Like the brother who defends his sister in public only to pull her hair at home, football fans often defend their team’s quarterback against all comers while secretly wishing he would complete a few more passes on third down.
Patriots supporters have had few reasons to doubt Tom Brady as his personal stats have become stronger and stronger each year. But while they’ll argue for his place among the greats and stare down people talking about Peyton Manning, there has been some impatience in New England over the team’s progress recently.
The obvious problem is that the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004, their last two trips against the Giants as painful as they come. But there’s also that thing where watching Brady throw for 400 yards a game or 4,000 a season becomes routine in a league that’s increasingly full of 400 and 4,000 passers. Brady is good, but is he really that good? Is he a cut above the rest of the NFL? Is he really a quarterback for the ages, or does he just look good because he has the wins, the numbers and the presence week after week?
It’s laughable to really second-guess Brady, though, especially when pulling back for a moment. On the surface, Brady’s fantasy-type numbers may compare with others, and he may have a contest among other big arms. But Brady’s greatest strengths have never been his raw quarterbacking abilities, although he has plenty of those. His real transcendence lies in his football smarts and his ability to command a game and his team.
For Patriots fans looking for a refresher on that skill set, 2013 should be the perfect year.
Brady once cobbled together winning seasons on the backs of under-par offensive groups, and in 2013, as the Patriots return to the formula that brought them Lombardi Trophy-level success — strong defense and a good quarterback — he’ll be called on to do it again. It starts with the obvious gaps: Brady is missing almost all of his top receivers from last year, and the ones who aren’t off the team are injured. Julian Edelman, who was signed almost as an afterthought to plug into a group full of veterans and promising young rookies, has suddenly emerged as the Patriots’ best option after one week.
But the problems in the receiving corps go deeper. While Brady has been stuck before working with average pass-catchers, he’s now completely on an island, throwing to receivers who have never played an NFL game. Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce didn’t make it on the field for Week 1. Kenbrell Thompkins probably wished he hadn’t.
As Brady and the Patriots squeaked out their 23-21 win over the Bills on Sunday, Thompkins played much of the time — but not because he was playing well. He was playing because football teams need to have 11 players on the field, and because the Patriots probably wanted to run certain plays that require a certain number of receivers, of which they wouldn’t have had enough if they didn’t play Thompkins.
The rookie did it all Sunday. He dropped passes. He cut routes short. He caught balls (four for 42 yards) but failed to make moves after the catch. He found himself held on plays and squawked, found himself open on others and failed to get his feet inbounds. Simply put, he played like a rookie.
Brady had an uneven game at times, but he was sharp when he needed to be. Once he figured out he had to force the ball to Edelman, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola, he did, zipping lasers that were enough for the win. But for the rest of the game, when Thompkins was his option, he was in a tough spot. He tried the throws many times, only to see the results that could be expected when throwing to a wideout who isn’t quite there. It was strangely reminiscent of that United Way commercial, where Peyton Manning winds up with his uber-talented, rocket arm — and chucks the ball, point-blank, into the back of the child who’s come out and run the route wrong.
But for all the discouragement that Sunday provided for the Patriots, especially now that Vereen and Amendola are sidelined with injuries, it also showed that New England isn’t done, even if its rookies aren’t up to the task yet. The Patriots did pull out the win, and they did patch it together when it was needed. Best yet, Brady found a way to make it happen, and he didn’t show the kind of frustration with the rookies that could make a season doomed before it barely starts.
Even as the wheels were coming off Sunday, Brady was sharp, completing third downs at a rate not often seen last season. His reads were excellent, as he consistently found the right play to get the Patriots in the right position. He was inspiring, doing that angry Brady thing that can get even rotten players going.
Brady has talked before about needing patience with this group of receivers, and he showed it Sunday, giving second chances and finding ways to make plays happen even when the tools weren’t there. It wasn’t pretty, but given that the Patriots only need the regular season to get their receivers up to game speed, it didn’t have to be. Brady has time — he just has to apply his wide set of skills in a new way to make the results happen against different obstacles this year.
It’s not going to be as nice as Brady-to-Randy Moss was when Bill Belichick finally tuned up the offense after years of low-grade receivers. It won’t be as pretty as the always-clicking Brady-to-Wes Welker was, either.
But Brady-to-the-rookies is what the Patriots have demanded of their star quarterback this year. For those who have perhaps become used to Brady’s perennial excellence, this new challenge should reveal Brady’s abilities more than ever before.
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