With the departure of three of his top five receiving targets this offseason, Tom Brady has never had a bigger challenge in his career with the New England Patriots. Brady has dealt with turnover at the position before, but never this drastic, and never without the support of a veteran defense that could provide him with a safety net.
Not only did the Patriots lose Brady's favorite target Wes Welker, but they also said goodbye to top receiving back Danny Woodhead and his 40 catches, while also choosing to cut top outside threat Brandon Lloyd and his 74 catches.
In all, the Patriots are losing an unprecedented 62 percent of their receptions from 2012.
But it's more than just the numbers, they're losing their three most reliable weapons, as well as Brady's top three passing targets on third down.
Very few quarterbacks have the kind of longevity and consistent elite performance that Brady has had. That history will be put to the test this season, giving No. 12 a chance to cement his place as the greatest quarterback of all-time.
The Reche Caldwell Year
The closest season to this kind of offensive turnover happened in 2006, when Brady's top two receiving targets in David Givens and Deion Branch both departed. Givens signed with the Titans, while Branch held out looking for a better deal and was subsequently traded to Seattle, leaving the Patriots scrambling to find in-season receiving options like Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney.
Brady still had two reliable players to throw to in the almost-done Troy Brown and the in-his-prime Kevin Faulk. Those two, along with Benjamin Watson, gave him enough options to get by even with the likes of Gabriel, Reche Caldwell and Chad Jackson on the outside.
The 2006 Patriots made it within a half of getting back to the Super Bowl, before running out of gas and blowing a 21-6 halftime lead. Even with a depleted roster and many players battling the flu, they still went toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning in his home stadium, falling just short 38-34.
While many Patriots fans remember the frustrations of 2006, including over-analysis of Brady's "body language," it's easy to forget that the Pats were still seventh in the NFL in points and 12th in total yards.
Despite having the most unimpressive weapons of his career, Brady and the Pats kept rolling, though the lack of talent at receiver likely cost them their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons, with Reche Caldwell making some costly drops against the Colts.
The next offseason the Pats assembled a virtual free agent All-Star team at receiver, and that class, led by Welker, has kept their passing offense dominant ever since.
When Brady's career is over and the his place among the all-time greats is debated, 2013 could be the final nail in the coffin that seals it for him. When we look at the careers of quarterbacks with sustained greatness like Joe Montana, Peyton Manning and John Elway, they never dealt with turnover such as Brady has faced.
Part of that is because of the age of free agency. Another reason is the Patriots' fearlessness when it comes to turning over their roster. 2013 presents Brady with a chance to make yet another group of receivers into a dynamic offense.
Montana had the luxury of long-term contributions from the same weapons. Dwight Clark led the way to Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. Never was Montana without an elite receiver at his disposal. In 10 years as a starter with the 49ers, one of those three players was his leading receiver every year.
Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, one of whom led the Colts in receiving every season except for Manning's rookie year, only because Harrison was limited to 12 games.
Meanwhile, in Brady's 12 starting seasons, he's already had five different leading receivers, and 2013 will make his sixth.
Brady's career could follow Elway's more closely, as he was able to hold on long enough with an elite tight end in Shannon Sharpe and a running back in Terrell Davis until Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey hit the next level and helped the Broncos bring home two Super Bowls to cap Elway's career.
Brady must do the same with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Stevan Ridley, because outside of those players, there is nothing to connect the 2013 offense with the 2010 version of the Pats offense, much less the 2007 one or any of the Super Bowl-winning ones before that.
Defense Wins Championships
The biggest question since 2009 is whether the turnover from the dynasty defense could happen fast enough to carry Brady at the end of his career. 2013 will begin the final test of that.
There's no question that the Patriots' dynasty of the 2000s was built in large part on the backs of a veteran defense with an elite front seven. From 2001-2007, it didn't seem to matter who was on the back end (though it certainly helped when Rodney Harrison was healthy). All that mattered was that they had Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and the others upfront who set the tone and made the biggest plays on the biggest stages.
The Patriots have lacked that defensive magic and clutch ability since the last of those players left prior to the 2009 season. The opportunities for at least one more Super Bowl, and maybe even more, have been there the last three years and may have happened had the defense made the big plays that the dynasty defense used to.
Now, with Brady and the offense in full turnover, it's time for the defense to step up and be a unit that wins games, not one that just doesn't lose them. Brady can't be expected to carry them, at least until he gets familiar with his new weapons.
For Brady to perform at an elite level with a fourth incarnation of the Patriots offense, it would be a significant feather in his cap, and something not seen before from any Hall of Fame quarterback.
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