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Patriots begin title defense

They have been working through the team-run offseason conditioning program since April 1, but the New England Patriots collectively stepped back onto the field Thursday morning for the first time as defending Super Bowl champions during the initial workout of the team's mandatory mini-camp that runs through Saturday.

Complacency is nowhere to be seen in Foxborough as the team enjoys its luxurious new facility while working and preparing to be the hunted rather than the hunter.

Make no mistake, the title defense truly began in April with the start of the offseason program, but it changed gears Thursday and will do so again July 22 when rookies report to Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. for training camp.

The team's new anointed leader, third-year quarterback and reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, remains in the same high gear that guided him through an amazing 2001 season and the whirlwind offseason that followed.

The man named to replace the franchise's best ever quarterback didn't pull his foot off the gas pedal this spring as an active, full participant in the all-important conditioning program that helped him elevate his game a year ago.

"Tom is still one of the hardest workers on the team," Head Coach Bill Belichick stated simply.

The motivation for Brady and his mates is to stay atop the mountain they so heroically climbed last year while 31 other teams try to knock them off that lofty perch.

"No one gives a crap what you did last year," Brady said candidly. "Everyone is out to get us and if we want to stay at the top, we have to take our game to another level."

Expectations are much higher for the Patriots, who a year ago were traipsing through the offseason as a 5-11 group of losers. While New England prepares for the 2002 season with targets on its chest, there also is a degree of confidence that comes with being the titleholder.

"You know what it takes," Brady said. "There are a lot of guys in the league who don't know what it takes. You can't go any higher, but you can try to get back and win another one. It starts here in mini-camp and goes on through training camp. You can't go from Week One to the Super Bowl.

"I feel like I will play better [than last year]. Troy [Brown] feels like he will play better. No one feels like they're going the other way. So you can say we should win the Super Bowl again, but there are a lot of other teams that improved too. It's our job to defend our championship and prove that we are still the team to beat. You don't have to worry about winning eight games in one day. You only have to worry about the first one."

Patriots fans have been worried about their quarterback's offseason schedule and its affect on his preparation. After exploding onto the scene last season in place of the injured Drew Bledsoe, Brady went 14-3 as a starter and copped the Super Bowl MVP honors. That led to a hectic offseason that included judging the Miss America pageant, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, making the MVP trip to Disney World, being named one of People's 50 most beautiful people and other rumored appearances and events.

But Brady, who deserved the recognition, seems to have handled it all quite well, including his regular spots in local gossip columns.

"A lot of things I used to do are a lot tougher to do now," he said. "Because of that, I do different things. I love being [in this locker room] and it's fun for me to go out and throw balls in the rain."

He understands that he can't please everybody and follows some friendly advice. "The one thing I keep hearing is, 'You have to be yourself. You worked hard for these opportunities and you have fun with them.'

"I do one thing and I get criticized for not doing the others. It's a fight you can't win. But understand that this is not going to take away from who I am or what I expect of myself."

Teammate Tedy Bruschi, for one, isn't worried about Brady's success going to his head nor is he concerned about how the attention and gossip will affect that cool-as-a-cucumber quarterback.

"You can't control what other people think and say about you," Bruschi offered. "You just have to do what you do. That's going to be the test for him this year and I think he'll do well because he's a down-to-earth guy and he can always come over to locker number 54 if he wants some advice.

"He handled [the scrutiny] well [last year] and I hope he continues to handle it well because a lot of eyes will be on him. But everyone in this locker room knows Tom works hard and he's been here the entire offseason program. He's a team player and we have absolutely no worries that any of this will change him at all."

Cornerback Ty Law, who spent most of his offseason working out in St. Louis under the tutelage of Bob Kersee, says the team is counting on its young quarterback to return to the top.

"He's the poster boy right now and he's supposed to be," Law said. "Hopefully he'll go out and do for us what he did last year -- take us to the promise land again because we're going to ride Tom Brady. We're the supporting cast, but he's the captain of the ship."

If that's indeed true, the Patriots are in capable hands. Brady may still have much to prove on the field, but he already has navigated the Patriots to a World Championship. His hectic offseason essentially behind him, Brady is back as just one of the guys, one of the 53 who will look to repeat as Super Bowl Champs.

That quest is officially underway.

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