FOXBOROUGH — By the time Tom Brady stepped to the postgame podium Thursday night, all the signs of on-field action had been rendered invisible. Brady was clean and in street clothes, jeans and a T-shirt, and sporting a camel-colored hat with a ribbon and a stiff brim. Such are the luxuries of life as a starting quarterback.
After sitting out the first two preseason games, Brady played in the third, a 10-3 win against the Carolina Panthers. He got the start and played three series, capping his night with an eight-minute, 15-play touchdown drive. Overall, he was 8 of 12 for 75 yards with no interceptions before Jarrett Stidham took over in the second quarter.
Brady was playing without Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, N’Keal Harry or Demaryius Thomas, his projected top four receivers, at his disposal. The only wideout he had a good connection going with was Phillip Dorsett, who caught 5 of 5 targets from Brady for 41 yards.
“Phillip is a guy that I’ve played a lot of football with and I have a lot of trust in,” Brady said. “Experience is a great thing in football if you use it well, and I think our experience together pays off. I read his body language.”
Brady and undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who impressed in the first two preseason games working with backups, had no success together. Meyers couldn’t snag any of his three targets from Brady and also was called for a hold that wiped out a long run by Sony Michel. One of the two targets wasn’t totally Meyers’s fault — Carolina cornerback James Bradberry made a great play to break it up — but the others were missed connections, notably one on third and 8 during New England’s first drive.
On that play, Meyers seemed to give up on his route and got a talking-to from Brady when they went to the sideline.
“I think for all of us, you play with guys that are maybe new to the offense and so forth, sometimes they think they’re not part of the route, and then a team plays a certain coverage and they’re part of the route,” Brady said. “Early in the season, that’s part of this time of year.”
Meyers said he didn’t find the exchange with Brady intimidating, but that it made an impression.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’m really getting yelled at by Tom Brady,’ ” Meyers said.
Brady also threw completions to running back Rex Burkhead and tight ends Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo, who hauled in a gorgeous 18-yard pass that brought the Patriots into the red zone on their third drive. Three plays later, fullback James Develin ran in the lone touchdown.
“It felt great,” said Izzo, who spent his rookie year in 2018 on injured reserve. “Tom throws a great ball, I was just happy I was able to make a play.”
That throw to Izzo was Brady’s last before turning the game over to Stidham, whose job was not to knock the rust off but to prove himself.
Reflective of that, Stidham’s situation postgame was not like Brady’s. A few minutes after he came off the field, having played the rest of the game, Stidham stood, sweaty in the locker room, still in his jersey. He wore no hat, but his hair was newly shaved as evidence of an annual rookie ritual. He was still smiling, happy the Patriots gave him the nod after Brady on a night when Brian Hoyer did not get in the game.
Stidham’s playing time doesn’t have to be a pure reflection of hierarchy. The Patriots know what they have in Hoyer and need to figure out what they have in Stidham. But the third preseason game is considered the most important because it’s the one where players further up the depth chart are expected to play the most.
“We do what we think is best for the team, take a look at everybody,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Brian has played a lot of football.”
Stidham was 15 of 19 for 134 yards with no interceptions. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long, a contributing factor in the five sacks he took, but is accurate, athletic, and poised. He said he’d focus on the sacks in film review.
“There’s definitely some things to learn from, whatever situation it is,” Stidham said. “That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to looking at tomorrow with the coaching staff and just learning how to handle that situation better.”
His connection with Meyers was strong. With Stidham in, Meyers caught 7 of 9 passes for 74 yards, a reflection of their better-developed chemistry, as well as the fact that Meyers was working against more backups than starters in Carolina’s defense as the game went on.
The offense could have been sharper overall — it scored only 10 points — and were punished by penalties. The takeaway, though, is not the result. If the third preseason game is considered a dress rehearsal for the regular season, the Patriots may just have put their lead and his understudy on display.