FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady showered, dressed, and put lotion on his face without any outward signs of pain in his right hand. A quick study of his hand in the locker room didn’t reveal any noticeable swelling. He slapped a reporter on the back with his right hand while walking to the podium, and acted surprised to even be asked if his hand is hurting.
“It’s perfect,” he said about 30 minutes after leading the Patriots to a 27-17 comeback victory over the Dolphins Sunday. “I feel great. For the eighth week of the year, I feel awesome.”
But something is obviously wrong with Brady’s throwing hand — specifically his middle or ring finger.
Radio analyst Scott Zolak could tell — he pointed out Brady’s discomfort in last week’s loss to the Jets, and saw it again Sunday.
CBS could tell — it had a camera seemingly trained on Brady’s hand the entire game.
Most everyone in the press box could tell, especially when Brady would put a black glove/sleeve over his hand every time he returned to the bench, or caught the ball only with his left hand when playing soft toss on the sideline.
The only ones who couldn’t tell, apparently, were the Dolphins’ defenders.
Linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler said the Dolphins were unaware that Brady was dealing with a hand issue, even after a photo of Brady with the two fingers taped together at an event on Saturday went viral on the Internet.
“Nah, I didn’t know anything about that,” Ellerbe said as he prepared to leave for Miami. “It would’ve helped.”
Brady had another pedestrian game, which is becoming all too common. He threw an interception on his first pass, and overall completed 13 of 22 for just 116 yards and a touchdown, with three sacks. Brady has had some low yardage totals before, but it’s been awhile — 76 yards against the Dolphins in 2004, 78 yards against them in 2006, 115 yards against the Bills in 2009.
Sunday was the fourth straight game in which the normally accurate Brady has failed to complete at least 60 percent of his passes. He has two touchdown passes and four interceptions in that stretch as the Patriots have gone 2-2, and he has taken 16 sacks, including three on Sunday. Coach Bill Belichick avoided a question about Brady’s hand, and later added, “He had plenty of good throws today.”
“We’re obviously not doing a great job in a lot of areas on offense, so we’re trying to get it right, we’re working at it,” Brady said. “We know what we have to do, we just have to go out there and do it for 60 minutes.”
It would be unfair to blame Brady’s recent woes solely on a hand injury. His offensive line has been inconsistent, he’s still figuring out how to get on the same page with his new receivers, and he has been stubborn about throwing the ball away, taking several unnecessary coverage sacks.
“I’m not surprised given what’s going on here,” Wheeler said. “New guys, they’ve just been struggling. Today they struggled in some areas, but we couldn’t take advantage of it in the second half.”
But the injury — whatever it is — is obviously hampering Brady. He kept the hand protected in his front pouch in the huddle, only taking it out when he reached the line of scrimmage.
“It’s got to be affecting his play,” Zolak said during the radio broadcast. “There’s more to this Brady hand thing than we’ll ever know.”
But playing hurt is reality in the NFL. Brady’s hand looked relatively normal in his postgame news conference, and whatever is ailing him, it’s not affecting him enough to take him off the field.
And Brady bounced back from a horrid first half to lead the Patriots to 24 unanswered points in the second, although the defense forcing two turnovers certainly played a big role.
His stats would have been even better had Nate Solder not been busted for holding, wiping out a brilliant 30-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski.
“I think there’s a difference between being injured and being hurt,” receiver Austin Collie said. “No one in this league feels 100 percent healthy. You’re going to get banged up. But the guy, he definitely has some grit. With the injury that he has, and to make some of the throws he made today was pretty impressive.”
Despite Brady’s subpar numbers, some of the Dolphins defenders had nothing but positive words for his play.
“He played awesome,” Ellerbe said.
Awesome? Why awesome?
“He put the ball where it needed to be, he threw his receivers open,” Ellerbe said. “He just played like Tom Brady.”
Brady may be playing with a bad hand, and may be starting to show signs of age at 36, but he’s still mentally on top of his game. Leading, 20-17, in the fourth quarter, the lead-footed Brady saw a big hole in the zone and scrambled for 8 yards on fourth and 4. Six plays later, Stevan Ridley made the score 27-17, and the game was all but over.
“One thing about Tom, he’s a smart player, he knows when to run,” Belichick said. “As usual, a great decision by Tom. We know he’s not in there to run the ball, but sometimes it opens up like that and you can take advantage of it, and he did.”
The Patriots entered the day 20th in points and 16th in total offense.
They had 252 total yards Sunday, and have been held under 300 in three of their last four games.
Obviously, this isn’t the Patriots offense we expected to see this year, and something isn’t quite right with Brady. But football is a results business, and it’s hard to be too upset with Brady and the Patriots right now.
“I know a lot of people are frustrated, but to be 6-2 is not bad,” Brady said. “We’ll just try to win next week and get to 7-2.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.