The Boss is back. Time for the Patriots — and the NFL — to rock again.
Tom Brady, the NFL’s version of Springsteen/Bono/Petty, is throwing passes and avoiding paparazzi, and pro football is the better for it. This guy is no halftime act at the Super Bowl. He’s the reason New England again is favored to play in the big game.
The expectations are only high until you consider what Brady has done this decade — aside from marrying a supermodel and becoming fodder for the entertainment tabloids and TMZ.
The superstar quarterback has guided New England to three NFL championships in four Super Bowl appearances. Two years ago, he put together the greatest season any passer has compiled, resurrecting Randy Moss’ career in the bargain. The guy hasn’t lost a regular-season game since the 2006 season, having gone down with a knee injury in last year’s opener after directing the Patriots to a 16-0 record in 2007.
When he was knocked out by the Chiefs, the NFL lost some pizazz. While New England didn’t exactly misplace its mojo without Brady — the Patriots did go 11-5 — there were no playoffs for the Matt Cassel-led team. More significantly, there was no Brady Watch: no chase for more records; no political candidates knocking down his door for endorsements; no flood of TV commercials. Pretty much no Brady sightings as he recuperated.
Is he fully recovered? The left leg seems to be holding up, although former teammate Rodney Harrison, who had his share of knee surgeries, says anyone who has undergone a knee operation struggles to get past the doubts.
“I’m sure Tom has had some of that. It’s only natural,” Harrison says.
And when Brady was removed from last week’s preseason game at Washington after massive defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth toppled him — Brady came away with a sore shoulder — many others wondered if, at 32, was Brady getting a tad brittle.
“I’ve been dealing with this for a long time, almost for the last year. I know where I’m at,” he says. “I know how I feel, how comfortable I am back there, and I try to convey that I feel like that was part of last season. This season has been a different year for me. I’ve already missed a year. I’ve already paid the price for it.
“Moving forward, you’ve just got to try to work as hard as you can to get back to your normal self and I really feel like I am. … I think if I make a poor play, I never have thought, ‘Well, I wonder if it was because of my injury last year.’ I think, ‘Well, I’ve got to make improvements.’ Just like every year where things don’t really go your way.”
Given Brady’s propensity for performing like, well, a Grammy winner, it might be wise to put all doubts aside and just tune in to what he does starting Sept. 14 against Buffalo.
Until then, there are plenty of other NFL story threads to follow.
Even before the season kicks off with the now-traditional Thursday nighter on Sept. 10 — defending champ Pittsburgh hosts Tennessee — the NFL has been a whirlwind, particularly off the field. Consider these sagas, all of which will continue being played out over the next five months, heading toward the Super Bowl in Miami.
—Michael Vick in Philadelphia.
After serving 18 months in prison for his involvement in dogfighting, the former Falcons star landed with the Eagles in mid-August. He has to be cleared for regular-season play by commissioner Roger Goodell, which could come by mid-October, probably sooner. In his first action for Philly, six plays mostly as a shotgun quarterback, Vick looked rusty. His impact could be minimal this season.
—Brett Favre in Minnesota.
The Favre circus — Cheeseheads are calling it a fiasco (and worse) — finally set up its tent in the Twin Cities, weeks after the NFL’s all-time leading passer said no (wink, wink) to the Vikings. Soon to be 40, with a damaged rotator cuff and, at least in some circles, a tattered legacy, ol’ Brett is being counted on to lift the Vikings to a title.
If he is the Favre of the first 11 games of 2008 with the Jets, when he was healthy, Minnesota made a good decision. If he is the injured No. 4 of the final six weeks, Vikings coach Brad Childress might be joining Favre in retirement next year.
—Who’s that coach?
Let’s see, there are 32 NFL franchises and 11 have new head coaches. Twelve also have new offensive coordinators with Monday’s firing of Chan Gailey in Kansas City, and an almost unfathomable 22 have new defensive coordinators since the last preseason. Plus, 12 clubs changed special teams coordinators.
Two (San Francisco’s Mike Singletary and Oakland’s Tom Cable) moved up from interim positions after replacing fired head coaches last season. One (Seattle’s Jim Mora) was a coach-in-waiting last year.
Two others, Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay and Josh McDaniels in Denver, are 33 years old. Neither is off to a promising start. Morris’ roster has been gutted, including the purging of linebacker Derrick Brooks, one of the Bucs’ all-time greats. McDaniels feuded with, then dealt away quarterback Jay Cutler — who was the last franchise QB in his prime to be traded like that? — and still has turmoil on his hands with recalcitrant receiver Brandon Marshall and dozens of other questions.
On the eve of the season, the Chiefs’ Todd Haley fired Gailey, never a good sign. Detroit’s Jim Schwartz, well taught by Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, takes over a team that won all of zero games in 2008.
Rex Ryan got the position in New York when the Jets fired Eric Mangini, who promptly landed in Cleveland. Both of them have significantly rejiggered their rosters.
Steve Spagnuolo, who masterminded the Giants’ brilliant defensive schemes the last two years, is in St. Louis, where there are few playmakers.
All the newcomers should envy Jim Caldwell, who has three-time MVP Peyton Manning among his Colts. Of course, he’s also replacing one of the NFL’s most respected people, let alone coaches, Tony Dungy, adding plenty of expectations to Caldwell’s plate.
Brooks has yet to catch on with anyone. Same for Marvin Harrison, who was not re-signed by the Colts. That’s two likely Hall of Famers on the market.
Fans want to hear about TDs and shutouts, not CBAs and lockouts. But the next few months will include numerous negotiations between the league and the NFL Players Association, which has a new, aggressive executive director, DeMaurice Smith. The owners opted out of the current agreement, which will end after the 2010 season. And if no new deal is reached before March, there almost certainly will be no salary cap in ’10.
That isn’t quite as ominous as it first sounds, because there will be further restrictions on free agency and player movement. But it is ominous.
For now, there is anticipation of a new season, of finding that team which will go from stinker to contender (the Packers?) or plummet (Buccaneers?). Of discovering new stars (Baltimore RB Ray Rice? Pittsburgh LB Lawrence Timmons?) and feeling sorry for faded ones (Favre?).
And it’s time to welcome back the biggest star in the NFL universe. Sure, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers recently received bigger contracts than Brady has. But they’re still role players compared to the NFL’s Boss.