FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The words came out of Tom Brady's(notes) mouth before he could process their impact. Hilarity ensued – though not for a good 45 minutes, until a New England Patriots training-camp practice was over and the exacting quarterback had gotten over his hissy fit.
In retrospect, the fact that he called his offensive linemen a bunch of fat cows during a walkthrough last week is pretty amusing, though five people in particular might disagree.
"Yeah, I know – it wasn't my finest moment," Brady said Tuesday night. "I got a little heated, and I was surprised that came out of my mouth. Someone said to me later, 'Tom, did you really call us fat cows in the huddle?' I started laughing. But at the time, it wasn't funny."
Brady, a man who once consented to doing a national credit-card commercial with the stipulation that his offensive linemen be included in the spot, has no lingering beef with the dudes who protect him from menacing defenders. Yet the quarterback who led New England to three Super Bowl championships last decade enters his 11th season with an unprecedented sense of urgency, and if he has to prod his teammates like, well, cattle, so be it.
A week past his 33rd birthday, nearly two years removed from reconstructive knee surgery and 30 months since his dreams of an unprecedented 19-0 season and fourth Super Bowl ring got squashed by the Giants on a surreal Arizona night, Brady has no patience for anything less than flawlessness.
He enters the season amid a backdrop of uncertainty – over his contract, which expires after the 2010 campaign (more on that in a moment) – and over his sport's immediate future, with the looming specter of an owner-initiated work-stoppage as early as next spring.
And Brady, for all the goodwill he has built up in the locker room over the years, isn't playing around.
"It's just so hard to win," he says. "It doesn't just happen. As you get older, you realize that, and you try to convince the young guys. You've got to pay the price."
During joint workouts Tuesday afternoon with the defending champion Saints, who face the Pats in a preseason game Thursday night, Brady got chippy once more. On one play Saints defensive end Will Smith(notes) came off the edge and swatted the ball out of Brady's extended passing arm just before the point of release (and no, Raiders fans, the Tuck Rule was not applied). Brady angrily kicked at the ball despite the fact that New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) was within inches of the pigskin.
Later, Brady had another pass batted down by Smith, and he took another frustrated kick at the ball after it bounced off the grass.
"The level of intensity's up a little bit for all of us, and there's definitely a heightened sense of concentration on my end," Brady says. "You expect a certain level of execution, and when it isn't there, yeah, I get pissed off."
In truth, Brady has always been a perfectionist, but things haven't gone as smoothly for him in the second half of his career as they did in his amazing first act. Heading into Super Bowl XLII against the Giants in February 2008 in the wake of a record-setting regular season, Brady had already cemented his status among the sport's all-time greats. He had just won his first league MVP award and seemed destined to match or surpass Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as four-time champions.
Then he lost a Super Bowl and, the next time he played a game that mattered, tore up his left knee after taking a hit from Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard(notes) in the '08 opener. He returned with a flourish last season, completing 371 of 565 passes (65.7 percent) for 4,398 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In the process he earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection and the Associated Press' Comeback Player of the Year award.
Yet while the Patriots won another AFC East title last season, they looked old and flaccid at times – most notably during a 33-14 first-round playoff defeat to the Ravens at Gillette Stadium. There was talk of a leadership void in the locker room, especially given the absence of departed defensive stalwarts like Rodney Harrison(notes), Willie McGinest(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes), Mike Vrabel(notes) and Richard Seymour(notes). Players, coaches and executives around the league also questioned the Pats' talent level, suggesting that coach Bill Belichick, for all his game-planning brilliance, no longer fields an elite roster.
Brady, for what it's worth, rolls his eyes at the notion that the Pats, from a physical perspective, are overmatched.
"I don't think we ever take the field thinking, 'Oooh, this team is pretty good. I don't think we can win this game,' " Brady says. "Trust me. Our attitude has been, and is, we're pretty good at what we do, and if we go out and execute we've got a good chance to be successful.
"Whatever happened last year with our team will have absolutely no bearing on what we do this year. That's the way it works. There is no carryover. None. Some of the Saints asked me about the challenge of repeating and what worked for us [in 2004]. I said, 'Our team was better the next year.' It was that simple. The team that's going to win the Super Bowl this year is the best team in the league.
"Believe me – predictions, everyone's got them, but they have no bearing on winning and losing. The only people who I really care what they think are the guys I play with. And we're going to have a good football team."
As for whether Brady will have a new, lucrative contract before the start of the regular season – well, it's complicated. Two months ago I wrote of a "growing sense of disconnect" between Brady and the franchise, and the absence of any substantial talks between his agents, Don Yee and Steve Dubin, and the team's front office.
Over the past few days, however, there have been some promising signs. On Sunday, after Belichick had given his players the day off, Brady joined owner Robert Kraft and the owner's grandson, Harry, for a round of golf at the Willowbend Country Club on the Cape in Mashpee.
On Tuesday, Kraft laughed when I asked him if he and Brady had wagered, say, $5 million a hole – but there’s little doubt that business was discussed. The two spent several hours together afterward.
That doesn't mean, however, that a deal is necessarily imminent. A source close to the negotiations says, "It could come together really soon. Or it might not happen at all [before the season]. It's really tough to know."
Brady and New Orleans coach Sean Payton talk during the Pats-Saints joint practice.
(Winslow Townson/AP Photo)
This isn't a typical negotiation. Brady, after taking a below-market deal in 2005, wants to be compensated at a level befitting his status as one of the NFL's two best players (along with the Colts' Peyton Manning(notes), whose deal also expires after this season). Kraft has said that he absolutely expects Brady to be his quarterback for a long time, and he reiterated that to me this week. The owner and his quarterback have a warm, mutually appreciative relationship, and that goes a long way.
Yet the labor uncertainty complicates any potential deal, because there's no clear-cut roadmap. The Patriots want to make sure they structure a new contract in a way that allows them the flexibility to afford other premium players under whatever the rules of the new system turn out to be. Brady, while down with the logic of his team remaining competitive, wants to make sure he doesn't cut a deal now that ends up looking unduly conciliatory once the new collective bargaining agreement is in place.
It's even possible, though less likely, that negotiations could continue past the start of the regular season, and a contract extension could be hammered out in the fall or winter. That's not an ideal situation for Brady, who would prefer not to be distracted by business concerns as he attempts to guide the Pats back to the promised land.
Brady declined to discuss his contract status Tuesday night, but when pressed he gave some insight into what his mind-set will likely be come Sept. 12 in the regular-season opener against the Bengals at Gillette Stadium.
"I just want to win, man," he said. "I don't want anything to get in the way."
That means that Brady, with or without a new deal, will do anything and everything he can to push the Pats back to the top of the football world. Even if he has to bruise some feelings – and hear a few sarcastic moooo sounds in the huddle – along the way.