It's possible that Tom Brady may have never been more valuable during the regular season than he was in 2010, leading a young offense through a tough transitional period on the way to the best record in the NFL.
The first unanimous MVP in league history set records for his efficiency as he guided the Patriots' offense down the field at a patient pace, almost refusing to push his receivers past their limits as they adjusted to a new offense. After Wes Welker, Brady's five leading receivers were Deion Branch (great chemistry with Brady, but his first half-season in New England since 2005), Aaron Hernandez (rookie), Rob Gronkowski (rookie), Danny Woodhead (first season with Patriots) and Brandon Tate (first full season in the NFL). The early-season trade of Randy Moss only compounded the difficulty level.
Now, the biggest question of the Patriots' offseason just might be: Can Brady repeat his 2010 performance this season?
Brady was historically great in 2010, so it would be unfair to think he could match his statistical output with 36 touchdowns, four interceptions and 3,900 yards. He set an NFL record with 335 consecutive passes without a pick, and he also became the only player in history to complete at least 260 passes (Brady completed 324) and attempt at least 445 passes (he attempted 492) with four or fewer picks.
Obviously, Brady's worst game of the year came during the playoff loss to the Jets, and that will forever stain his 2010 campaign. In terms of the regular season, though, he was on another planet, and it was made so much more impressive due to the youth around him in the offensive huddle — a collection of players who scored 518 points, the second-most in franchise history.
Because of that, there should be optimism that Brady can remain on pace to build off 2010, and that is universally true with his teammates. Welker was good, but he still had his worst output with New England after recovering from an ACL tear. Another season healthier, and it's not unreasonable to expect Welker to jump from 86 receptions back into triple digits.
Branch isn't the player he was during the Super Bowl era, but he had 48 receptions in 11 games with the Patriots after landing in New England in October. With a chance to go through training camp, Branch could become an even better No. 2 option.
And then there's the youth movement. Brady showed clear signs of frustration at various points last season because his younger wideouts and tight ends ran the wrong routes or couldn't get to the right place at the right time. It was due to age and inexperience, and it's only natural to think Gronkowski and Hernandez — who combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns — will have a much better understanding of the system. Tate is another wild card who needs to improve after registering just 13 receptions, 297 yards and three touchdowns in his last 12 games of the regular season.
It might be unrealistic, and maybe even unfair, to expect Brady to match his statistical production from 2010, particularly in the interceptions department. However, as the players around him continue to raise their game, there's every reason to believe Brady should keep the Patriots on the top of the NFL's offensive totem pole in 2011.
Yet, his most measurable improvements must come in the playoffs, where he's been winless since the 2007 season.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Tuesday, July 19: How many Patriots rookies will contribute in 2011?
Thursday, July 21: Will the Patriots improve their pass rush?