One year later, Brady on verge of return

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Carl Cheffers tweeted his referee's whistle to start the 25-second play clock.

At that moment, Tom Brady was just another man.

His three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP awards and four Pro Bowl selections didn't matter a smidgen. Brady had been aided off the field because of a knee injury. He'd been replaced by a backup.

The contest, only three series old, went on without him. So did the New England Patriots' next 15 games. Brady watched them on television from his home.

"The game doesn't stop for anybody. It just doesn't," Brady said in a recent interview with ESPN. "You get hurt, the doctors come out, they wheel you off the field and the ref blows the whistle for play and the game continues. That's exactly what should happen.

"This game is bigger than any player that's ever played this game. You realize how fortunate you are to be a part of it when you can't participate."

On Monday night, for the first time since Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard crashed into his left knee on opening day 2008, Brady will play a game that counts. The Patriots will host the Buffalo Bills in Gillette Stadium on the season premiere of "Monday Night Football."

The game will feature plenty of storylines and pageantry. Terrell Owens will make his Bills debut. The teams will wear throwback uniforms to mark the AFL's 50th anniversary. The Patriots will introduce their all-time team at halftime.

Brady has been waiting a long time for this. The last time he finished a game was 20 months ago in Super Bowl XLII, where the New York Giants stunningly denied the Patriots their perfect season.

Brady acknowledged this week that the loss still haunts him, but he doesn't need a reminder to prevent him from overlooking the long regular season ahead.

When you go from observant passer to passive observer -- leg propped on a pillow while you watch your teammates move on without you on TV -- a realization sets in.

"You've got to earn it every week," Brady said. "If you think you're entitled to anything in this job, go sit out a year and tell me about the entitlement.

"There's nothing guaranteed, and you've got to go out there and earn the respect of your coaches and your teammates so that you have the right and the privilege to go out and lead them."

One of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation is motivated, but he has been trying to downplay his eagerness for Monday night to arrive.

Unlike last summer, when a foot injury kept him from taking a preseason snap, Brady played in all four exhibitions to help him cope with the mental aspect of his recovery. He had two knee ligaments reattached and needed to feel some heat, take a hit, make some throws.

Brady called the preseason work "critical" to his return.

"It's invaluable for a quarterback," Brady said. "We don't get hit in practice, and the important part is you've got to get used to guys being around you so you can understand how long you can hold onto the ball. ... You want to hold it as long as you can to allow your receivers time to get open to be able to make the throw.

"You get a feel for that in the preseason games and the movement in the pocket that you need. That's been really important."

He suggests he has gotten past any jitters pertaining to the knee, but that doesn't mean Patriots fans are equally secure with their team's tenuous quarterback situation.

Last year's Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback, losing the AFC East title to the Miami Dolphins on a tiebreaker and becoming the first team in 23 years to win 11 games and not make the playoffs. It's safe to assume a healthy Brady would have made enough of a difference to edge the Patriots into the postseason.

If Brady goes down again this year, the Patriots' season will crumble with him. Cassel now plays for the Chiefs, and the Patriots have chosen to keep only two quarterbacks on their active roster.

Brady's backup is undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. Isaiah Stanback, a former Dallas Cowboys receiver who hasn't played quarterback since he left the University of Washington two years ago, is on the practice squad.

The delicate nature of Brady's condition was driven home Aug. 28, when he was driven into the ground by Washington Redskins mammoth Albert Haynesworth. Brady fell awkwardly on his throwing shoulder. Patriots fans held their breath.

Any uneasiness, however, is overridden by the anticipation of an encore performance Brady didn't have the chance to deliver last year. Brady bombed the NFL record book in 2007 and guided the Patriots within one drive of a 19-0 season.

Further capturing the imagination of fans and fantasy owners is the fact 2007 was Randy Moss' and Wes Welker's first year in New England's offense.

In May, both Moss and Welker expressed their excitement over grand possibilities now that they've mastered the Patriots playbook and Brady's back.

"The sky's the limit for this offense," Moss told ESPN.com. "I think that we could be a little bit better than two years ago.

"I'm very excited for us as an offense. I'm excited for us as a team. There's a lot of good things about Tom Brady coming back that excites the people, the fans, the coaches and the players around here.

"All we can hope is to come out with smoking guns."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick put the kibosh on any more such braggadocio. Moss hasn't granted an interview since then. Follow-up questions about matching 2007's gaudy statistics have been answered diplomatically.

"We were really blessed a couple years ago to have the year we did," Brady said on Wednesday's conference call. "But it's an entirely new year with different challenges, different teams we're facing, different schemes. We're running different plays. We have different players. A lot of things had to come together two years ago."

A few ticks after 7 p.m. Monday, the Patriots' most important component will be back in the huddle and surrounded by his teammates again.

All those anxieties and hopes will pulsate under the gloaming at Gillette Stadium.

Then referee Scott Green will blow his whistle to start the play clock.