After having a few days to digest it -- and with a decade-and-a-half of experience to lean back on -- the franchise's cornerstone, Tom Brady, has a strong handle on where his place is in the recovery.
"Just to be the best influence I can be, to be a great, positive leader," Brady told me Friday afternoon. "And try to, obviously, do my job as best I can, and try to be a great, positive influence on everyone else."
A quarter of the way through 2014, Brady is on pace for career lows in completion percentage, touchdown passes, quarterback rating and yards per attempt. But talent evaluators I've spoken with over the past week were unanimous in their belief that is far more about the lack of help the quarterback has around him, than it is about the quarterback being in decline at 37 years old.
The Patriots have had a revolving door on the offensive line (six different line combinations on Monday and five different starters at center and guard in the last two weeks); lack a big-play element at receiver (2013 second-round pick Aaron Dobson was a healthy scratch the last two weeks, and Kenbrell Thompkinswas cut Saturday) and are working their top threat -- Rob Gronkowski -- back in after an ACL reconstruction.
One AFC personnel exec said, "You can mask a couple of problems, but when it comes to protection and you are a pocket QB, those problems can be hard to overcome. And the receivers have to get open, but there's no deep threat there and without the vertical element, the defense can play tighter." An NFC pro director was more blunt: "He needs a better supporting cast."
Even with that considered, Brady said Friday he thinks he can win with the players on hand. "Absolutely. It's a competitive group. We're not gonna back down to anybody or anything. We've all been challenged in our life at different times. And I think this is gonna show, over the next few months, what we're made of."
The quarterback has maintained both publicly and privately he wants to play well into his 40s, and his contract makes it affordable for the Patriots to facilitate that -- at least as it's written right now. Brady is due $7 million and has a $13 million cap number next year, gets $8 million and has a $14 million cap number in 2016 and is set to make $9 million with a $15 million cap figure in 2017, when he'll be 40.
But that doesn't mean there aren't milestones ahead in the deal. If Brady is on the roster for the Patriots' season finale against Buffalo on Dec. 28, the aforementioned $24 million left on his contract goes from being guaranteed for injury to being fully guaranteed. Theoretically, that could give him leverage to ask for more in the offseason.
Either way, those around him see very little evidence that his desire to play has waned. His personal coach, Tom House, said earlier in the season that he was proud to hear Brady say publicly what he's intimated to those around him: that he thinks he can play until he's 45.
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"With Mr. Brady, every play is the Super Bowl," House said. "Every play is the Super Bowl. The level of intensity that he practices at is everybody else's game intensity. And in practice, there's nothing short of perfection. He understands that you're not perfect on every play, but he has the ability to try to be perfect."
And so now, he tries to apply all of that to a situation that he admits is a ways away from being solved. During his weekly press conference, Brady was asked if he had the talent around him to succeed, to which he responded, "We'll see." Asked on Friday when he'd know, he conceded it might take a while. "By the end of the season," he said. "It just turned October. There's a lot of football to play."
But for the guy House described above -- the one who treats practices like Super Bowls -- there's no question that this week wasn't easy.
"When we don't (win), we have to have the mental toughness to push through it," Brady added. "We've lost other games. I don't think any year, you're gonna win 'em all. We're trying. ... It's not an easy thing to do. Guys are working hard at it and trying to understand what we're all trying to do, so we can try to do a better job for each other."