CLEVELAND — NFL locker rooms can be a cramped place, especially for the visitors. And so it was on Sunday that Tom Brady, minutes after completing a 33-13 win over Cleveland in his highly anticipated 2016 debut, did not have enough space to get dressed.
With Brady scheduled to meet the media in the FirstEnergy Stadium press-conference room, reporters instead swarmed around his teammate, Julian Edelman ... whose locker just happened to be in a corner adjacent to Brady. The setup squeezed Brady out of his assigned space, so he quietly grabbed his gear and moved down to Chris Hogan’s vacated locker.
From start to finish (and beyond) Sunday, Brady was unflappable.
“It felt very much like a normal week once I got into it,” said Brady, who because of his Deflategate-related suspension was unable to play or practice with his teammates in Weeks 1-4.
Although Brady claimed “there was plenty” of rust for him as he returned from a four-week suspension, it hardly looked that way on the field. He completed his first three passes, to three different receivers, for 31 yards, starting a drive that ended with a LeGarrette Blount touchdown. Brady capped the Patriots’ next possession by tossing one out to a wide-open Martellus Bennett, who waltzed home for a 7-yard TD.
Bennett and Brady would connect for two more scores before the rout was Cleveland was complete, part of a 406-yard performance from New England’s QB.
“Tom Brady is one of the best players in this league that probably ever played,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said. “Potentially, he can do that not just to us, he has done it to a lot of people before. ... It is disappointing it happened that way, but I’m not surprised by anything he does.”
Brady made his first appearance an hour after the fans entered, setting off the first of many loud “Brady! Brady!” chants from the visiting crowd. The chant echoed throughout the bowels of the stadium after the game ended, too, only replaced on occasion by a “Let’s Go Red Sox!” call from the New England faithful.
But save for the hoopla, the game itself felt, well, normal. Brady was his usual self—spreading the ball around to all available receivers, sliding away from traffic to find big plays.
If anyone thought, for whatever reason, that the Patriots would need a few weeks to get rolling upon Brady’s return, that notion went out the window in a hurry. Brady looked no worse for the wear, and the Browns’ overmatched defense hardly had the horses to make his Sunday a struggle.
The only moment of rustiness for Brady, if we can call it that, came in the second quarter Sunday.
With another Browns possession flailing and headed toward a punt, Brady began throwing a few passes with backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo, just to stay warm. Julian Edelman joined them, jumping off the bench to snag one of Garoppolo's throws. He then flipped the ball to Brady.
And Brady dropped it.
“It’s exciting,” Edelman said, once the chaos cleared from the front of his locker. “He hasn’t been here in four weeks, so any time you get back one of your teammates that you train with, go to training camp with, play with for a number of years, it’s exciting.”
Brady spent the final few moments of the game chatting with tight end Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots’ sideline. No New England player, save for perhaps Bennett, benefited more from Brady’s return Sunday.
A hobbled Gronkowski missed the Patriots’ first two games himself, then made just one catch for 11 yards the past two weeks. He shredded the Browns, with Brady’s help, to the tune of five catches for 109 yards. While it’s just one game, the Gronkowski-Bennett combination was everything the Patriots dreamed it could be in the off-season—a borderline unstoppable pairing reminiscent of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
“I love playing with Gronk. I’m very excited for him,” Bennett said. “We’re dynamic with both of us out there. I expect him to continue to play like that. That’s what Gronk is, that’s what Gronk does. That’s why he’s the Gronkinator.”
Said Brady, who also hooked up with WR Chris Hogan for 114 yards in the first regular-season game those two have suited up together: “I thought the team played really well. It was fun to be a part of.”
Brady’s return Sunday marked the close—hopefully—of an ugly and tedious chapter in the NFL history books. First suspended on May 11, 2015, Brady won an appeal just prior to Week 1 of last season that allowed him to play in all of New England’s games. This April, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, reinstating Brady’s suspension for the start of the 2016 season.
Along the way, the league spent millions upon millions of dollars, first investigating the Colts’ claims that New England had used deflated footballs during the 2014 AFC championship game, then arguing its case in court.
“I’ve just moved on,” Brady said Sunday. “I just tried to play a good game today.”
He certainly did so, hanging 271 yards on the Browns before halftime alone. Had the game been closer, or had Brady and Bill Belichick felt particularly salty, he likely could have challenged his career-best mark of 517 yards passing. Brady even ran for 14 yards, popping up in front of the Cleveland bench to signal first down after one of his carries.
If there was rust, if there was an overload of adrenaline, it didn’t show.
“We got the WD-40 out for him,” joked Bennett. “Get that arm ready. But he did well today.”
The Patriots managed a 3-1 record in Brady’s absence, first with Garoppolo and then rookie Jacoby Brissett under center. They’re now 4-1 and in complete control of an AFC East that has turned out to be far weaker than most people anticipated.
“It seems like they are the best team in the NFL right there,” said Browns receiver (and, at times, quarterback) Terrelle Pryor. “Best team in the NFL, especially with Tom Brady there.”
He’s there alright. Even if he’s not always standing in front of the right locker.