Brady comeback as much mental as physical

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Only the most discerning eye could notice the faint trace of a limp as Tom Brady(notes) finished one of his post-practice sprints this week during New England Patriots minicamp.

By all accounts, Brady looks pretty darn healthy and ready to reclaim his spot as the best quarterback in football, the man who is a miracle catch by the New York Giants' David Tyree(notes) away from having four Super Bowl rings and a perfect season.

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Brady is still trying to get a handle on things.
(Stephan Savoia/AP Photo)

Brady even highlighted his week by jogging to catch a long pass from wide receiver Randy Moss(notes). Don't expect a gadget play with Brady actually running a pattern during the season, but the moment did show that Brady is feeling plenty spry.

The problem is that regaining agility and comfort are only part of the equation. Brady can throw all the passes and do all the little movements in the pocket that he wants, but his successful recovery also will depend on what's in his head.

Brady is a quarterback who feasts on that blink-of-an-eye moment before defenders hit him, an expert in allowing plays to develop as much as possible before delivering one of his absurdly accurate throws. It's one of the reasons that the Patriots are so good at running the many spread-formation, minimum-protection plays that Bill Belichick has picked up from his years of watching good friend and Florida coach Urban Meyer.

The unanswerable question for Brady and the Patriots is this: How will Brady react when bodies start flying for real and, inevitably, start landing to close to his repaired knee – particularly when some team or player tests his nerve intentionally? As ugly as it might sound, there's going to be a time when some defensive lineman or linebacker goes low for Brady, taking a shot not just at Brady's body, but his mind as well.

While the NFL refined the rules on low hits at the quarterback this offseason, don't underestimate the willingness of defensive players to test the limits of both the rule and the will of their opponents.

Veteran running back Fred Taylor(notes), who signed with New England in the offseason, said he has dealt with that throughout his career when he has come back from injury.

"You get grabbed and pulled and twisted, whatever the defensive guys can do to you, see what you'll take," Taylor said. "It's all part of the game."

In 2006, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) came back from a knee injury suffered in the playoffs the previous season. Early in the season, defensive players would often go low after Palmer to test his willingness to stand in the pocket.

"Oh yeah, that definitely happened. You could see that [Palmer] wasn't real comfortable back there," an AFC defensive lineman said. "Is that cheap? Maybe. Like I said, I don't do it and I don't like it, but it happens."

While New England defensive players such as Adalius Thomas(notes) and Tedy Bruschi(notes) denied any knowledge of such actions, left tackle Matt Light(notes) said he understood that not everybody is honorable in the NFL.

"Yeah, it's out there, it definitely could happen," Light said. "Not everybody is playing clean … but those things tend to get policed."

In short, if someone wants to test Brady's mettle, the Patriots will be watching. However, all the policing doesn't matter much. At the end of the day, this is all about Brady's ability to hang in and take the punishment that goes with the game.

"The reality is in this sport, you really never know … any day could be your last day in football," Brady said in May. "You come out and it's a very physical game and I think you're just grateful for having a chance to compete in practice and be on a team and having a great job."

For his part, Light said all a player can do in this situation is put the injury out of his mind.

"Whenever I've had some injury I've had to rehab from, you just trust that everything is fixed the way it's supposed to and you go out and play," Light said. "You don't worry about whether somebody is going to attack it or not. You just play. That's all you can do. If you're thinking about it, you're in trouble."