FOXBOROUGH — He is a different man now: a different quarterback, a family man, a worldly man.
But in some ways, Tom Brady is the same kid he was when he first arrived in New England 13 years ago: still lanky, still self-assured, still driven by the pursuit of greatness, both for his team and himself.
On Friday afternoon, after the Patriots’ final practice of the week and some massage work he gets “as often as possible’’ to keep his body in peak condition, Brady settled in to the chair in front of his locker to chat about the state of the Patriots, the offense, and fatherhood.
It has been repeated dozens of times since training camp, during which he celebrated his birthday: Brady is 35 now. But unlike some other seasons, he’s feeling physically fantastic eight games in.
“I’m feeling really, really well,’’ he said. “Over the course of the season, you always get these little nicks, but I’ve been great this year.
“It’s very fortunate to be — this time of the year, really when we need it the most — to be feeling good, and I think the guys that take care of their body, as the season goes, you get better feeling-wise because you’re doing all of the right things that you’ve learned over the course of a lot of years playing.’’
Though he is on pace to have the same kind of statistically strong season that he’s had in recent years, a few folks have wondered whether Brady’s play is slipping, that he perhaps is not as sharp as he once was. He is asked if he hears those whispers. He rubs his hand over his light brown hair, taking in the notion.
“Do I hear it? I guess when I get a question like that, I guess,’’ he said. “I honestly, I don’t think so. I don’t . . . I hope not. I hope I’ve got a lot longer to play.’’
As the Patriots won Super Bowls in three of his first four years as the starter, Brady became a folk hero with gutsy play and comeback wins.
But he feels he is a better quarterback now than he was back then.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,’’ he said, adding extra emphasis the second time. “In every way.
“You’re always trying to make improvements and learn from your mistakes, and you make a lot of mistakes over the course of a long period of time.
“I can turn on film from early in my career and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I was terrible!’
“I know more about the scheme, I know more about the defenses, I know more about my players and techniques.’’
Not a finished product
Although his offensive coordinators have changed, from Charlie Weis to Josh McDaniels to Bill O’Brien and back to McDaniels, Brady has essentially played in the same system — Bill Belichick’s system — for his entire career.
That is integral to his success. The plays run in practice now are ones that he has run sometimes hundreds of times before. He gestures to the blue binder in his stall. He does bring that playbook home, but at this point he has all of it committed to memory.
The Patriots’ offense had some struggles over the first eight weeks of this season, and Brady keeps repeating that there is work to be done still, that this unit is far from a finished product.
“I’ll try to leave it for other teams to figure out what we don’t do well, but it’s the consistency [that has been missing],’’ he said. “We play Arizona in the second game and it wasn’t a very good game and we played really well for one quarter and we lose the game; of course we did.
“We play well in Seattle for most of the game, and we lose the game. In Baltimore, we play really well for most of the game, against a good team, on the road, big game, and we lose. So you just, you’ve got to learn from those and in some ways I think we have.’’
Weeding out plays that haven’t worked and using the ones that have a bit more will help, as will having every player available, he said. It’s easy to think Brady is talking about Aaron Hernandez, who should return Sunday against the Bills.
This is the first season in nearly 20 that Brady is without his passing mentor and friend, Tom Martinez, who died
in February. He has a new personal coach, former major league pitcher Tom House, but Martinez is never far from Brady’s thoughts.
On his wristband, he has written phrases, things like “head straight’’ and “drag back foot,’’ simple things Martinez reminded him of over and over to perfect his mechanics.
He remains self-critical, always looking to improve, always hoping that the next game could be the best one.
“That’s the great part about this game, is you always think, ‘This is going to be the best week ever,’ you know?’’ he said. “The reality is, it’s not always going to be the best week ever, but you think it’s going to be the best week ever, and you go into every game saying’’ — his voice lifts a bit — “ ‘This is the week. This is the week it’s all going to come together.’
“That’s what the pursuit is: You’re always going after the target, and you identify it early in the week, here’s what we want to do, and then we’ve got to go out there and try to accomplish it.’’
There is football, and there is family. These days, there isn’t time for much else. Brady has learned, as all parents do, that there is a balance that must be struck, and he hopes that his wife and children understand that he can’t give them as much time in autumn and winter.
Hopefully, the time they do have is enough to satisfy them, to satisfy him, until the season is over.
His wife, Gisele Bundchen, is expecting their second child together; it could be a girl, of course, and while Brady wants just a healthy baby, he believes he has had good training to deal with a daughter.
“I grew up with three sisters,’’ he said. “What I loved about having sisters is you understand the sensitivity of the girls in the house, and I think that was a wonderful lesson for me as a boy and as a young man.
“Not that I understand women, because believe me I don’t,’’ he adds with a laugh and a gesture with his hands, waving away the very idea.
“But at least I can understand the dynamics of the house when there’s girls running around.’’
The second half of the season begins Sunday. The playoffs will follow.
He is asked how he thinks the season will end.
“It’s up for us to determine,’’ Brady said. “We’ve got to go out and prove it and we’ve got to prove it to everybody; we’ve got to prove it to ourselves. There’s highs of the season and there’s lows of the season and we’ve had some lows and we’ve had some highs.
“It’s been a fun year. We’ve got a lot of good guys that care about winning and care about each other, and care about doing the right thing, and the more of those you have, you’re going to be . . . you can’t win with people who don’t care about football, don’t care about the team. We’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.
“It’s a lot more fun, and you look around to the guys next to you and you’re like, ‘Man, that guy, even if he doesn’t make the play, at least he gives a you-know-what.’ And it’s hard when people don’t care because there’s a lot of guys that care and a lot of guys sacrifice a lot.
“Part of being a Patriot is you sacrifice a lot to win, and if you feel like other guys aren’t doing it, it’s hard because it takes a lot of people to pull one person along, which the more guys you have to pull along, the less you have going against your opponent.
“That’s where we’re at — we’ve got to go out there and prove it.’’