FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady will be 36 Saturday, an age when most NFL veterans who are lucky to make it this far think about taking it easy during training camp, or skipping the first few weeks altogether.
The Falcons are allowing Tony Gonzalez, 37, to take all the time off he needs this camp as long as he’s ready for Week 1. And who can forget Brett Favre’s constant waffling at the end of his career, due almost entirely to his hatred of training camp?
Brady, though, has been forced to take the opposite approach this season.
Brady’s attendance in the Patriots’ offseason program had slipped in recent years, as he has morphed into more of a family man and worldwide icon, but this offseason was different.
Brady stayed in town this spring and put in time with his new teammates, earning one of 10 offseason MVP awards on Wednesday. Last week, he reported to training camp four days early, along with the rookies.
Brady didn’t suddenly rediscover a love of conditioning drills.
He knew that for the Patriots to be successful this season, he better start working with his new cast of receivers, who lack experience.
“I’m just willing to do whatever it takes,” he said.
Of the 12 receivers in Patriots camp, six are rookies, including two expected to make a big impact this year — second-rounder Aaron Dobson and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce. The veterans are also new – Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins, the only receiver over 30. Among the receivers running with the starters during camp are undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and former practice squad receiver Kamar Aiken, who look like decent bets to stick on the active roster.
The Patriots have never had a younger and less experienced group at receiver since Brady took over in 2001. The top nine receivers in camp – that also includes Matthew Slater, Lavelle Hawkins, and an injured Julian Edelman – average 25.78 years old, with 4.22 years of NFL experience.
The Patriots only will keep six receivers at most on the roster, so if and when Jenkins, Hawkins, or maybe even Edelman (doubtful) are cut, those numbers will come down even more.
For the first 13 years of his career, Brady always had a trusty veteran wide receiver to rely upon.
In 2001, he had nine-year veteran Troy Brown, eight-year vet Charles Johnson, and fifth-year veteran David Patten as his targets and mentors.
As the decade progressed and those veterans moved on, he had Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Jabar Gaffney, who each arrived in New England as polished, finished products. Last year’s group had an average age of 28.5 with 6.83 years of experience.
But when Brady walks into the wide receiver meeting room this season, he can’t help but feel like an old man. He’s 15 years older than Dobson, who may be an opening day starter.
Brady said he finds it easy to get upset at his young new teammates when they make a mistake, and he must remind himself to be patient.
“I don’t want to be a grumpy old guy,” he said. “I understand there’s a learning curve and there’s a patience. I think you try to let them know though, that there’s an urgency about it, so it’s not like you can afford mistakes.”
The young receivers “have been really willing to come in here and learn and take to the coaches and listen and take hard criticism, so to speak,” Brady added. “Because when you’re a young player, when you’re a veteran player, you don’t get it all right. Everyone needs the reps.”
Yes, Brady too, even entering his 14th season, with three Super Bowls, two MVPs, and 44,806 passing yards.
Brady can’t afford to save his arm for the regular season. He needs to get on the same page as Amendola, Dobson, Boyce, Jenkins and the rest of the new crew right away.
“Yesterday was a two-hour, 45-minute practice, and we ran 130 plays or something like that,” Brady said. “That’s how you get better playing football. To actually be able to go out and do it.”
The one bright spot in the receiver room so far has been Amendola, who is clearly the most polished receiver on the field. If he can play 16 games like Welker always did, there’s little reason to think he can’t top 100 catches this season.
“He’s a very good receiver,” coach Bill Belichick told Sirius XM in a rare moment of public praise. “He can play outside, play inside. He can run after the catch, has returned kicks. Has good ball skills. Good concentration. Tough kid. We’re excited to have him and we’ll see how it all fits together. I know the quarterbacks are gaining a lot of confidence in his route-running and catching ability.”
And Brady said the youngsters have shown good football smarts thus far.
“We have a pretty smart group of guys. That’s been a positive,” Brady said. “It’s hard to exist in this program if you’re not a smart player.”
By all accounts, the “Favre way” of skipping training camp and saving his body for the regular season is not for Brady.
“That’s probably a contradiction to the way he looks at training camp,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He has such a youthful enthusiasm about himself and the way he goes about his day and training camp each day, that reminds me of when he was younger every time I see him.”
“He hasn’t lost his passion for the game. He’s out there early, he’s staying late, he’s doing extra, he’s really engaged with our group on offense – whether it’s the linemen or the skill positions. [And] he’s extremely coachable, which I think for a player that has achieved a lot of the things he’s achieved individually and as a leader of this team, I think that’s really a neat thing for me to experience.”