FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots held their first practice leading into the Super Bowl yesterday without their unquestioned leader, as quarterback Tom Brady did not participate because of a high right ankle sprain.
Brady was not present for the 15-minute period open to the media at the start of practice and did not join the workout after, according to a league source.
While Brady's injury is not considered serious, and he's said he will play in Super Bowl XLII Feb. 3, team officials apparently decided rest was more important than having him on the field for the first day of game-plan installation.
Brady did not speak with reporters yesterday at Gillette Stadium, nor did he walk through the locker room during the 45-minute session open to the media in the late morning. His absence on the practice field left the quarterback work to backups Matt Cassel, a three-year veteran, and Matt Gutierrez, a rookie.
Coach Bill Belichick did not comment when asked before practice if he has concerns regarding Brady's injury.
"The injury report will be out next Wednesday and we're excited to give that to you," Belichick said, smiling. "That form will be filled out completely and I can't wait to give that to everybody."
Sitting out a practice leading into the Super Bowl likely stung Brady, who has often talked about how much he enjoys practice, because each workout provides an opportunity to improve, especially leading into a game Belichick and other players said yesterday was "the biggest of our lives."
In some ways, it's déjà vu to 2002, when Brady injured his left ankle in the AFC Championship game and his status was under the spotlight leading into Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams.
But in other ways, it's much different, as Brady's condition this time around is much less severe. Team officials remember seeing Brady's ankle swell considerably in 2002, which hasn't been the case with his right ankle this week. Also, there was only one week to prepare for that Super Bowl, while this year there are two, giving Brady the luxury of added rest.
Still, it has been rare for an injury to keep Brady out of practice, and especially games.
The 30-year-old MVP has started 126 consecutive games, 110 in the regular season and 16 in the playoffs. That is the third-longest active streak in the league, behind the Packers' Brett Favre (274) and the Colts' Peyton Manning (174), as well as the third-longest streak by a quarterback in NFL history.
Perhaps because of Brady's ironman history, teammates didn't seem concerned by his condition. Several made light of the considerable attention placed on pictures snapped of Brady in New York Monday, which showed him wearing a protective boot over his right foot.
"Tommy is the least of my worries," fullback Heath Evans said. "I'm going to put on a boot and see if [the media] follows me around."
Citing Brady's long streak, Evans said: "It says that he's tough - maybe more mentally tough than physically tough."
Defensive lineman Richard Seymour added more levity to the situation, saying he was more impressed with what Brady was holding in his hands in the pictures.
"Every channel I turned to, there it was, magnifying in on the boot. To me, the good part was the flowers," he cracked.
Yet yesterday's tone was mostly serious as Patriots players took the first significant steps in preparation for the Super Bowl, practicing in full pads in the Dana-Farber Field House. Belichick said earlier in the day that he hoped to have the bulk of the team's game plan installed by Sunday, which is when the club departs for Arizona, leaving only touch-up work for the days leading up to the game. So it was significant work that Brady missed.
The mystery surrounding Brady's condition made him a hot topic yesterday, and with few answers surfacing, the discussion turned more general toward Brady's approach to the game.
"I think Tom's one of the toughest players on our team, mentally and physically," Belichick said. "He works hard and he can be focused on his job regardless of what is going on in all of the surroundings - the crowd, the game, whatever it is. He's very calm. He's a great competitor but he's very calm."
Belichick also noted that Brady "works extremely hard" and "trains hard," which has contributed to his streak.
Teammates talked about how they respect Brady because he doesn't put himself on a higher plane despite his standing as a star quarterback.
"He's one of those guys that's in here busting his butt," safety Rodney Harrison said. "You see him every day, not missing practices, not missing weight room sessions. Then out there in the game he's a constant, so as a leader of our team and as a guy that really respects the game of football, you really appreciate that about him. He's no prima donna. He's one of those guys that lays it on the line each day."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.