FOXBOROUGH --The question concerned the departure of former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but the way Tom Brady answered it, one could not help but wonder if the words are scrawled on the training room wall as a constant reminder. People come and people go. And at Gillette Stadium as much as any place in sports, the machine keeps running.
"It doesn’t stop for anyone around here," Brady said this afternoon following an organized team activity. "You leave and someone else takes your place."
Advice for Vince Wilfork, perhaps? That is a possibility, certainly, but we all know the significance of Brady's comment goes well beyond that. Minus the greatest quarterback in franchise history and behind a replacement who had not started a game since high school, the Patriots went 11-5 last season and missed the playoffs largely as the result of a statistical aberration. Life went on without Tom Brady as assuredly as it went on without Deion Branch, and it will go on without Wilfork, too, whether he is truly AWOL from these OTAs or whether he is making, you know, a statement.
While Brady was present and accounted for during the media portion of today’s workout at Gillette Stadium, Wilfork, the behemoth defensive tackle, was not. The contrast was impossible to ignore. Just as one cornerstone of the Patriots is returning to work following a season-ending and perspective-altering injury, another is engaged in a potential contract dispute. (Within the castle walls on Route 1, the truth is often difficult to decipher.) Regardless, the Patriots were preparing for another run at the Super Bowl, regardless of whether Wilfork, Ron Brace, or Mike Wright is in the middle of the defensive line come September.
In Foxborough more than anyplace on earth, that is simply how things work. In fact, this entire Patriots reign was built on the same philosophy. Drew Bledsoe went out and Brady stepped in, and football in New England has not been the same since. If Brady was not aware before last September that he was susceptible to the same laws that elevated him to such a lofty status in American culture, he certainly knows it now.
"The reality in this sport is that any day can be your last day in football," Brady said rather succinctly.
In some cases, the only question is how much of your undoing you are responsible for.
In Brady’s case, what he lost last September was not his fault. Nonetheless, in the long term, he might be well served to have had something taken from him. As much as we all strive for success, it can breed complacency, particularly when any kind of maturity is taking place. Some things just do not seem as important to us anymore, which is why many wondered whether marriage and fatherhood might steal some of the intensity from, say, Tiger Woods.
In some ways, Brady is indeed the Tiger of his trade: He has more titles than any active NFL quarterback and a wife with supermodel looks. (In Brady’s case, she is actually a supermodel.) Brady has GQ looks and a multimillion-dollar smile, like Tiger, and he has reached such status as Mr. Bundchen that he spends nearly as much time on the gossip pages as he does in the pocket.
Last fall, when Brady’s knee folded like a portable crib, the ratio got thrown out of whack. Brady effectively became Giselle’s beau, full-time, and maybe it was a price worth paying if he recognized that such an existence was not enough for him.
"I think I’m a happier person when I’m working," Brady said today. He added, "I’m grateful to be out here. To be able to come out here and play is what I’ve wanted my whole life. I’ve been able to do that for nine years now and I’m coming out for a 10th."
Meanwhile, wherever he is, Wilfork is entering the final year of his contract following a draft in which the Patriots selected another nose tackle, Brace, with the longer term in mind. As it was with Wilfork and Ted Washington several years ago, so it appears now with Brace and Wilfork. You leave and someone else takes your place. For the Patriots of 2009, the question concerns just how far Wilfork might be willing to go, whether he is willing to miss training camp and the regular season, or whether this is all merely some half-hearted attempt at leveraging an organization that historically has not responded to such tactics.
In the worst case, assuming that Wilfork is digging in his heels, the Pro Bowl nose tackle of the Patriots is likely to learn just how much football means to him in the coming weeks and months.
As for the quarterback of the Patriots, no one needs to tell him that.
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