FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at practice Friday, an annual tradition unfolded, with those in the crowd singing him "Happy Birthday." At various points in practice, fans shouted out, "Happy birthday, Tom!"
Brady celebrated his 35th birthday like he usually does, on the football field, where he says he's most happy.
And if the smile seems a bit wider this year, it's probably because he's been showered with gifts that any quarterback truly appreciates -- a plethora of pass-catching options, many of whom he's worked with in the past.
One of those targets, veteran Donte' Stallworth, is as impressed with Brady as he was in 2007, the last season he played with him.
"I don't think there is anything different. The interesting thing about him is that he's still that same fiery, competitive guy that he's always been, that I've always known him to be. You'd think the guy was fighting for a roster spot the way he works," Stallworth said.
Added fellow veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney, "He works hard, day in and day out -- in the film room, on the game field, on the practice field. To stay at that elite level, you have to put in that hard work. He does."
With Stallworth and Gaffney returning to the Patriots, joining Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and newcomer Brandon Lloyd, the receiver position has a bit of a "get the band back together" feel to it. It also looks more balanced than in 2011, with players who can threaten both the perimeter (Lloyd, Gaffney, Stallworth) and interior parts of the field (Welker, Branch, Edelman).
That probably best explains why the passing game, prior to hitting a minor speed bump the past two practices, had generally been executing at a higher level than the norm for that stage of camp. Add in tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and it's potentially powerful stuff. How is an opposing defense going to stop the Patriots?
As for the receivers, something will have to give by the time teams have to trim rosters to 53 on Aug. 31. Welker, Lloyd and Gaffney look like locks, with Edelman and Matthew Slater likely to stick because of their special-teams contributions. That could leave a heated battle between Branch and Stallworth for one spot, unless both find a way to survive.
Brady said last week that having too many good players is better than the alternative, and when it comes to receivers, the history with Brady is key because of the built-in trust.
"You know if you're in the right spot and you get open, he's going to deliver you the ball," said Stallworth, who has flashed in camp the past few days, getting more reps with Branch limited. "He's one of the all-time greats, not just today, but all-time. Anyone who has ever played receiver would love to be in the position we're in here.
"It's a good group. We have a lot of veteran guys in that room and we're all learning from each other. It's a competitive room, and every guy has a competitive fire to him. We come to work every day and try to better ourselves and better each other at the same time."
One point Stallworth made is that while having knowledge of the system is nice, the receivers still have to go out and execute physically.
After all, keeping up with Brady isn't easy.
"You can always get better, always get more in sync with rest of the offense and try to be on the same page as Tom," he said, before looking into his crystal football when it comes to Brady's future.
"That dude looks like he could play for 10 more years," Stallworth said. "That's the attitude he takes in it. If his body is willing and able, I'm sure he'll play for 10 more years."
That would put Brady at 45.
As for what the 35-year-old Brady might accomplish this season, consider that Randall Cunningham holds the mark for most touchdown passes in a single season for a quarterback 35 or older, with 35.
Meanwhile, no quarterback 35 or older has passed for more yards than Warren Moon in 1991, when he rung up 4,690.
Brady, showered with pass-catching birthday gifts this year, is primed to top them all.