Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Body betrays a mental slump

Body language is a dangerous measuring stick for any athlete. We have learned to be careful before jumping to conclusions about the demeanor, expressions, and actions of our sports stars.

Certainly Bill Russell appeared to be the measure of calm when he stepped on the parquet and dominated. Only later did we learn he was a bundle of nerves before every game, and usually vomited before he left the locker room.

Yet there are times when the way an athlete carries himself says it all. There was no mistaking Larry Bird's body language in 1989, when, angry at coach Jimmy Rodgers for turning him into a ``point forward," he purposely passed up open jumpers and stubbornly passed off to teammates in a game at Detroit.

With that in mind, it's time to state the obvious: Tom Brady's body language in Sunday night's loss to the Denver Broncos was downright troubling. There were moments when New England's franchise quarterback looked like he wanted to be anywhere but Gillette Stadium, and that's something that I previously would have considered unfathomable.

No one would blame Brady for being disheartened by some of the developments around his football team. It has been well-documented by now that his two top receivers from last season, David Givens and Deion Branch, are wearing different uniforms. Givens bolted as a free agent, and Branch forced New England's hand by holding out, then was shipped to Seattle for a first-round pick.

Obviously, a draft choice doesn't qualify as a legitimate target for Brady, who threw for 4,110 yards last season, more than any other quarterback in the NFL, but who has been unremarkable through the first three games of 2006.

There isn't one receiver on the current roster who can match Branch's or Givens's talent or chemistry with Brady -- yet.

That has to be frustrating. Many wanted to jump to the conclusion yesterday that Brady is disillusioned with his front office for leaving him with a less-than-optimal offensive arsenal. This particular theory was further fueled by reports that Brady had a closed-door meeting with vice president of player development Scott Pioli after the game.

Upon further review, it appears Pioli merely stopped by Brady's locker after the loss to commiserate, and the conversation may or may not have continued as Brady retreated to the trainer's room for treatment.

Either way, good for Pioli. If I were in a position of power with this football team and I saw Brady's demeanor, I would have checked on him, too. This is a competitor who never has hesitated to wear his emotions on his sleeve. When he's elated, we've known it. When he's angry, we've known that, too. His emotions often have been an effective weapon. Yet Sunday night, he looked strangely uncomfortable and disconnected, like a guy wearing a tuxedo at a picnic.

Who knows what's really bugging the quarterback? (Brady was unavailable yesterday.) Maybe he really is ticked off about an offense that is stilted and out of synch. Maybe he didn't like the play calling. Maybe his shoulder hurts. Maybe there's another undisclosed injury that has taken the snap out of his throws.

Or maybe, just maybe, Brady is mad at himself. Maybe his angst is over his own miscues, such as when he threw the ball over the head of an open Reche Caldwell Sunday night. Maybe he's lamenting the fact that he hasn't been able to establish instant chemistry with his new teammates, or is disappointed that Branch still appears in his dreams after a long day at the office.

Brady knows better than anyone that his recent performance simply doesn't cut it in New England, where championship rings have become the standard by which each season is measured. Brady's impeccable postseason résumé (with the exception of that loss last season to those pesky Broncos) has afforded him exalted status. In these parts, no matter who came and who went, as long as Brady (and Richard Seymour, the defensive equivalent) were in the lineup, we had no worries.

In retrospect, that smacks a little of blind faith, doesn't it?

All I know is that if Brady is worried, then I'm worried, too. He is the face of the franchise, and Sunday night, that face was mostly somber -- except for when he was yelling profanities at the officials from the sideline. It's hardly the image Tom Terrific has portrayed in the past.

The Patriots need Brady to shake his doldrums. They need the animated, confident leader that transformed the fortunes of this franchise. His zest for the game always has been contagious.

I had a conversation with Celtics coach Doc Rivers recently about Paul Pierce's body language. Rivers conceded that before he coached Pierce, ``I used to say, `Man, that guy is always sulking.' But when you get closer, you realize it's not really true.

``But, as I explained to him, perception matters. I told Paul, `You have no idea of the value of your smile.' When Paul laughs or smiles, it lights up our team."

Brady has the same effect on the Patriots. I loved the stories of Brady's first year as a starter, when he was so enthusiastic in the huddle that some veterans had to gently remind him to slow down and stop banging their helmets so they could hear him.

My guess is that when the quarterback faces the media tomorrow, he will have watched the film and made the necessary mental adjustments. He will emphasize, as he should, that his team is 2-1, and the offense is a work in progress. In short, there is absolutely no reason to panic, especially considering the Patriots are still the favorites to win their division.

It's possible that Doug Gabriel, whose undisclosed injury is allegedly what kept him off the field for the first three quarters before he caught six passes in the fourth quarter, might end up being a fine target for Brady down the line.

And Chad Jackson, if he ever can get healthy, might make us all forget about Deion Branch someday.

Of course, it only matters if one person has forgotten about Deion Branch.

His name is Tom Brady.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives