"The pressure is never off. It doesn't go away. It's just - you build and you build and you build, and you try to get better and better and better so that when it matters the most, you're at your best."
When Tom Brady speaks now, he speaks of the need "to accept the coaching," of the pressure that never subsides, of the need for discipline, focus and resolve. He speaks of the basics. And he speaks of a Patriots team that should be well, well beyond that.
The Patriots are in London this weekend for a meeting with the St. Louis Rams, the eighth week of a 16-game regular season that once seemed like a formality. In fact, the schedule has been anything but. What the Patriots have taught us thus far is that there is no such thing as a gimme, not this year, at least not yet. Not when the Patriots have experienced the kind of breakdowns they have through the first seven weeks.
When things are good in Foxborough, after all, the Patriots don't talk about themselves so much as they talk about their opponents. They tell us how explosive the opposition is. They build their enemies into something bigger than they are, which has always been Bill Belichick's way of guarding against overconfidence.
But now? Now the Patriots do not build up their opponents quite as much because they are not so sure of themselves, a rather startling development given the identities of the coach and quarterback. Belichick seems unsure of his team. Brady seems unsure. The Patriots escape with wins like last Sunday's victory over the New York Jets, Belichick speaking of the need for his team to improve more quickly and Brady noting missed "assignments."
Belichick is 60 now. Brady is 35. Neither the coach nor the quarterback has the time to endure another rebuilding process, particularly in a secondary that too often has the look and feel of a busy train station - people coming and going, bodies running in different directions with no connection to one another.
Where this is all going is anybody's guess because, for the Patriots at least, this qualifies as relative chaos.
Belichick and Brady are in their 13th season together now, and we all know what binds them more than anything else: the desire for excellence. The demand for it. There has never been a combination of coach and quarterback quite like them, not for this length of time, not with five trips to the Super Bowl and, perhaps, more on the way. For all that Belichick and Brady have accomplished in their time together, one of their most extraordinary accomplishments is their seemingly undying want to win, no small feat in an economic sports age that breeds complacency and early retirement.
Don't you see? Someone like Brett Favre won one title and became far more about the numbers than the championships. Peyton Manning left Indianapolis with only one championship, then chose Denver based largely on personal comfort. Belichick and Brady have been a perfect fit because each meets the other's insatiable desire for more, the fire that has burned at the center of New England football for the last 11 years.
All of which brings us back to the here and now, to a 2012 Patriots team that suddenly seems to be disappointing its coach and it quarterback as much as anyone else.
In 2009, lest we forget, Belichick was the subject of "A Football Life" on the NFL Network, his year chronicled in a three-part documentary. For one of the first times, we saw the most intimate dealings between the coach and quarterback. Brady sat in Belichick's office, at the coach's desk, as the two watched video and exchanged ideas, and they stood next to one another on the sideline, in New Orleans, lamenting the breakdowns that ultimately produced a 10-6 season and first-round playoff exit.
Know what the coach and quarterback talked about on the sideline that Monday night? About the absence of mental toughness on the New England roster. About the team's inability to play a full 60 minutes. About Belichick's frustrations over his team's inability to play the way he wanted it to play, particularly at the most critical, demanding moments.
As things stand, the Patriots have 10 weeks and nine games remaining in this regular season, a reality that means they are hardly devoid of hope. Far from it. The Patriots of last season were 5-3 entering a pivotal Week 10 matchup with the Jets in New York, and the produced a decisive 37-16 victory that altered their season. The AFC is every bit as weak this season as it was last, and so there is still every chance New England could end up back in the Super Bowl.
In the last few weeks, especially, there has been considerable commentary on the Patriots and their ills, on the events that have led them to where they are now, with a team that seems terribly flawed at a time when the Patriots should be getting sounder. The large majority of it has been hot air. But the words that have meant the most have most recently come from the coach and quarterback, who now speak with some level of doubt about the players with whom they take the field most every day.
As much as anyone in professional sports, after all, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady know what it takes to win championships.
And right now, it seems, they know the Patriots do not possess it.
Tony's Top 5
Favorite blog entries