FOXBOROUGH -- Every year Tom Brady talks about getting better.
And, amazingly, he gets better every year.
But after three Super Bowl titles in four seasons as a starter, and general acknowledgement he is among the top two quarterbacks in the business (Peyton Manning is in the discussion), just what in the world would make Brady think he could improve again this year?
The same thing that made the Patriots' star signal caller better in 2004 than he was the year before: he is the ultimate competitor.
In many ways, Brady is competing with himself to see how much better he can be. He isn't trying to be better than Manning or Brett Favre, and he isn't trying to stay better than up-and-comers like Carson Palmer or Ben Roethlisberger.
Tom Brady is trying to be better than Tom Brady.
And in 2005, he has done just that, throwing for more yards than ever in a season, and to this point posting the highest passer rating of his stellar career.
''As I see him grow and mature and experience all that he's experienced, he's still very humble about wanting to get better, wanting to learn and expanding his repertoire," said Tom Martinez, the former coach at the College of San Mateo, who has worked with Brady on his throwing motion for some 15 years. ''What I'm very impressed about with him is he's constantly trying to get better.
''Since I met him in the eighth grade, he has always asked, 'What is it I need to do to get better?' "
Like a golfer's swing guru, Martinez has a diagnostic eye for Brady's throwing mechanics. He is not bragging when he says he can watch Brady throw a couple of passes and spot what is wrong. If, that is, Brady says something is wrong.
That is what Brady did in August, near the end of training camp. Something just didn't feel right, so he asked Martinez to fly east for a tuneup. With coach Bill Belichick's OK, Martinez gave Brady a look-see.
Did you see the ridiculous 32-yard dart Brady skewered David Givens with last week against Tampa? That was one of the last throws Brady worked on with Martinez in a workout session after the Patriots' final training camp practice.
It came from the same left hash, headed in the same direction inside Gillette Stadium, and it was on the same in-out corner route, only with Deion Branch as the practice target.
Actually, Brady wasn't working on that throw, so much as showing off in a way. Whatever didn't feel right in his throwing mechanics was fixed after a couple of the short throws to Branch in the 45-minute session. Back to that golf comparison, Brady got his swing back with a 9-iron and the 30-yard corner bullet was a 260-yard 2-iron at the pin on the driving range.
Four months later, he brought it to the course against the Buccaneers.
''I think he enjoys making some throws he thinks he can make," Patriots receiver Tim Dwight said. ''There are certain times I think that even by his read -- and no one reads a defense like Tom, he has a great field of vision -- his No. 1 [option] might be eliminated, but he goes, 'You know what? There's some space there, I think I can do it.' He has that edge, and he has the ability to get it there when he wants to get it there."
The throws Dwight speaks of aren't the low percentage miracle throws that rocket-armed Favre made a career of, but throws Brady has worked on enough to know when he is ready to incorporate them into his game.
''In Year 5 or Year 6, I don't care who it is, there are still factors in throwing that a quarterback has to get better at to maintain a high level of play," Martinez said. ''Obviously, the mental level of what he's able to do and see, and the preparation he puts into it, you can see that he fully understands what they're trying to do and he has command of the offense that they're running. That's something that's intrinsic to him as a person.
''But what people may not know is that mechanically, he looks at the whole thing, and knows what he's doing. He understands how to throw. And most of the time, he knows what is wrong as soon as he lets a ball go if it doesn't go where he wants it to go.
''Even if it looks like it was a good throw and there was a completion, he knows when his throws missed the tiny spot he attempted to hit. His goal is to put it where he wants every time."
No one ever has managed to do that, but Brady's misses are few, and becoming less frequent every year. More importantly, each season he has added things to his games; throws like the abovementioned gem for instance.
Brady could end this year with his best career completion percentage. Entering tomorrow night's game, he has completed 63.5 percent of his throws, which is just below the 63.9 percent he completed in his first year as a starter, a franchise record.
A difference between then and now is the high percentage of shorter throws the Patriots employed that season to protect the young quarterback, compared to the more air-it-out approach they have now, which has Brady atop the NFL stats with 3,888 passing yards (already a career-best with two games to play).
In 2001, Brady averaged just under 200 passing yards per start (6.9 yards per attempt), compared to this year's 277.7 (7.9 per attempt).
For much of this season the Patriots have struggled to get a consistent running game going. But with Brady at the helm, that has not been the problem it normally would be.
The defensive philosophy of making a team one-dimensional is worthless if you can't stop that one dimension.
''Overall we're just executing at a little higher level than we have in the past in the passing game," Belichick said. ''When you're calling plays, if you are calling plays, you have a tendency to go to the ones that are producing more."
Brady's current passer rating of 93.3 is better than his career-high mark of 92.6 put up last season. He answered a question about being better with a resounding yes. But, as he almost always does, he didn't say he was better, he said the offensive unit is better.
''I think for a quarterback, what really is the difference is being able to go out there with the same group of guys every week," Brady said. ''We're better because we've had that consistency. Deion and Givens and Troy [Brown], they've been here for a few years working with me. When you've been under fire together, that starts to show.
''That's probably why we're having our best year."
It doesn't hurt that the man in charge of making it all go continues to get better. Even if teammates hardly notice.
''He's thrown for more yards this year than he ever has? I didn't know that," tight end Daniel Graham said.
Fellow tight end Christian Fauria said Brady deserves to be toasted.
''Wow, he's so smooth, you just didn't even notice [the yards]; smooth, like a good drink," Fauria said.
A fine wine, perhaps, that gets better with time.
''That's Tom, working harder, getting better," fullback Patrick Pass said.
But is there better to come?
''His feet are a lot better than when he was younger, and I see much improvement on some of the throws too, but in my perfectionist observation -- and his as well -- there's still things that he can do better," Martinez said. ''I won't divulge those things, but I assure you he knows what they are and will improve on them.
''That's what he does. He just keeps getting better."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at JSolomon@globe.com