Patriots doing just fine during another offseason of uncertainty

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Maybe there was a hidden subtext to be gleaned from the musical selections at the New England Patriots' minicamp this week. Last year at this time, "Crazy Train" was playing, which seemed fitting given the circus that had just erupted around Tom Brady. This year? At one point, when team drills began, the enormous speakers set out just past the end zone blasted "Enter Sandman," which includes Metallica's command: "Off to never, never land."

Indeed, there was a sleepy quality to this minicamp, with its lack of star power and its strange comfort level with the unknown.

Last June, the Patriots' entire world was off kilter, with the newly-suspended Brady at the very beginning of his pile of appeals and the uncertainty about his future still fresh. Brady's availability is perhaps even more unsettled now. His suspension, which was vacated last fall by a federal judge, was reinstated early this offseason by a three-judge panel, although his request for a rehearing of his case by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals is pending. His remaining appeals options -- all long shots -- are few.

But it is almost as if the Patriots have developed their coping mechanisms -- scream "Free Brady" when they occasionally appear in public, but otherwise keep their blinders on -- and moved along. The QB practice reps were divided, Jimmy Garoppolo said all the right things about being a backup, Brady declined to speak and everything seemed back to normal, as if it is perfectly expected that the biggest star in the game would spend a second consecutive offseason with his playing time more in the hands of the federal bench than Bill Belichick. When Garoppolo was asked this week about the oddity of being a backup who, for the second straight offseason, must prepare as if he will start the season opener, he made it sound as if this is any other quarterback competition, like those happening elsewhere in the league.

"We're not even into the season yet. We've got a long way to go out here," Garoppolo said. "There's no starters, no backups. We're all just competing, trying to win a job."

In fact, the biggest story from this camp was not even how the quarterbacks were dividing the practice snaps -- Brady always led off with the first team, and then Garoppolo stepped in with the 1s, too -- but the whereabouts of Rob Gronkowski, whose public appearances this offseason have been limited to the Gronk Cruise and various charity events.

The Patriots are treating Gronkowski with an abundance of caution this offseason, the better to keep him healthy for the long haul. He joined the likes of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and LeGarrette Blount in "doing other things," as Belichick aptly put it. That removed the firepower from the offensive drills and made the question of which quarterback got the most reps with the first team almost moot, because the first team that was on the field for minicamp bore little resemblance to the one the Patriots expect will face the Arizona Cardinals in September. But a glance at the star-studded list of players who did not practice, coupled with the seeming lack of angst about Brady this year, did crystallize one thought:

Does it even dent the Pats' title hopes if Brady has to sit out those four games?

The Patriots are so stocked with talent on both offense and defense right now that it is hard to imagine Garoppolo, with the benefit of two offseasons of intensive work -- and two offseasons of Belichick and Josh McDaniels planning their approach -- could not navigate the first four games with the help and health of Gronkowski, Edelman, Blount and Amendola. Not to mention, the newly arrived tight end Martellus Bennett and the defense of Jamie Collins, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Knighton and Dont'a Hightower.

From the big-picture perspective, there might even be some added value in seeing Garoppolo in live game action.

Belichick, who is nothing if not a several-steps-ahead thinker, surely has pondered that eventually Brady, who will turn 39 in August, will stop being superhuman and his skills and good health will ebb or, worse, go dramatically off a cliff as Peyton Manning's did. A lengthy audition this fall by Garoppolo, who is now in his third season, would at least give the Patriots an opportunity to gather more information about his ability to be Brady's heir if the end comes sooner rather than later, or to hike up his value for other quarterback-needy teams. A quirky schedule, which includes three of the first four games at home, provides the best possible scenario to foster Garoppolo's success. The Garoppolo term, if there is one this season, might only determine, then, who has home-field advantage in the playoffs.

That would not be best for Brady, of course. He continues to perform at a stupefying level, bolstered by the meticulous care he takes of his body, and clearly intends to play into his 40s. Even in the no-pads, no-hitting arena of minicamp, Brady's passes were crisp, and his attention to detail was apparent. With Gronkowski absent, Brady spent time working alone with the newcomer Bennett to perfect their timing and communication. Bennett said after one of the sessions that among the things he and Brady were focusing on was what each tilt of the head means.

Brady filed his petition for a rehearing nearly three weeks ago and a decision by the court could come at any time. Whatever that decision is, the Patriots almost certainly will have greater clarity about Brady's availability by the time they reconvene for training camp at the end of July. Last year, the Pats didn't know for certain they would have Brady for the entire season until just days before kickoff -- and they went to the AFC Championship Game. As the Patriots' offseason work winds down next week and they disperse for summer vacation, they seem even more at ease and better prepared now to deal with whatever Brady's fate is than they were then.

Maybe it is the rest of the AFC that should be looking for clues in New England's practice playlist.

"Enter Sandman", after all, is about nightmares.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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