Year in and year out, it's been the kindling for debate in New England. Patriots fans enjoy nothing more than arguing Tom Brady's place among quarterbacks in the league, today and for all time, and each time the argument gets under way, the discussion revolves around the same point.
In some years, Patriots fans have been able to puff out their chests, knowing that Brady was putting up MVP-caliber seasons with pedestrian receiving corps. In others, the critics have had the upper hand, pointing out that Brady has had the luxury of throwing to Pro Bowlers, future Hall of Famers, or both.
The Brady discussions occur every year, and they always serve to remind participants just how unstable the New England wide receiver situation has been since No. 12 took over in 2001.
The Patriots have been loaded, but the cupboard has also been bare.
Usually, they've been somewhere in the middle.
With Brady prepared to throw in 2012 to his 12th different group of receivers, here's a breakdown of the 10 best casts he's had so far.
Top receivers: Troy Brown (101 REC, 1,199 YDS, 5 TD), David Patten (51 REC, 749 YDS, 4 TD), Charles Johnson (14 REC, 111 YDS, 1 TD)
Tom Brady's rise to stardom didn't come courtesy of a stellar supporting cast.
The Patriots did have a surefire stud in Brown, who took over the No. 1 spot thanks to Terry Glenn's attitude issues and responded with a Pro Bowl season.
After that, however, it was slim pickings.
Patten emerged as the team's best deep threat but didn't blossom until the playoffs, when the team put more faith in Brady's arm.
The wide-receiver corps was hurt overall by the loss of franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, as the Patriots turned more to an offense of screens and precision passes, to help ease Brady into the starting role.
Conservative play-calling and an overall lack of talent made this an altogether unimpressive bunch, but it was still a gritty group that found a way to make the plays necessary to earn the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
Top receivers: Deion Branch (57 REC, 803 YDS, 3 TD), Troy Brown (40 REC, 472 YDS, 4 TD), David Givens (34 REC, 510 YDS, 6 TD)
There were some good names in this group, and like the '01 corps, these receivers played their best in the biggest moments.
But this bunch ranks low because, despite the quality names in the mix, they were still blossoming into or moving away from their primes.
Branch and Givens both became playoff highlight machines for the Patriots, but both were only in their second NFL seasons in 2003. Brown was still a fine player, but his best days were behind him at this point.
The Patriots went 14-2 and won a Super Bowl with this group, but when you have the No. 1 defense in the league, your receivers don't have to do too much.
Still, this was a clutch group of players.
They all earned Brady's trust, which, as Chad Ochocinco, Chad Jackson and Joey Galloway would tell you, is saying something.
Top receivers: Wes Welker (122 REC, 1,569 YDS, 9 TD), Deion Branch (51 REC, 702 YDS, 5 TD), Chad Ochocinco (15 REC, 276 YDS, 1 TD)
Wes Welker's historic season is the only reason this receiving outfit is on the list. The 2011 Patriots didn't try to beat teams with wide receivers.
They had tight ends to do that.
Still, the depth with this group was pretty weak. If Ochocinco, ridiculed and labeled a failure all year, is your third-best option, that's a bad sign.
This bunch does receive points for Welker's performance, however, as the Pro Bowler started the year off with a bang and stayed hot, racking up eight 100-yard games.
Branch, while down noticeably from 2010, was no slouch, either, providing his normal steady presence at the sticks for Brady.
Top receivers: Deion Branch (78 REC, 998 YDS, 5 TD), David Givens (59 REC, 738 YDS, 2 TD) and Troy Brown (39 REC, 466 YDS, 2 TD).
The Patriots had a pretty good passing attack going in 2005. The Super Bowl-winning group of receivers from 2003 had another two years' of experience (which included another Lombardi Trophy) and as a result developed the type of identity that hasn't been unusual in New England: There weren't stars, but there were players that got the job done.
The 2005 Patriots slumped following their back-to-back titles, but a defense with an unstable linebacking corps and secondary was most at fault.
In fact, this group helped Tom Brady begin his emergence as a statistical force, as he led the NFL with 4,110 passing yards.
It was the last go-around for the bunch, as Givens and Branch were gone by the start of the next season.
Top receivers: Wes Welker (86 REC, 848 YDS, 7 TD), Deion Branch (48 REC, 706 YDS, 5 TD), Brandon Tate (24 REC, 432 YDS, 3 TD).
This group was very similar to the one in 2011, though Branch was more dangerous, Welker wasn't as good and Tate out-performed Ochocinco.
The Patriots receivers found their stride in the fifth game of the season, following the trade of Randy Moss to the Vikings. Branch came in and gelled immediately, while Welker played well (despite a down year by his standards) and Tate had some good moments.
The 2010 Patriots, who also had then-rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, saw the offense transition back into a deep, throw-to-the-open-man attack, rather than the 2007-09 style of looking for either Welker or Moss on every drop-back.
It worked well, as Brady won the MVP that year and the Patriots came away with 14 wins.
Top receivers: Wes Welker (123 REC, 1,348 YDS, 4 TD), Randy Moss (83 REC, 1,264 YDS, 13 TD), Julian Edelman (37 REC, 359 YDS, 1 TD)
The explosiveness of the Welker-Moss tandem (Remember the snow game against Tennessee?) makes it the highest on the list to this point, but despite the powerful names at the top, this was a largely disappointing group.
Welker was sensational, and Moss, at times, looked like the first-ballot Hall of Famer he will be, but the Patriots had zero depth at the receiver position.
The team was forced to settle with Edelman and Sam Aiken as third receivers, both of whom weren't suited for the responsibility.
As a result, when Welker went down in the season finale against Houston, there was no hope for someone to be able to step up and fill his void. All year long, teams that could handle Moss and focus on Welker stopped the Patriots' passing game every time.
That represented a fatal flaw that wasn't about to be cured in time for the playoffs.
Still, when Moss was on, this was a group that could put up yards and points with the best of them.
It just didn't happen enough.
Top receivers: David Givens (56 REC, 874 YDS, 3 TD), David Patten (44 REC, 800 YDS, 7 TD) and Deion Branch (35 REC, 454 YDS, 4 TD).
The Patriots in 2004 were good.
The receiving corps was, too, as Branch missed seven games during the season and the team never skipped a beat.
One of the reasons for that was that these Patriots, as opposed to the ones from 2009, had plenty of depth.
Patten had a solid season, and Troy Brown (17 receptions) and Bethel Johnson (10) contributed highlights during the season, as well.
In 2004, there was a high degree of chemistry going on between Brady and his targets. They flourished (as Super Bowl champions tend to do) in big games, and while Peyton Manning's three 1,000-yard receivers in Indianapolis got the press, Brady's bunch never appeared insufficient.
They were just steady, all the time.
Top receivers: Wes Welker (111 REC, 1,165 YDS, 3 TD), Randy Moss (69 REC, 1,008 yards, 11 TD) and Jabar Gaffney (38 REC, 468 YDS, 2 TD)
The pieces were in place for the 2008 Patriots to light up the scoreboard, just as the '07 squad had the year before.
Tom Brady couldn't make it, but this group made things easy for his replacement.
Matt Cassel quickly learned to be a starting NFL quarterback while relieving Brady, but the players he was throwing to helped him out greatly. Welker was a stud all year, and Moss, once Cassel figured out how to utilize him downfield, had a terrific second half of the season.
This New England team also had a third receiver, as Gaffney flourished in that role.
The receivers in '08 didn't suffer any letdowns.
Had a certain 2007 MVP stayed healthy, this offense might have been the one with the numbers that teams years from now will still be chasing.
Top receivers: TBD
Sure, this is entirely projection, but it's hard to imagine these Patriots receivers not forming one of the more impressive groups in recent team history.
There are just too many names in the mix.
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd offer guaranteed production going forward, and the Patriots also have old teammates Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney in to gun for the third spot. Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are also trying to make the team, giving New England a "strength in numbers" scenario.
Though the Patriots will continue to bank on the Gronkowski/Hernandez combination, they finally have versatility in their receiving corps.
They have a deep threat. They still have the game's best possession receiver. They'll likely come away with a third receiver they can trust and rely on.
The time is now for the Patriots to take full advantage of Tom Brady's peak while they still can.
It appears the team got the memo.
Top receivers: Wes Welker (112 REC, 1,175 YDS, 8 TD), Randy Moss (98 REC, 1,493 YDS, 23 TD), Donte Stallworth (46 REC, 697 YDS, 3 TD)
This is a no-brainer.
In 2007, the Patriots replaced their worst receiving corps of the Brady era with what was certainly their best, if not the best receiving outfit of all time.
The Patriots in '07 were spectacular, breathtaking and awesome.
For parts of the season, they scored at will and crushed opponents. Even when they weren't scoring as often, the threat of a big play was always there, at every snap.
Moss had the best scoring season by a receiver ever. Welker topped 100 catches. Stallworth and Gaffney (36 REC, 449 YDS, 5 TD) were also dangerous options, whose stats were compromised by the fact that Brady could throw only one ball at a time to the high-octane attack.
It would be hard for a team to accomplish more at the receiver position than the Patriots did in '07. It was an aggressive spread offense run to perfection, with a pass-happy mind calling the shots and the best quarterback in the game carrying them out on the field.
It didn't hurt that Brady had as talented a cast as he could hope for with which to work.
Early on in his career, Brady was defended for getting by with lackluster ability in his targets.
In 2007, there was never a need.