The human thumb first showed up around 5 million years ago. Nothing significant happened with thumbs since, until this week, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady injured the thumb on his throwing hand while handing off to an unnamed running back five days before the AFC championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After canceling his press conferences on Wednesday and Thursday, Brady spoke to the media Friday about his thumb, which some reporters have described as “bulky.” There are reasons to believe that bulk could hamper the presumptive MVP against the Jags: He did not practice Thursday and he wore two gloves to his Friday press conference — which took place indoors at Gillette Stadium.
The gloves weren’t the only unusual thing about the press conference: Brady never tells the media anything, but Friday, he didn’t tell the media anything in a different way. When the press conference ended, a Patriots beat writer said to me, “That was weird … right?” People who cover the Pats are used to weird — two cheating cases, a mini-scandal seemingly every month, a controversy over the winner of Patriot of the Week — so weird to them is really weird.
Patriots media sessions are generally an entertaining waste of time. Because Patriots players and coaches never say anything substantive, and because media members are keenly aware of that fact, Pats press conferences tend to be hair-splitting exercises. Brady was never going to discuss exactly how he felt or what would happen this weekend, but because he didn’t, The Gloves inevitably became the story. If Brady plays, and plays well, on Sunday, Thumbgate has the potential to become a nice symbol of overanalysis in the NFL: More than a hundred reporters packed into a room to hear Brady say nothing about his thumb.
But the story also has the potential to be significant. If Brady’s thumb injury is bad, it could do two things to the Patriots: (1) force them to play Brian Hoyer or (2) leave them playing Brady, who could be hurt enough to look like Hoyer. The NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reports that Brady’s hand was a “bloody mess,” but he’s throwing the ball well. Reports say that he has four stitches on the right hand. One wonders how much damage Brady would have had to sustain for Hoyer to be a better option. The answer is probably more damage than you can think of.
So how bad is it? When asked why he was wearing gloves, Brady said he’d worn them before (same). When asked in a different, slightly funnier way (“Why are you wearing gloves indoors?”), he said he’d already answered the question. Brady never clarified whether he’d play Sunday, issuing a string of “we’ll see”s and “I’m not going to talk about that”s. When asked what exactly happened Wednesday, he wouldn’t talk about that, either.
The start of the exchange, via a team transcript, can best be described as “me at 16 talking about my night to my parents:”
How is your hand?
I’m not talking about it.
Thumbs-up or thumbs-down for Sunday?
Did you throw any footballs today?
I’m not talking about that.
Did you practice today?
I was out there.
Were you out there for the entire practice?
How was practice?
It was fun.
He said Jacksonville was the best team the Patriots have played, refused to say much of anything else, and then cut off the last question he heard:
Giving the podium a little punch with his right hand was the perfect wat for Brady to end this press conference. pic.twitter.com/cfej3OB1YS— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) January 19, 2018
There’s hysteria that comes along with any Patriots story, particularly about what happens in the locker room or at practice, where cameras aren’t present and any bit of information is likely to spawn a discussion befitting a particularly niche Reddit conspiracy thread. There are already plenty of theories floating around about this thumb injury, including that it’s some classic Belichick gamesmanship. Bart Scott inexplicably said Brady’s injury is a “built-in excuse” and that Brady “always seems to have an injury around a big game.” Stephen A. Smith called it a “bogus story,” questioning the facts surrounding the cause: “I’m supposed to believe that that guy, with a Super Bowl berth on the line, got hurt handing the ball off to a running back? Really? I don’t believe it for one second.”
Before going full Brady Thumb Truther, consider that Brady skipped Thursday’s practice, which, as former Patriot Donte Stallworth said, is significant because it’s an “important day in the passing game” since it’s when the team goes over third downs. No one in the history of football has generated more stories about his practice habits than Brady, whose training regimens are legendary. He is not skipping a major practice before the AFC title game out of gamesmanship.
Brady skipping practice is the best indication that he’s in pain — even though he participated Friday, he was limited — and this type of story requires reading the tea leaves, because the Patriots won’t be providing the information. Take this iconic exchange between Bill Belichick and the media on Friday:
Now that Brady is dealing with this injury, do you have any regrets about trading Jimmy Garoppolo?
We’re getting ready for Jacksonville.
Does it look like Brady’s playing status might be a game-time decision?
Well, Belichick has a point. Malcolm Butler said Friday that Brady will play because he’s a “big boy.” Safety Devin McCourty, when asked Thursday about how Brady looked, said Brady is “one of the best-looking people I’ve ever met.” Hoyer cut his media session short Thursday when asked what Brady has been able to do in practice. In The Ringer’s NFL Slack, multiple staff members posted previous photos of Brady’s thumb and compared them with his alleged “bulky thumb.”
Thumbgate is here, Brady isn’t talking, and Patriots fans have to be getting at least a bit nervous. At least Brady showed some emotion when he was asked if he’d be a fist-pump guy instead of a high-five guy this weekend. He laughed, and the laugh suggested he was about to say something illuminating. Then he just said, “We’ll see.” As the saying goes, gods do not answer letters.