FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots lined up for pre-practice calisthenics Thursday morning, quarterback Tom Brady assumed his rightful position with the team's offense -- front and center.
Wes Welker and Randy Moss stood to his left, Kevin Faulk and Matt Light to his right. But the man of the moment was Brady, which frankly is how it was until he was sidelined by a season-ending knee injury in last year's opener against Kansas City.
For months, speculation swirled about Brady's recovery, with reports circulating that he was doing both better and worse than expected and people wondering if he would play again this season. Well, he will, though if the Patriots are to return to the top of the AFC East, he had better look better than he did at Thursday's practice.
On his first snap in team work, Brady threw out of the shotgun and launched a deep pass down the left sidelines for Moss. The ball was underthrown and fell incomplete. Backup Kevin O'Connell then stepped into the huddle and hit Greg Lewis with a deep shot over the middle, with Lewis making a diving catch.
"Ridiculous," Brady said of Lewis' reception.
He might have been describing any assessment of Thursday's hour-and-a-half practice, because no matter how bad or good Brady looked, it really doesn't matter. He has 3½ months to sharpen his passing, make adjustments and get used to new teammates like Lewis, Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor.
What matters now is that Brady is back where he belongs, quarterbacking the Patriots. Period.
"My body feels really good," he said afterward. "My arm feels good. I'm not completing as many passes as I want, but we haven't been out here very long.
"It's just about getting better every day. If you can do that and make continuous improvements over the course of weeks and months, you'll be a better player."
Brady doesn't need to be a better player. He just needs to be a better player than he was this week, and it doesn't take a Nostradamus to know that will happen. This is the guy who threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes the last time he played a complete season, for cripe's sake, and someone who has lost only one of his past 20 starts.
He is, quite simply, the best quarterback out there, and the Patriots go only as far as Tom Brady takes them. Yeah, they were 10-5 without him a year ago, but they didn't make the playoffs. Brady has taken them to four Super Bowls. So Brady's return to the team -- not his return to form -- is what matters here, which is why there were 96 members of the media and 16 TV cameras to document his first public appearance.
"Thank God the season's a few months away," Brady said. "We need the work. I need the work."
Of course, that's why they invented minicamp, OTAs and training camp. Eventually clubs get around to playing opponents, and it's only then that we can measure how much of Brady we get this season. Maybe it's all of him. Maybe it's more. Maybe it's less. All I know is that knee injuries -- especially knee injuries accompanied by infections -- are dicey, and we won't know about Brady until we see him play a game.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "I can sit here and tell you guys I'm going to play 'til I'm 80, but that doesn't matter. I'm going to try to do the best I can do and be the best leader and the best teammate and supporter of guys on the team -- something that I've always enjoyed doing. I'm just grateful to have that chance to be out here today, and I can't wait to get out and start playing games."
I can't, either, primarily so we can get a read on Brady and the Patriots. For now, what we know about Brady is what he says, and this is what he tells us:
• If there's a problem, it's only with the rust brought on by missing a season. There are no lingering effects from his injury, either with the knee or his mechanics. "Throwing's not the problem at all," he said. "At this point it's about getting back to football activities."
|Tom Brady concedes, 'I need the work,' after a workout that features more than a few incompletions. (AP)|
• He hasn't lost his hunger for football despite living a glamorous life off the field, one that includes marriage to one of the world's most famous models. "I'm someone who likes to put the work in," he said. "I know it looks glamorous at times. What I enjoy the most is playing football and being with my family, and those are kind of the things that I do. I'm excited to go out there and compete, and any chance I have to compete I love that, whether it's on the practice field or the game field."
• He doesn't dwell on the hit by Bernard Pollard that cost him a season. "I think," he said, "you wake up the next day and ask, 'Was that a dream?' because that was not how I thought it was going to go. I had never been injured, and then that passes with me pretty quick. I don't dwell on it. I just go, 'That sucks, now what do we have to do?' ... I think I felt bad for myself that night, but I moved on after that. Since then it's about trying to get better. There is nothing you can do, so you find ways to move on. I'm grateful to be out here; to have the chance to play is something I've always wanted to do my entire life -- and I had an opportunity to do it for nine years."
• Contrary to reports, his wife is not expecting a child, although Brady did mention "children" when speaking of his family. Pressed if that meant a second child is on the way (he has a son by Bridget Moynahan), he paused before saying it did not. "No," he said. "One is enough. I've got dogs, and that's all I need."
What New England fans need is assurance that Brady will be the quarterback he was the last time they saw him play. That, folks, is something neither he nor the club can answer now. But the signs are encouraging. The club traded away a backup who won 10 starts a year ago, and Brady is on the field this week throwing again to Moss and Welker.
"I feel as good as I can possibly feel," he said. "I don't think about [the knee], and it doesn't bother me in anything I do."
I'd call that a good start.