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Tom Brady saga: Patriots can look to 2010 Steelers for blueprint

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Tom Brady's fight against his four-game suspension will resume Wednesday in a Manhattan courtroom, and with a settlement appearing highly unlikely after two days of settlement talks last week -- a blistering Friday evening brief from the NFL Players Association indicates that the sides are as dug in as ever -- it might be time to consider how Brady and the New England Patriots will prepare for life without him.

When the Patriots opened training camp nearly three weeks ago, it was just like any other practice. Brady took all of the reps with the first team, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the Patriots hadn't even discussed at that point if the plan would change. Backup Jimmy Garoppolo, though, did get plenty of snaps with members of the first-team offense during the Patriots' June minicamp, when New England divided the first team into two units and sometimes had Brady and Garoppolo working side by side. As the second preseason game approaches with uncertainty over Brady lingering, it seems likely Garoppolo's reps will increase. There isn't much of a road map for the Pats to follow about how to prepare a backup quarterback to start while still getting the starter ready, too. But there is one situation that was similar: when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season.

There are a few critical differences. The Steelers did not find out until early September that Roethlisberger's suspension would be reduced from the original six games, but they did know that, at the least, Roethlisberger would miss four games. The Patriots don't even know that much with any certainty. And while Garoppolo has never started in the NFL, the Steelers had a stable of experienced backups on their roster, including Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, who each started two games while Roethlisberger sat out.

Still, the way Roethlisberger and the Steelers managed his impending absence might be instructive as Brady and the Patriots await a decision -- whether on a settlement, from Judge Richard Berman or perhaps even from an appeals court -- that will shape the first quarter of their season.

"We went about it as business as usual," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "[Roethlisberger] took normal reps. There were instances where we would let him practice in a partial capacity. But there was nothing substantial in how we allocated reps. Our backups were a savvy group of veteran guys. It wasn't like we were putting somebody in there who hadn't played football."

Roethlisberger's preparation for his exile started long before he left. He did extra conditioning in training camp, an important signal to his teammates that when he returned, it would be as if he never left. Team meetings would end at 9:30 p.m., Batch said, and teammates would spot Roethlisberger back in the gym at 10 to get in an extra hour of work.

Every game, all season

"You're expecting him to come back in midseason form," Batch said. "There's no easing into it. He was making sure he was proving, I can't control the circumstances, but I will control, when I'm able to come back, how I'll be."

Once the suspension began, on the first day of the first week of the regular season -- as Brady's will, if his suspension stands -- Roethlisberger worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield. The Steelers, though, were never entirely out of the picture. Bruce Arians, then the Steelers' offensive coordinator, gave Roethlisberger and Whitfield a script for every single day that Roethlisberger was away from the team of what he wanted them to work on. But, because he was freed from the day-to-day preparation for the next game, Roethlisberger was able to use the time to study his own technique.

"In that time off, he found a whole new respect for fundamentals," Arians said. "He tried to tweak his throwing motion a little bit."

Roethlisberger said it was most difficult mentally to be away from the team. But physically, his goal was obvious: When he returned in Week 6 (the Steelers had a bye in Week 5), Big Ben wanted it to be as if he was never gone.

"In practice, you have to bust your butt," Roethlisberger said. "During the games, I worked out tirelessly to make sure my arm was ready to go and my legs were ready to go. I didn't want to try to catch up. I wanted to hit the ground running."

Brady might be able to avoid a plan like Roethlisberger's because there are still a number of scenarios that would see Brady playing in the opening four games. Berman could decide -- presumably by Sept. 4, as has been proposed -- to vacate the suspension. The NFL would surely appeal to the circuit court, but Brady almost certainly would be allowed to play during that time. If the NFLPA loses the appeal, Brady would have to serve the suspension at some point, although possibly not even this season, given how slowly appeals progress. If Berman rules for the NFL in the next few weeks, the NFLPA would appeal and likely seek a stay of Berman's order. If the stay were granted in this hypothetical scenario, Brady would be allowed to play until the appeal is decided. And, of course, there is still the ultra long-shot possibility of a settlement that has Brady being fined, but not suspended.

The Steelers proved that it is possible to thrive, even under the unusual circumstances the Patriots might eventually share with them. Despite a rash of injuries to the backup quarterbacks, Pittsburgh went 3-1 in Roethlisberger's absence, losing only to the rival Ravens. The Steelers beat the Browns in Roethlisberger's first game back, with Big Ben completing 16 of his 27 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns (against one interception). The Steelers won nine of the 12 games Roethlisberger started in the regular season and then beat the Ravens and Jets in the playoffs before losing to the Packers in the Super Bowl.

Other than that final game, the Patriots would happily take the same kind of season this year, with or without Brady.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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