Maybe this return to Foxborough, with so much hype, emotion and reflection, will be enough to throw Tom Brady for a loop.
“The first two plays, the nerves will be up,” Julian Edelman told USA TODAY Sports, anticipating the scene at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. “But how many games has Tom played in? Like a thousand. It’s just football.”
Brady has seen it all during a 22-year NFL career. Exotic defensive schemes. Wicked weather. Significant in-game adjustments forced by injuries. Incredible deficits that called for monumental comebacks. On the biggest stages.
Yet for all of that, here’s something new: Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl ring in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, gets the opportunity to match wits against Bill Belichick in a game that will potentially be an in-your-face reminder of how much the New England Patriots blew it by letting their franchise quarterback get away.
“It’s going to be kind of weird to see Tom in another uniform in Foxborough,” Edelman said. “Of course, there’s some extra whipped cream thrown on the pie with TB and Bill. I can’t wait to watch it, just to kind of look at the football X’s and O’s at what these two will be doing and how they’re going to be trying to expose one another and throw a wrinkle in and see if they can do things to each other. It’ll be fun to watch.”
All against the backdrop of appreciation that goes both ways.
It was striking that Brady’s TB12 performance center began selling “Return to Foxboro” T-shirts this week that are modeled after his combine attire before the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round in 2000. On top of that, Brady posted a cartoon video on his personal Twitter account on Saturday that highlighted key moments from his Patriots career, ending with a nod to his signing with the Bucs.
The tweet came with a succinct message: “Homecoming.”
Yes, Brady, 44, is emotional about it.
So are Patriots fans. No doubt, Brady, whose 115 victories in Foxborough stands as the NFL record for most wins by a quarterback in a single stadium, will receive a standing ovation from the Patriots faithful. There will be a video tribute. Probably, at various points before and after, hugs and high-fives.
“There will be more Tom Brady jerseys in the stadium than Mac Jones jerseys,” former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s just a prediction.”
Not a stretch. After all, Bud Light concocted a “G.O.A.T Parade” on Saturday in Boston that featured a herd of goats wearing Patriots jerseys.
There’s also the expectation that the game will be paused to acknowledge another football achievement: Brady needs just 68 yards to break Drew Brees’ record (80,358) as the NFL’s all-time leading passer.
How fitting that Brady can claim the record at Gillette Stadium, where he can also join Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks to beat all 32 NFL teams – if the heavily-favored Bucs win.
It will be no surprise if Brady acknowledges afterward that it was the most emotional game he’s ever played in.
It’s also a game that should bring out the best in Brady the competitor, who undoubtedly relishes the chance to show Belichick that he’s far from washed up while the Bucs (2-1) try to bounce back from their first loss since last November. The Patriots (1-2) are trying to build with the rookie quarterback, Jones, whose progress was a factor in the team’s release of Cam Newton.
Of course, Sunday night’s game isn’t about Brady vs. Jones. But Jones will be hard-pressed to keep up.
I mean, Brady surely would love to hang 50 on the Patriots.
“As a player, any time you go against your former team, there’s always a little extra juice,” Seymour said.
As Brady put it on Thursday, “I still have a lot of great friends there, but they know I want to kick their butt this week.”
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All that will be missing from the reunion game is Rob Gronkowski. The Bucs tight end is healing from a rib injury suffered during last Sunday’s loss at the Los Angeles Rams and didn’t make the trip after not practicing during the week.
Edelman, who grew closer to Brady when he relocated to Los Angeles and became his offseason training partner, insists that he never thought about Brady not finishing his career with the Patriots, even as reports surfaced late in Brady’s New England tenure about discontent between the coach and quarterback.
“You never really knew how long he would play,” Edelman said. “So, I never really thought about it. You just worry about what’s on your plate at the time and then each year we were trying to go out and win Super Bowls.”
Edelman figures that despite the tremendous hype about Brady’s return, the quarterback is approaching the game as he always does. He says Brady’s ability to block out distractions is one of the most essential keys to his success.
“The ability to compartmentalize,” Edelman said. “Mental toughness, or whatever you call it. Practice hard, with a purpose every day.”
Brady’s current teammates know all about it. Check out how Bucs safety Antoine Winfield describes what it’s like to face Brady in practice:
“He’s so tough to go against,” Winfield told USA TODAY Sports this week. “In practice and in camp, you can just see how experienced he is, how much knowledge is there. He’s hard to read. And he’s still throwing the ball on a dime every time. It’s crazy. There’s nothing like it.”
In other words, it’s the same old Brady.
Your move, Bill Belichick. Try to come up with some scheme to slow his roll.