Wednesday September 3rd, 2014

The New England Patriots open their season in Miami Sunday afternoon, and while betting on sports is always risky, here are two sure things:

- Tom Brady will sleep well the night before the game, knowing he has prepared.

- And he will sleep poorly the night after the game, as he replays it in his head.

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This is how it is with Brady, week after week in his Hall of Fame career. Sleep well before, toss and turn after -- whether his team wins or loses. It says something about him. It is as though the process of preparing to win completes him, and the games unravel him a bit, no matter what happens. Then he completes himself again for six days, only to unravel a bit again.

There is nobody in American sports quite like Brady. He is 37, entering his 15th season in the league, his 13th as a starter (Brady injured his knee in Game 1 of the 2008 season, sidelining him for the entire year), and he has been one of the most valuable players in the NFL that whole time. So has Peyton Manning, of course. The difference with Brady is that he won so much early -- three Super Bowls in his first four seasons as a starter -- and has came achingly close almost every year since, but his team hasn’t finished the job.

The cumulative effect is like a cruel joke. Brady wins more than anybody else -- but, because he has won so much, the wins mean less to him than to anybody else.

“It’s Super Bowl or bust,” said his father, Tom Brady Sr., and this would be a headline if it were attached to any other organization, but it is just a fact of life for the Patriots. “Goodness ... better than 75 percent of the games he’s played, he’s won [his career record is 148-43]. There’s not been anybody else in the league since Otto Graham that can say that. He has a pretty high standard, as does [Bill] Belichick, as does Robert Kraft.”

Brady often says he loves football. But this does not mean football is fun for him. Satisfying, sure. Rewarding. Challenging. Even invigorating. But fun? No.

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Early in Brady’s career, the Patriots won 21 straight games. What a streak that was. It ended on Halloween in 2004. The Patriots lost to the Steelers, 34-20, to fall to 6-1. That night, Brady told his father, “We don’t know if we’ll ever win another game.”

He is too committed to achieving to truly have fun. Do you remember the old, worn-out line about Brett Favre? He’s like a kid out there! Well, nobody ever says that about Brady. Not anymore, anyway.

“I know when the seasons have ended and they [the Patriots] haven’t been on the podium, that hasn't been too easy to digest,” Brady Sr. said. “He takes it hard. He takes it darn hard -- some years a little harder than others. But they expect to reach the pinnacle, and if they don’t, they don’t look at it as a success.”

Nobody sees the whole world; we see what’s around us, and it skews perspective. Brady surely knows he is lucky to live the life he lives, compared to most of the world, and even if he only compares himself to other quarterbacks, even other elite quarterbacks, he surely feels fortunate to have the career he has had. But he can’t really separate himself from the man he was on Feb. 3, 2008, when Eli Manning tossed a seemingly desperate pass in the air to David Tyree.

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At that moment, Tom Brady was 30 years old, with three Super Bowl rings and a fourth apparently on the way, and if you had elbowed your buddy at that time and said “Hey, betcha that Brady wins six Super Bowls,” your friend probably would have hesitated. Six Super Bowls seemed reasonable then, even likely.

Of course, Tyree made the Helmet Catch, the Giants won, Brady tore up his knee in the first quarter of the next season, and the Pats haven’t won the Super Bowl since. Brady can point to the Tyree catch, the wild Colts comeback the year before, a missed connection with Wes Welker in another Super Bowl against the Giants, and think about titles lost. And yes, he could also look to the famous Tuck Game, the three tight Super Bowl wins, and realize he is fortunate to have three rings. But great athletes do not become great by saying “Gee, I am so fortunate.” This is not how a competitor’s mind works.

In America, the fortunate can retire young. Brady told Boston radio station WEEI this week that he plans to retire “when I suck ... I don’t plan on sucking for a long time.” His father said: “Virtually everything he does in his life is to prepare him to play. He will miss it like his right arm when they take his cleats away. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 44, 45 years of age or more [when he retires].” That sounds crazy, but quarterbacks don’t get hit like they once did. This generation of passers could last longer than any other.

* * *

Derek Jeter has had a similar career to Brady -- a slew of early championships, almost universal admiration from his peers -- but a shortstop does not influence a game like a quarterback. After every loss, Brady can wonder about a missed read, a bad pass, a check at the line of scrimmage that would have made the difference.

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Brady has been a far better player in the last 10 years than he was when his team won those three Super Bowls. His last title year was the 2004 season. He has put up his five best passer ratings since 2004. All six of his 4,000-yard seasons have come since then.

Last season was typical of recent Patriots teams. Brady threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns with an anonymous, inexperienced receiving corps. New England finished 12-4 and made the AFC title game, but it always felt like a long shot to actually win the championship. Denver’s methodical 26-16 win over the Patriots in January felt predictable. Even if the Pats had pulled off the upset that day, they would have had to beat the Seahawks (or the 49ers, if you want to rewrite history a bit more) in the Super Bowl, and who would have liked New England’s chances in that one?

This was not Brady’s fault. It was not anybody’s fault. The Pats had a great season by any measurement but their own; they have had an incredible decade by any standard except the one they set.

Maybe this year will be different. If new acquisition Darrelle Revis is healthy, he is one of the top three cornerbacks in the NFL, and the kind of strategy-changing player that Belichick can employ masterfully. The Patriots traded Logan Mankins after a long and impressive career in New England (a sign of the Pats’ Super Bowl drought: Mankins never won one), but Belichick usually wins these trades, and tight end Tim Wright could join Rob Gronkowski to give the Patriots dynamic, multidimensional players in the middle of the field.

Then there is Brady. Critics wonder if he has slipped, but you don’t hear many people in the NFL who want to face him. He spends more of his offseason with his family now, but he keeps himself in great shape, and if anything, his intensity in the fall has increased. He is driven to win that fourth Super Bowl --  not just because it has eluded him for so long, but because he has always been driven to win whatever he could.

His father happened to watch a recent Patriots practice. Brady was running sprints with the team. Brady is incredibly nimble -- that is probably his most underappreciated trait. He can sidestep a pass rusher and fire a pass on target as well as anybody. He is great at quarterback sneaks on 4th-and-1. But at longer distances, he has always been slow -- almost comically slow. At Michigan, the slowest offensive linemen would challenge him to races. Brady ran a 5.28 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine. To get an idea of how slow that is: 346-pound Dontari Poe ran a 4.98.

So he was running sprints in this practice, and his father thought: Wow. He looks faster than he ever has.

Afterward, Tom Sr. told his son: “Hey, you’re pretty fast.”

And Tom Jr. said: “I oughta be. I’m working at it every day.”

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