 35th b-day is a reminder he won’t be around forever.
So, what do you get for the 30-something man who has everything — a supermodel spouse, a Hall of Fame career and a movie star aesthetic? If you’re the Patriots, you get him the one thing he needs but doesn’t have — a defense.
That’s a luxury Brady, entering his 13th season, last had several tonsorial selections and a few diva wide receivers ago. Brady is undoubtedly a better passer now than he was when he quarterbacked the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons from 2001 to 2004, but the only trophies he has to show for it are a pair of MVPs.
Those teams lifted the Lombardi Trophy because the offense and the defense carried the load equally. Now, Brady mostly carries the defense. The Patriots aren’t going to win another Super Bowl until Brady and a good offense cease to be their best defense.
Even in the almost-perfect season of 2007, when Brady was rewriting the record book with an offense that visited the end zone so often it could have claimed residency, the Patriots’ defense held up its end of the bargain.
The ’07 defense ranked tops in the league in pass defense, allowing 190.1 yards per game, and had an AFC-best 47 sacks. It surrendered 288.1 yards per game, the second-lowest total in franchise history since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978. It gave up 17.1 points per game, an impressive number considering teams knew they had to score early and often to have any shot against the 16-0 pass-a-palooza tour.
If there was a prevailing school of thought that it was foolish to try to win a shootout against Brady it was dispelled last year by a Patriots’ defense that was sliced up like a birthday cake by opposing passers in the team’s four losses.
New England nemesis Eli Manning beat the Patriots twice last year with dramatic drives for the Giants and completed 75 percent of his passes in Super Bowl XLVI. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger completed 72 percent of his passes and racked up 365 yards passing. The other defeat came at the hands of Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 369 yards to help the Buffalo Bills erase a 21-point deficit.
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season in spite of having both the 31st-ranked total defense and pass defense (out of 32 teams), the refrain is the same it has been for the last three years — juggernaut offense, question-mark defense.
The defense is already a bit defensive about that depiction.
“In one ear and out the other. That’s how we like it back there. People are going to say whatever they want to say,” said safety Patrick Chung, when reminded the questioning of the defense has become a yearly occurrence. “Everybody has their opinions, but in one ear out the other, get better, play ball. Go from there.”
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one and coach Bill Belichick did that this offseason.
Perhaps, it was an epiphany that Belichick had right around the time he was ordering his team to let Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw have free entrée into the end zone in Super Bowl XLVI because it was the only shot he had of getting the ball back in Brady’s hands. But the Patriots doubled-down on defense in the offseason.
They traded up in the first round of the draft not once, but twice, to acquire pass rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The team used six of its seven draft picks to address the defensive side of the ball, trying to put a tourniquet on a unit that bled yards last season, if not points (21.4 points per game, a respectable 15th in the NFL).
Belichick also dipped into free agency, signing safety Steve Gregory, defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene, and edge rusher Trevor Scott, and acknowledged in April that the team had to shift its defensive philosophy to better combat a league with more comfortable air travel than a G5 private jet.
Hopefully, all those additions and a bounce-back year from erstwhile Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty add up to improvement this season because the play clock is ticking on Brady’s championship window, and thus that of the Patriots.
A rosary-gripping defense isn’t just taking years off the life of fans, it’s taking years off of Brady’s shelf life.
The Patriots’ favorite foils, the Colts, learned the hard way what happens when the epoch of your franchise QB unexpectedly comes to a screeching halt, as Peyton Manning’s neck injury precipitated a total teardown in Indianapolis this offseason.
Following up Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers or Joe Montana with Steve Young is the quarterback succession exception, not the rule.
All the Patriots have to do is look south at the division-rival Miami Dolphins, who have been a QB junkyard since Dan Marino threw his last pass and berated his last offensive lineman in 1999. Brady entered the league in 2000 and since then the Dolphins have used 18 quarterbacks. That number could rise if David Garrard or rookie Ryan Tannehill beat out Matt Moore this season.
Proof it doesn’t take much to go from halcyon days to Hugh Millen redux.
Brady has made a career of performing under pressure, but the pressure to win is now on the other side of the ball.