FOXBORO, Mass. — It was natural for New England Patriots fans to be slightly anxious after Tom Brady’s three preseason appearances.
The legendary quarterback didn’t appear to be himself. Was he distracted by the Deflategate drama that forced him to miss practices and valuable preparation time? Or worse yet, was Father Time forcing another slow start to the season?
Brady wasn’t himself for the first four games of last season, too. As tight end Rob Gronkowski regained his health, Brady was completing just 59 percent of his passes. He began the season going 29 of 56 with 249 yards and one touchdown in a 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
When he went 10 of 22 for 107 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions this summer, it was time to wonder if a slow start to the season was the new norm for Brady. (Much like injury-ravaged end of the seasons now are typical for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.)
After the shaky preseason, the Deflategate drama and behind an uncertain offensive line featuring three rookies, it would have been natural for Brady to struggle Thursday night in the Patriots’ NFL Kickoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Well, he didn’t.
In fact, the complete opposite happened on the night the Patriots unveiled their fourth Super Bowl championship banner. Brady went 25 of 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots’ 28-21 win over the Steelers. At one point, he completed 19 consecutive passes, setting a franchise record — one of so many he holds 16 years into his Patriots career.
“It was a pretty special night,” Brady said. “I was excited. Our whole team was excited. We haven’t had one of these games in a long time, so it’s always fun being out there and getting the opportunity to go play. And we took advantage of it. Good win.
“I thought our guys played hard. Obviously, there were a lot of things we could do better, so we’re going to get back to work. We’ve got 10 days before we go up to Buffalo, and that’s always a tough place to play. So we’ve got a lot of studying ahead, and hopefully we’ll get a little rest this weekend and get back to work.”
It didn’t matter that Brady had an undrafted rookie snapping him the ball, two new starters at guard, a new third-down back and no Brandon LaFell. Brady took the field, rarely missed and dominated the Steelers’ defense in front of a Gillette Stadium crowd that just couldn’t get enough of their signal-caller’s perfect passes.
As recently as last Tuesday, Brady didn’t know if he would be playing in Weeks 1 through 5 of the regular season. Luckily for the Patriots, Brady’s not the kind of guy who prepares like he’s not playing. So, when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman overturned Brady’s suspension, the quarterback was ready.
“I worked with him a lot this offseason, and he’s the same old guy,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught 11 passes for 97 yards. “It just shows you how mentally tough he really is to be dealing with what he’s dealt with in the past and to be able to come out here and lead up. He’s always a firecracker.
“There’s one thing about him: Tom never has a down day. It’s good to have a leader like that. When you come into work, and you’re not feeling the greatest, but you see 12 over there — he’s been here 30 years pretty much — coming out here, practicing his tail off, preparing, watching film, all those things. That’s why he’s so good.”
It also helps to have dependable receivers like Edelman and Gronkowski, who caught five passes on eight targets for 94 yards and three touchdowns. Brady only failed to hit Edelman on one target, completing 91.7 percent of his passes to the diminutive receiver.
Brady faces another test next Sunday when the Patriots travel to play the Buffalo Bills. It’s so far, so good for the Patriots quarterback, who’s relieved to be back playing football, not sitting in a courthouse.
Thumbnail photo via Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports Images