The Return. The Second Coming. The Resurrection on Lake Erie. The Industrial Justice Revenge Tour.
Use whatever hyperbole you want, and then double it.
It’s time. Finally.
Tom Brady returns from his four-game Deflategate suspension Sunday when the Patriots take on the Browns.
It is the day that Brady can start thumbing his nose at Roger Goodell and the league office. The day the team can tell the league office where to stick its Wells Investigation and Article 46. The day Patriots fans have waited 21 excruciating months for.
“I love playing in New England, and I want to go out this week and make them all proud,” Brady said this past week on his paid appearance on Westwood One Radio.
Brady is now in his 17th NFL season, and we know what to expect from him leading up to the game. He spent as much time as NFL rules allow working with his receivers this past week, particularly newcomers Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan. He’s going to be calm and composed during warm-ups, then maniacal and emotional during pregame speeches.
But what can we expect from Brady once the ball kicks off? He’s 39 years old, hasn’t played a meaningful NFL snap since January, and was exiled from his teammates and coaches for four weeks. Brady has tried to manage his own expectations.
“It’s not as easy as flipping a switch,” he said. “There’s a lot of makeup time I’m going to need, and the chance to be on the field with my teammates to see what kind of rhythm I can find in a short week of practice.”
Brady’s reintegration into the Patriots’ offense was one of the most-discussed topics of the week across the NFL. Will Brady look like a four-time Super Bowl winner and two-time league MVP, or will he show signs of rust? No one really knows, and it seems to come down to a matter of opinion.
Charles Woodson, Brady’s teammate at Michigan, thinks Brady will throw for 335 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. Randy Moss, one of Brady’s receivers for three-plus seasons, thinks it will take Brady “two to three games” until he looks like himself.
Former Patriots executive Michael Lombardi said Brady “will be ready to go fast and furious.” Former quarterback Trent Dilfer thinks it will take a couple weeks for Brady and his receivers to perfect the nuances and timing of the offense.
Former quarterback Matt Hasselbeck watched video of Brady throwing with a receiver on TMZ, and that was all he needed to see.
“Just seeing the drills that he’s doing, those are advanced drills,” said Hasselbeck, now with ESPN. “If those are the drills that got picked up on video, then I know he’s working on the other stuff. Brady’s had so much continuity, and so much mastery of the offense, I don’t think he’ll be rusty at all. If it was anybody besides Tom Brady, I probably wouldn’t feel that way.”
Added former quarterback Trent Green, who is calling Sunday’s game for CBS: “I just have a hard time believing he’s going to come in rusty. I expect him to be able to jump right in and roll.”
Brady’s situation is mostly unprecedented — a star quarterback returning from a four-game suspension for conduct.
“I think this is a huge blessing in disguise,” said Hasselbeck, who played 17 seasons in the NFL. “He’s a -year-old quarterback, and he’s 100 percent healthy going into Week 5. Never in my career do I ever remember a Week 5 where I felt 100 percent.”
No one of Brady’s stature has ever been suspended. Michael Vick was suspended for a year, but he didn’t compare to Brady in terms of performance, accomplishments, and star power.
The only real parallel for Brady is two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger and his four-game suspension in 2010 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
The Steelers went 3-1 in his absence. They won their first three games without Roethlisberger, but lost the fourth at home. His first game back came against the Browns. (How’s that for a parallel?)
Roethlisberger said during his suspension he worked with his private coach, George Whitfield, four days a week. In the week leading up to the game, the Steelers extended individual drills in practice by 30 minutes to give Roethlisberger more work with his receivers.
Then came his season debut, a Week 6 game against the Browns (because of a bye the previous week). On his opening drive, Roethlisberger threw an interception to Joe Haden inside the red zone.
“I just got a little antsy,” Roethlisberger admitted after the game. “The ball was coming out what we call ‘hot,’ coming out high and strong.”
But he settled down after the first drive, and completed 16 of 27 passes for 257 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception as the Steelers rolled to a 28-10 win.
The Steelers went on to finish the 2010 season with a 12-4 record, and Roethlisberger led them to an appearance in the Super Bowl.
Yeah, Brady and the Patriots will take that.
Brady has been mostly private about the work he conducted during his suspension, declining to reveal anything before he left and eschewing his weekly news conference this past week in his return. But Brady did say on Westwood One that he’s “trying to replicate what I’d be doing during the normal course of the week.” That included working out four to five days per week and bringing in people “with bags to hit me and to be able to make throws with people chasing after you, and to work on my mechanics, keep my movement in the pocket, keep my drops fluid, all those things. It’s a lot of field work, a little bit in the gym, a lot of body work that I always get in order to keep my body really balanced.”
Wes Welker revealed that he and Brady had a workout before the Dolphins game three weeks ago. Videos emerged of Brady throwing a deep pass and working on his footwork at Dexter Southfield School in Brookline.
Brady lamented that he wasn’t able to watch as much film as he likes, but said he appreciated the different perspective of watching games on TV.
But Brady wasn’t all football during his suspension, either. He attended Fashion Week in New York and did several magazine interviews. He took his son to a Michigan game and played catch with Jim Harbaugh. He shot a commercial for Shields Healthcare, and jetted off to Italy with his wife for some Vitamin D.
“I’ve tried to be very positive about the experience,” Brady said of his suspension. “I feel like I’m at a good place.”
Now Brady is back, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the week of preparation was “going to be as normal as it could be.”
“But I also think there’s an acclimation period . . . that’s hard to simulate unless you’re playing football,” McDaniels said. “We’re going to . . . take every opportunity in practice and take advantage of all the reps that we have . . . to just make sure that Tom is as capable on Sunday to do his job.”
Bill Belichick on Friday cautioned about Brady working too much and trying too hard to get game-ready.
“I mean, that is the question. How much is too much? How do you get ready for the speed of the game when you haven’t been at the speed of the game?” Belichick said. “It’s trying to find that sweet spot for getting the player the best preparation you can. In all honesty, my experience with all of those players has been as time goes on they play better. Maybe their first game will be the best game, but most likely the third, fourth, fifth, sixth games will probably be better than the first.”
Few around the NFL expect Brady to have much trouble reconnecting with Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski (assuming he’s healthy), and Danny Amendola. But Brady might struggle initially with Hogan and Bennett, two players with whom he does not have any real game experience.
Green, who was in the NFL for 16 seasons, said Brady will benefit from the 55 snaps he played in the preseason against the Panthers and Giants. Brady was sacked twice and hit a couple other times in those games.
“I’d be more concerned if he didn’t have the reps that he had in the preseason games,” Green said. “When I got in preseason games, I liked getting hit a few times, because it was just getting back to getting used to being in the pocket. There’s nothing like standing in the pocket, knowing a guy’s about to take a shot on you, and you’ve got to step in and make the throw. I think it was important for him to get those snaps.”
One thing is certain, the Patriots’ offense will look “right” again. No more wildcat plays for Edelman or read-option runs for the quarterback. The handcuffs will be taken off the passing game, Brady will dictate the matchups at the line of scrimmage with “Rita” and “Alert.” Edelman and Gronkowski will be streaking across the middle.
And starting Sunday, Deflategate is completely in Brady’s rearview mirror.
“I’m not really looking to reflect at this point,” he said on Monday. “I haven’t played in four weeks. My teammates have been working their butts off, and that’s what they expect of me.”