By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Tom Brady isn't just looking to win at an unforeseen level for a 41-year-old quarterback. He wants to do it his own way.
The future Hall of Famer is already in uncharted territory with the level of success he achieved at 40, and the historical competition only gets smaller at 41. But Brady is also having an unprecedented offseason, one in which he's likely to miss all 10 of the Patriots' organized team activities before training camp.
Brady is expected to finally make his first public appearance at Gillette Stadium for the Patriots on Tuesday, when players report to mandatory minicamp from June 5-7. And that's when he'll have his first on-field opportunity to show that he plans to continue playing at his typically otherworldly level, and he's going to do it through his own methods, on his own terms.
It's fair to wonder where he and Bill Belichick stand, considering that the quarterback appears to be actively avoiding work that involves interacting with the head coach. But he's not avoiding work altogether - he's just doing it at his preferred time, at a location of his choosing. In this case, the Patriots' indoor practice bubble less than a quarter-mile from the Gillette Stadium field, and specifically not at the same time as OTAs have gone on.
If Brady puts together another MVP-caliber campaign in 2018, if he looks like he still hasn't slowed down when he takes the field on Tuesday, will it really matter to any of us how he went about doing it? It does, for sure, matter to Belichick. But as the head coach said, what's important to him at the end of the day is winning. If Brady works his way, and it leads to another 12-14 wins with a berth in the AFC Championship Game, possibly the Super Bowl, would Belichick have an issue with what went on in May and June? Would an issue exist at that point?
Still, Brady and the Patriots remain a long way away from another playoff run deep into the winter. So while it may not end up hurting the team that they're without by far their most important player, the challenge still exists. It's a challenge that Brady is posing to himself, whether intentional or not.
Keep winning, and do it through his own process.
It goes without saying that Brady is treading rare ground as he barrels toward age 41. Like he just did in his age-40 season, which very nearly culminated in a sixth Super Bowl championship with his 505-yard passing clinic in Minneapolis, Brady will have a chance to absolutely obliterate the standard set by an extremely select few QBs in NFL history.
Only four times in the Super Bowl era has a quarterback age 41 or older started 10 or more games. Two of them came from Warren Moon, who represents the benchmark for the 41-year-old Brady to leapfrog. Moon is the major milestone in this category, posting an 83.7 passer rating in 1997 with the Seahawks. He posted a 7-7 record that season.
Here's all four:
So even if the "cliff" finally arrives for Brady, he will be in a good position to best those numbers after hitting the big 4-1. But more importantly, he would have done it while putting his work in anywhere other than Gillette Stadium.
And that particular location has become something of a ground-zero for whatever kind of issues continue to stew between the most successful quarterback-coach duo in NFL history. Brady had previously said he wanted to spend more time with his family in the offseason, which he has. But to be working out at Patriot Place, just not at the same time or place as the rest of the team, is a lot more telling than a trip to New York City or a racing event in Monaco.
For reasons that remain murky, Brady is choosing to periodically work out with Julian Edelman at the Empower Fieldhouse. Another since-repudiated report indicated that he and tight end Rob Gronkowski got treatment with Alex Guerrero at the TB12 Center, also within the confines of Patriot Place. Wherever Brady has been during Patriots OTAs, it hasn't been at the actual OTAs.
That may or may not be a problem to you. You may or may not view that as a dysfunctional way for the two most important figures on the football team to operate. But you most certainly can't deny that it's different. And it's a wild departure from the same player who said this about OTAs back in 2013:
"[Belichick] talks about, you think it's just an OTA in the spring time and it's not that important and all those things that probably could enter your mind. The truth is, this lays the foundation for the start of training camp and if you have a good training camp, it usually means a good start to the season. A good start to the season leads to good position entering the second half of the season. Everything ends up having some significance to it. You're not just out here running plays and going through different things that aren't going to mean anything. We're out here trying to get a lot of things accomplished."
This time, Brady is laying the foundation for 2018 his own way. For whatever reason, his way has entailed a total avoidance of the program Belichick has been running so far. To the point that Brady's reported sessions in the practice bubble have included stops to that building and that building only.
Ultimately, we're still talking about the greatest to ever play the position. A guy who has spent the past 18 seasons continually proving everyone wrong. And why can't he do it yet again?
But if you're among the reasonable, measured observers who is simply waiting until minicamp - perhaps waiting until January? - then you're operating on the expectation that Brady will show up to minicamp and perform at the same monolithic level he always does at practice.
Brady may yet be the same familiar Brady on Tuesday, but he'd better be. After spending all this time away from most of his teammates, especially the new ones, he'd better be on point. He'd better be in sync, with not just Edelman and Gronkowski but with newcomers like Jordan Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jeremy Hill. Hell, even rookies like Sony Michel and Braxton Berrios.
If he's not ... the questions will then shift to, well, what was he doing this whole time? What was the purpose? And it would be completely and utterly fair to ask. But at the same time, if Brady is as sharp as many are still expecting once his feet hit the Foxboro turf, it would only be fair to say that Brady's own methods are what work for him. And, by extension, for the team.
Does that mean Brady's putting himself above the Flying Elvis? Maybe. Would that undermine Belichick's message? Perhaps. But it can't be stressed enough that we're talking about a player who, if not for him, the Pats wouldn't be in Super Bowl LII in the first place, let alone able to keep up with the Eagles' 41-point barrage.
This entire Patriots offseason, one of the most bizarre and insufferable in the Brady-Belichick era, has been characterized by constant reporting on tension and dissent, particularly between the coach and QB. Whether or not you believe the stories, or the nature of whatever problems may exist, there's a plain reality unfolding in Foxboro.
Brady is getting ready for the season with his own personal approach. And it'll be up to him to prove that he can win, yet again, while doing it in the fashion he chooses. His career has been filled with challenges, and the newest one is self-inflicted.
It's up to you whether you want to bet against him one more time.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].