Brady knows he has to be better
Tom Brady knows that to win a fourth Super Bowl ring he's going to have to have his best season in the NFL.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Under one of those perfect New England summer skies you read about in a beach novel, Bill Belichick blew the whistle and Tom Brady responded like a rookie, sprinting across the practice field well ahead of his teammates.
The last time we saw Brady -- in the divisional round of the playoffs in Denver -- the Broncos unceremoniously had ended the long opening act of his career, handing Brady and Belichick their first playoff loss together.
"I've got to have my best year," said Brady. "I need to lead better. I need to be a better example. I need to execute better. I've got to complete more passes. There were a lot of deep passes down the field that I didn't hit last year."
Hold on a minute. Last season, Brady led the NFL with a career high 4,110 passing yards, which is second in franchise history. He says he's got to cut down on his interceptions, but his passer rating was 92.3 in 2005, just a shade under his career high of 92.6 in 2004.
So, what's he talking about?
Well, Brady might be realizing that if the Patriots are going to regain championship form, it's more and more about him. Willie McGinest fled to Cleveland. Tedy Bruschi is now out with a broken wrist -- after missing much of last season recovering from a stroke. Rodney Harrison is coming back from a knee injury.
Running back Corey Dillon says he's rejuvenated, but last year injuries robbed him of his hallmark wire-to-wire consistency. Knowing that Dillon will turn 32 in October, Belichick drafted a running back (Laurence Maroney of Minnesota) in the first round -- the first time he's taken a back in Round 1 since 1992 when he was head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
And, the team's No. 1 wide receiver, Branch -- the only other guy besides Brady to be a Super Bowl MVP during this Patriots' run -- is at home in a contract holdout dispute that Brady wants ended, now.
Since the start of camp, Brady has expressed frustration with Branch's absence -- and it sounded like it might have been directed at the Patriots' brain trust -- Belichick, team personnel guru Scott Pioli and owner Robert Kraft.
But Brady said emphatically on Tuesday that is not the case. He said he's still talking to or text messaging Branch nearly every day. And lately, Brady says, he's been urging him to come into camp and perhaps the contract impasse will get worked out.
"I say, 'Deion, come here man, come here and see what happens!" said Brady.
There are those around Branch who say he's ready to sit out well into the season to get what he wants. But Brady hopes that his recent pleading will change Branch's mind.
"I'm confident that he'll be here," said Brady. "I mean these things have gotten worked out. They worked out with Richard Seymour last year."
But Seymour -- more than any other player on defense -- defines the Belichick philosophy of football. You read David Halberstam's brilliant book about Belichick, "The Education of a Coach," and it's right there in bold print: The key to Parcells-Belichick football is stopping the run.
Nevertheless, with Dillon and the running game a constant unknown, Brady was throwing the ball all over the yard last year. And this week, the wide receivers who lined up with Tom Terrific and the first team were first-year player Kelvin Kight and Reche Caldwell, who was a disappointment in four seasons with San Diego, catching just 76 passes in 47 games.
"I think getting up to speed with Reche, the new tight ends, Dave Thomas and Garrett Mills, these guys I think really need to get out there and really we need to grow together," said Brady. "We haven't had our group out there yet, and that's been frustrating for me because the guys we want to take to the game, the guys we want to play with, Troy Brown, Ben Watson, we got to have everybody out there to see what we got."
Brady said that he split time on both coasts -- relaxing in California with his family and enjoying himself in New York City -- this offseason. But he also spent a lot of time working with young offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who charted every one of Brady's deep passes and looked for flaws in Brady's nearly flawless mechanics.
"He called me up in the offseason one day and he goes 'God, I want you to watch this tape,' and we watched what I think [were] the 37 deep balls we threw, the balls down the field 30 yards or more," said Brady. "And he said 'Just take a look.' The ones we completed were better mechanics. And I went back and I worked with people that I basically learned to throw the football from, some coaches of mine and I think that's been a big improvement."
So what was the problem?
"Well, there's certain issues with footwork, in my passing mechanics -- where I'm placing my front foot and how I keep my shoulder closed when I throw, and finishing my deep throws instead of releasing it and feeling like the ball can really never turn over," said Brady.
"Problem was I'd throw it deep and I think I got it, make a good throw and the ball would be overthrown by two yards, and I'd say, 'How did that happen?'" Brady said. "Well, the ball would never turn over and it would just sail through the receiver and he'd thought he had it timed up, but the ball would never drop. So now I think I'm finishing the throws and the ball is actually coming down on a much better arch and we've completed more deep balls in this preseason in the last 13 practices than we have probably in all of training camp last year. So, I'm excited to see how it works on the field and under game situations. That could be a good thing, because we got a lot of guys -- guys with good speed here -- we got guys who can get down the field and if we can hit some of those passes, it's gonna be a great thing for our offense."
At the beginning of camp, Belichick held Brady out of three practices. There was speculation that it was Brady protesting how Branch was being treated. Not true. More speculation about his knees, about his arm. The most likely explanation: Belichick is keeping an eye on Brady's throwing arm, which has flared up from time to time in his career.
Above a wristband that he wears at the top of his right forearm, Brady wears a thin black band, above the bend of the elbow where a tennis player would wear a brace for tennis elbow. But that's it. And in practice, his ball looks like it has as much zip as it's ever had.
"There ain't nothing wrong with that arm," says Dillon. "He goes out there and performs and he performs well. I don't see nothing different. Sometimes I catch myself seeing him in action instead of doing what I need to be doing. I'm watching him. That's how smooth he is. I've played with a lot of quarterbacks, and this guy is the truth."
And you get the sense -- from listening to Brady and hearing the tone of his voice -- that is what you're going to get from Brady this season. He's won three Super Bowls. He's the unequivocal leader of a football team trying to re-write history. And he's got a few more dramatic chapters to write.
"Coach Belichick, he has some high expectations for us and he's not giving us any breaks this year," said Brady. "We haven't had one break this spring. His demands have been pretty high. He wants to create a tough, physical environment here and the people on this team are gonna be mentally, physically tough players."
Beginning with Tom Brady.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.
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