FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For a few hours on Thursday, Tom Brady had his sanctuary, bathing in the roars of his fans, the "Free Brady" banners flapping in the wind. A storm was bearing down on the New England Patriots' first practice of the season -- a literal storm this time, not the figurative one that arrived with Commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling Tuesday afternoon that upheld Brady's four-game suspension and raised the issue of whether the quarterback had purposefully destroyed potential evidence.
Thursday had begun with the kind of loss Brady rarely suffers on a field. A district court judge in Minneapolis had sent Brady's appeal of the suspension to Manhattan -- the jurisdiction where the league wanted the case heard -- and in the meantime, all but accused the players' union of judge-shopping. It was a setback in what might be his uphill climb to be available for New England in the season opener. But the mantra for the Patriots is to worry only about what you can control -- and if Brady has little control over what will eventually happen in court, he remains relentlessly in control of his performance on the field.
That is why counting the Patriots out this season -- even if Brady has to serve the full four games -- is folly.
When Brady is on the field, he is the embodiment of Bill Belichick's demand for tunnel vision. In his first practice, after what was surely one of the most disconcerting episodes of his career, Brady was midseason sharp, completing 27 of his 30 passes while taking every one of the first-team repetitions in 11-on-11 drills. The quarterback who hates to cede even a single snap to his backup didn't have to, perhaps an indication that the Patriots are still confident Brady will find a way onto the field in the NFL Kickoff Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or maybe the Pats will eventually give Jimmy Garoppolo more significant time with the starters as camp wears on. But thinking forward to whenever Brady does play, after watching that first practice, it is hard not to imagine the fate that is likely to befall quite a few New England opponents this season.
That was the year New England was nabbed in an improper videotaping scheme. That scandal, it turned out, informed this one -- the Patriots received especially harsh penalties this time around because they were considered repeat offenders. That scandal, though, also influenced the Pats' reputation for ruthless retribution. Their 2007 undefeated regular season was an exercise in playing with a fury, blowing out one opponent after another, often leaving Brady in games and throwing passes to keep the scoreboard working like a pinball machine long after the outcome was decided. That season is when dislike of the franchise hardened among fans, but even among opponents there was a grudging respect for the Patriots' -- and Belichick's -- ability to wall off distractions and execute in games. It was the Pats' way of telling the league that they didn't need videotapes of opponents' signals to dominate, and it seems likely that Brady -- who still carries a substantial chip on his shoulder from being a sixth-round draft pick -- will want to affirm that it wasn't air pressure that threw all those touchdown passes.
Brady hasn't answered questions from reporters since the Wells Report came out and he probably won't until his court case is resolved. Garoppolo is playing the dutiful backup, already toeing the company line that he sees nothing different in Brady's demeanor, that nothing has changed since the suspension was upheld. But Brady delivered his warning shot -- to opponents, maybe even to Garoppolo, if he harbors any excitement about his potential opportunity to start the first four games -- that whenever he is allowed to play, the two-time MVP will be a focused, furious quarterback who has lost none of his gifts to the tumult surrounding him.
"The best thing you can do is focus on the things you can control," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the first practice. "That's the message we give them all the time. We're focused on today's practice. Then the meeting on today's practice."
There is no way to predict the outcome of Brady's legal challenge of the league -- and no matter what it is, Brady's reputation might be irreparably stained by this incident in some quarters. A banner plane, paid for by a New York Jets fan group, flew over practice Thursday, trailing a sign that demanded: "CHEATERS LOOK UP!" But as his lawyers prepare for a showdown with the league, Brady's retort, encapsulated in those 30 throws Thursday, might be even harsher for the Patriots' biggest rivals:
Opponents, look out.