FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady’s NFL life has mostly been a charmed one. He found a football soulmate in Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and the two have been a formidable pair over the last 14 years, winning the AFC East with almost unfair regularity, and then there are the three Super Bowl wins in five appearances.
Brady and Belichick would be quick to tell you that none of it has been easy, despite appearances to the contrary.
But this season has been especially challenging for the two-time league most valuable player. His favorite target and close friend Wes Welker left for Denver, one tight end, Aaron Hernandez, is behind bars, and another Rob Gronkowski, rehabbed, returned, and then was lost to injury again.
In their place, Brady was given a free agent receiver with an injury history in Danny Amendola, three rookie wideouts in Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Kenbrell Thompkins, tight ends who have been bit players throughout their careers, and one familiar face: Julian Edelman.
Only Edelman was on the field for all 16 regular-season games. The week-to-week carousel of who was and wasn’t available only complicated the process of a quarterback and his receivers getting on the same page.
There were struggles from the start, with Brady looking not himself at points, while at others it was clear growing pains were to blame. He entered the season with a career completion percentage of 63.7, but didn’t connect on even half of his passes in three of the first seven games.
Throughout, however, Brady still put the Patriots in winning situations: There were five fourth-quarter comebacks, including the opener in Buffalo.
On Friday, Brady agreed to a one-on-one interview at his locker after the Patriots wound down their bye week of work, with a number of topics touched upon:
Are you happy with the progress the team made this week?
“Yeah. I think [as Belichick said] it is important for us to not — other teams are working and getting better this week. We’re not playing a game but that doesn’t mean we still can’t get better, and they did a good job of finding a lot of things that we could do better. And then [we] went out there and practiced it, got a day yesterday in the snow, which was good, covered a lot of things today that we haven’t had a chance to cover in a long time.
“There’s a lot of things that could come up in the next couple weeks, and it could be 100 different situations but you have to cover them all, but you don’t know which two are going to come up. So, we do a pretty good job trying to stay on top of those things.”
When did you realize that this team had the mental toughness it does? You never know when you see these new faces come in, so when did you realize that there was a good composition here?
“Ultimately, it comes down to winning and losing, so you have 16 games to figure out whether you’re a winner or loser, and I think you always are trying to be a winner, so you’ve got to — it’s not like in Week 2 you determine that, you really have to play it all out and at the end of the year you go, ‘OK, well what was this team, what was the identity of this team? Did we quit when it got hard? Did we quit when the weather got crappy? Did we quit when we were down in the fourth quarter? Did we persevere through some tough situations? Did we persevere through some injuries? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses?’
“And I think there’s a whole 16 weeks to determine those strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully now that we’re going into the most important time of the year, we’re playing to our strengths.”
Are you confident, from what you’ve seen, that this team has enough toughness?
“Yeah, we just have to play the way we’re capable. And I don’t think there’s a lack of confidence about any of the situations that we’ve been in, but you don’t want to put yourself in situations where you’re down 24 points either, you know?
“But if we are, we’ve gotten to have confidence that we can come back and execute enough plays to win the game. So, it’s been . . . it’s been a lot for us to learn from, a lot to grow from, now you get to see what it’s all about. All the teams — there’s 12 teams in it right now, so everyone’s got a whatever percent chance to win, not much, the more you win the better chance you have. But 11 of the 12 teams are going to be disappointed at the end of the year.”
We’ve heard about you spending time on Tuesdays and having the receivers come in and working with them. Was that normal? Or have you done more teaching this year because of all the new faces?
“I think we’ve had a lot of younger players over the year contribute, whether running backs like Brandon Bolden or LeGarrette [Blount], who’s a new player to our team, and then you have the younger receivers, and you have [Matthew] Mulligan who came in, D.J. Williams is new, so whatever opportunities we have to communicate what we need to do, that’s going to help us win, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. I don’t think we’ve gotten to a point where we say, ‘Look, we’ve got everything covered.’ I think there’s always trying to find ways to make the improvements that we need to make.”
Knowing you, I’m sure there’s never been a point in any season where you’ve said, ‘OK, we’re good.’ But has there been more on your plate, maybe more frustrations for you this season?
“I would say, for me, there’s always lots of pressure to do the right thing. It’s just the way it is at this position. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy for all of us, for many months of the year, to get to this point. The days off you try to conserve as much energy as you can, and after you have a weekend like this, we’ve earned a bye, you have to try to take advantage of it.
“Those are the things I try to talk about to the younger players, like this isn’t the time to plan your trip to Jamaica. This is still football season and we’re working hard to try to win this next game. That’s what we’ve got to do. Whatever you need to do to put yourself in this position, I think that’s where maybe some leadership of veteran players can come in handy because you say, ‘Guys, we’ve got a great opportunity and we have to do everything we can to take advantage of it.’ Like I said, 11 of the 12 teams are going to be unhappy here in four weeks.”
The beginning of the season, looking at your numbers, they weren’t what we’re used to seeing. How much of that was you and how much of that was getting on the same page with all of the new receivers?
“I would say the quarterback relies on everybody, and that’s when we do great and that’s when we don’t do as great, or we do less than what we’re capable of. And I think the role of the quarterback is always to figure out, make good judgments on the field, and because we touch the ball a lot, we’ve got a lot of opportunity to impact the game.
“If the quarterback plays bad, it’s hard to win. It’s just the nature of the position. So ultimately you just try to do your best to help the team win games, and I don’t think it’s as much of, did I throw for so many yards or so many touchdowns [as it is], how did I play and how did that help impact the team based on the situations that we’re in? You know, it’s just different, I think, than like an individual, a baseball hitter, and it’s you against the pitcher. Football is not like that. And that’s probably why I love the game so much, because we go out and it’s Week 17 today and we’re still talking about ways to be on the same page, so the more we’re on the same page, the better we’re going to be.
“That takes a lot of mental energy and that’s why a guy like Julian has done so well, he’s been able to sustain it, and the young receivers have shown a lot of mental toughness, the tight ends have shown a lot of mental toughness. We had some things that didn’t go our way this year, but you know, so have a lot of other teams. But we still have to find ways to persevere and win.”
Has there been anything this season that has surprised you?
“I mean, the amount of times that we’ve come back, that’s really unique. It’s hard to do. When you put yourself up against . . . when your back’s against the wall and to pull our way out of it like we did on a number of occasions is pretty amazing. And really, we had a chance to do it a few other times, too. So, that’s been one of the coolest parts about the year.”
Did you have even a moment after the win against the Broncos where you think, ‘How the heck did we pull that off?’ There’s coming back against a team like the Browns, who don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback, and there’s coming back from 24-0 down against a quarterback that you have so much respect for like Peyton Manning.
“I know why we got down, 24-0 — you wish we would start making the plays that we’re capable of so we’re not in that position. It’s not the ideal situation to put yourself in. But I think the cool part is this team really rallied and it wasn’t like we were up against something that we really couldn’t do or couldn’t accomplish.
“And the same thing against Cleveland. Cleveland had one of the better defenses that we’ve faced all year. They played their butts off, they made some diving interceptions and great plays. It took a lot for us to turn the momentum, and once we got it, to make the plays at the end. Each of the games has really an individual aspect to it. Different guys have really played different parts in different games. Shane [Vereen] in the Browns game, LeGarrette in the Buffalo game, [Austin] Collie made some plays in the Saints game, Julian’s made plays all year, Dobson made a bunch of plays in the Pittsburgh game, K.T. [Thompkins] made plays against Tampa.
“So it’s like every week it’s been someone different, and I think that’s what Coach talked about, you know, that no one really knows who it’s going to be, and that’s why you all have to be prepared, and whoever is on the roster — and don’t even talk about the defensive guys, because they’re handling their own stuff — but whoever it’s going to be that week, the whole team is counting on you. It’s really been a team that’s shown we can all come together, we all have mental toughness, and Coach has done a great job preparing us and getting us ready.”