By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If there’s been one trademark of the Patriots throughout this unprecedented run of success, it’s been an organizational emphasis on normalcy and routine. When situations take place that might send other organizations into team-wide panics, the Patriots under Bill Belichick have shown a knack for ensuring — or at least trying to ensure — that each day remains very similar to the day preceding and the day following.
No matter which players are in or out, no matter which controversial play went for or against the team, and no matter how suffocating the cameras and microphones might be in the locker room, the mantras consistently win the day: “Do Your Job,” “Ignore The Noise,” wash, rinse, repeat.
Considering they’ve won more than 75 percent of their games since 2001, capturing 13 of 15 division titles, winning four Super Bowls and making it to football’s final game twice more, it would be difficult to argue that it’s not a successful formula.
And so, as the captivatingly unique situation of arguably the greatest quarterback in history returning from inarguably the most bizarre and absurd suspension in sports history, the Patriots are maintaining business as usual.
On Monday, when the locker room opened up to the media swarm on Monday afternoon, player after player after player denied having seen the elusive Brady in the building at all. Chris Hogan, Nate Solder and Matthew Slater all claimed to have not seen Brady on his first day back at work. Belichick, for his part, said the team would take things “day by day” and that any discussion of Brady’s impact on the locker room would merely be “pure speculation.”
In other words, “Next question.”
The “Everything Is Totally Normal” routine continued Tuesday, when the team announced that the press conference Brady does every Wednesday during the season would not be happening this week. Rob Gronkowski would be speaking in Brady’s stead. Because Brady technically isn’t on the roster until Saturday, he has no obligation to speak to the media. (I imagine Belichick’s reaction upon discovering this loophole was not at all dissimilar to Alec Baldwin’s enthusiasm for the Patriot Act in “The Departed.”)
So on Wednesday morning, when Belichick took the podium, reporters had many questions about Brady. Considering they wouldn’t get the chance to talk to the quarterback himself, Belichick would have to be the recipient of these questions. He Mutombo’d every single one.
Q: How do you relay to the team that Tom Brady’s return is not going to fix all issues?
BB: We’ve all got to do our job. We’ve got to do our job better. We’ve all got a lot of things to work on. That’s easy.
Q: Do you feel like you can finally exhale now that Brady is back?
BB: I feel like we need to go out to Cleveland and play well in order to win. That’s what we’re going to try to do.
Q: A lot of fans think that his return will inspire the team to play even harder than they have been. What do you think about that?
BB: I think our team needs to prepare well to go out and play well against Cleveland in Cleveland. That’s what we need to do.
Q: Does Tom Brady seem ready for Cleveland physically and mentally?
BB: We’ll go out in practice today and see where our whole team is. You’d have to ask Tom how he’s personally feeling. That’s something that I can’t answer.
Q: Do you feel fortunate to come away with a 3-1 record without Tom Brady for the past four months?
BB: Right now our focus is on Cleveland, trying to get ready to go in Cleveland. We can’t do anything about what it was or wasn’t the last four weeks. We’re into the Cleveland week and that’s all our focus is. We’re not worried about last week, we’re not worried about next week, we’re not worried about last year. We’re worried about this week against Cleveland. That’s it, period. This week, Cleveland.
Q: Isn’t that a net positive that you were able to get out to a 3-1 start?
BB: We’re focused on Cleveland this week, period. Cleveland.
Q: How, if at all, is your process different this week in helping Tom Brady get acclimated again to the offense and the game plan?
BB: I don’t know. We’ll just work through it. We’ll just do the same thing we do every week. There are always players that fall into that category whatever the position is. We’ll take it day by day.
Q: What specifically are you going to be watching for at practice from Tom Brady to see how he is adjusting to being back on the field?
BB: We’ll do the same thing on this Wednesday that we do on every other normal Wednesday. We go out there and practice, we make the corrections, we come back in and go over some new stuff for tomorrow, for Thursday, and try to correct the things on Wednesday that need to be corrected. That’s what we do.
Belichick didn’t limit his confidentiality to just Brady, as he was also asked if he’s happy to see Rob Ninkovich return from injury.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he replied. “I mean, yeah. We’ll go out there and practice with those guys today and see how it goes. I don’t know. I haven’t seen them.”
Nobody’s seen anybody down there. Everyone must be keeping in the Halloween spirit by dressing up like ghosts and hiding in closets.
It’s an interesting approach to a situation that no team’s ever really dealt with before, a player of Brady’s level of fame and success returning from a suspension based off the most drawn-out and over-the-top soap opera in sports history. But the treatment this week is certainly consistent with the Patriots’ standard operating procedure for the last 15 years.
(It also may be a calculated effort to not show any weakness, to act as though the DeflateGate punishments had no real impact on the franchise. Basically, when the owners signed off on Roger Goodell’s unprecedented and unreasonable level of punishment on the Patriots, competing owners excitedly waited for the Patriots to squirm. Though the organization may have created a Wells Report In Context site, the football coaches and players never complained much at all. It was what it was, as they would say. Even in the midst of a quarterback health crisis over the past two weeks, the Patriots adamantly refused to add a quarterback to the roster. Doing so would’ve shown a sign of weakness, just as gushing over the return of Brady after an ugly loss would do the same. The team — and Belichick — would likely much rather let the results do the talking. So far, that’s a 3-1 record, with whatever Brady does to the 27th-ranked scoring defense of Cleveland soon to be added.)
The whole world may want to hear from Tom Brady, but they’re going to have to wait. The Patriots are busy preparing to play well against Cleveland in Cleveland. That’s what they need to do. They’re worried not about Tom Brady; they’re worried about Cleveland. Period.
It’s all a bit odd, for sure, the apparent organizational directive to pretend like nothing’s changed as the most important player in franchise history returns to work. But it’s just the latest obvious example of how deeply the Patriots care about never getting too high, never getting too low, and never straying from the daily routine.