FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Tom Brady has made a career out of overcoming the odds, going from a sixth-round pick in 2000 to a four-time Super Bowl champion and arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Now it remains to be seen whether he can overcome one of the league's biggest controversies and produce more on-field brilliance. Or whether the emotional toll of DeflateGate will have a negative effect on the field.
The first test came Thursday night in the regular-season opener against the Steelers, but there will be many more challenges ahead for the reigning Super Bowl MVP quarterback, who some believe cheated by engaging in a plan to purposely use underinflated footballs in last season's AFC Championship Game.
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Step 1 came against a Steelers team Brady had mastered in his only three meetings at home. The Patriots won all three games by an average of 20 points and Brady put up some of his best numbers in the process. But he understood that past performance would have nothing to do with this latest matchup.
"We've had some pretty good offensive nights [against the Steelers] but this night is going to be a lot different," he said this week. "They've always had one of the best, most challenging defenses to prepare for because they do a lot of things and they have a lot of versatile players. This year is really no different. They've got a tough scheme and with a new defensive coordinator, I'm sure they'll have some new wrinkles. It's a big challenge."
It will be an equally big challenge in the weeks ahead, because Brady has never come into a season with anywhere near the distraction he dealt with over DeflateGate. Players often take time to recharge by getting away from the grind, but for Brady, the scrutiny was relentless. Not until a week before the season opener did he find out he would be playing, as U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman vacated the four-game suspension he had been given by the league for his alleged participation in the plan to use underinflated footballs against the Colts last Jan. 18.
"It's just different," Brady said of his offseason. "I think I've dealt with different situations in my life. You've got to always figure out a way to overcome different obstacles you face, and part of it is being mentally tough, and part of it is compartmentalizing things and dealing with things when they're really kind of at the forefront. You've got to put them someplace else and think about what your job is. I think that's a lot of what I've learned over the years playing this position, and certainly any time you're someone that's in the public eye like I am, you deal with different things. I think everybody in their life deals with different stresses, whatever they may be -- financial, or family stress, or work stress -- and you just do the best you can do."
Brady's legal wrangling isn't over yet. The NFL has appealed Berman's decision, and Brady still could face a future suspension if the appeals court rules in the NFL's favor. But that won't come until next season at the earliest, so he can concentrate on football for now.
Brady isn't the only one dealing with DeflateGate fatigue. His coaches and teammates also were forced to deal with the incessant scrutiny and criticism, so there's at least a question about whether the outside circumstances will adversely affect team chemistry at some level.
But if there's one coach who knows how to deal with outside distractions, it's Bill Belichick. When dealing with his own cheating scandal during the Spygate controversy in 2007, he led the Patriots to the first undefeated season since the league went to a 16-game schedule. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl before losing to the Giants.
Belichick has refrained from commenting much about Brady's situation, simply pointing to the next practice or the next game. His day-to-day approach has prompted his players to adopt a similar mindset, and it has served the coach well during his run with the Patriots. Belichick matched Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll as the only coach to win four Super Bowl titles, and he could very well be in position to set the NFL record by winning a fifth.
As for Brady, it's back to the friendly confines of life between the white lines.
"I love football, I love the sportand I love playing in the NFL," he said. "To get the opportunity to do it, certainly with all my teammates and my friends -- I've had so much support with my family through all of this. For the last 20 years I've been playing football this time of year, and it feels good to be able to do that again."