There has been so much said this preseason about Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, among others—and holy cow, did you see that opening game from Peyton Manning? Brady, in a way, seems to have gotten a little lost in the NFL quarterback conversation.
With only a handful of true Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, and the AFC East possibly being the weakest division in the league, it feels insane to suggest the New England Patriots aren't one of the favorites to get to the Super Bowl. And yet, so much of that prediction feels like it's based on one guy.
In an offseason where everything in New England has been about everyone but Brady, there is no player—perhaps in the entire NFL—whose team is more about him as the season begins.
Brady, who turned 36 in August, begins the campaign with the toughest challenge he's ever faced. He has to find a way to get New England back to Super Bowl contention with a receiving corps consisting of, what, exactly?
He heads into the season throwing to a banged-up tight end, a poor man's replacement for his top target and a couple of untested rookies.
He has everything against him, and yet, for some reason, I feel like he might throw for 5,000 yards—just to prove people wrong. (Note: and to win.)
Doesn't it feel that way? The Patriots dominated NFL news all offseason—most notably with that whole "Aaron Hernandez can't stop murdering people, allegedly" storyline that parked a permanent black cloud over the Patriots' football compound. Now that the season is finally starting, there seems to be an odd football feeling that Brady somehow has to prove himself this year.
Is it possible, that with all the tumult around him—from the Hernandez debacle to more football-related personnel situations like the departure of Wes Welker to Denver and Rob Gronkowski's ongoing health issues—Brady is entering the 2013 NFL season as…an underdog?
While the Peter Kings of the world—well, maybe just Peter King—think the Patriots will win the Super Bowl and Tom Terrific will be named NFL MVP, it's hard to shake the feeling that New England's front office has set Brady up for either abject failure or some kind of a magic trick.
He has to lead the Patriots to the playoffs with no receivers and his throwing hand tied behind his back. Imagine the marketing materials.
Come See the Amazing Tom Terrific! Watch him win the AFC East with no receivers at all, bouncing the ball off defenders so his offensive line can catch every pass this season! Left-handed!
Don't forget to stick around for the bear riding a unicycle and the bearded lady.
Even King's selection of Brady as MVP came with an enormous hedge, suggesting at the MMQB, "If I’m right, and the Patriots win the AFC’s top seed, this will be Brady’s shining moment, getting the Pats to the top of a tough conference with virtually entirely new skill players."
So…what if he's wrong? That's the question nobody this preseason seems to be able to figure out, which may have been why all those other quarterbacks are getting more of the attention. What if this combination of receivers is too much for Brady to overcome, and the Patriots offense becomes, gulp, mediocre?
Brady completed 401 passes last season, and the players who caught 306 of those balls are gone.
Welker, who caught 118 balls last year, left for money and respect in Denver. Brandon Lloyd, who managed 74 catches last year, is still trying to find a job. Danny Woodhead, who caught 40 passes, is a Charger. Aaron Hernandez, who snagged 51 balls last year, is in court.
Only two players are back from last season's Patriots team who caught 20 or more passes. Rob Gronkowski, battling to return from offseason surgery, caught 55 passes in a down year for him. Julian Edelman—listed on the Patriots' unofficial depth chart as a starter across from newcomer Danny Amendola—caught 21 passes.
That's it. With Woodhead gone, the remaining running backs on the roster from last year caught fewer than 20 passes combined.
Can Brady replace all that receiving production with Amendola and four rookie targets?
He doesn't really have a choice.
Boston.com scribe Zuri Berry took a look at Brady's new targets this season: Amendola—signed from St. Louis after catching 196 balls in his four-year NFL career—and rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld.
Two of those rookies were undrafted. Thompkins wasn't selected in part because of a checkered past, and Sudfeld because of one rife with injuries. Dobson and Boyce were early-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft. There is no time for a rookie learning curve for any of them.
Not this season. Not for Brady.
The Patriots are expecting (read: hoping) Amendola will replace Welker and the rookies will combine by committee to make up for the other lost production. The thing is, we can extol the football virtues of Brady's past receiving targets all we want when comparing the newness of this year's crew, but it's not like any of his old receivers—save for Randy Moss—were exactly Hall of Fame receivers before going to New England.
Welker averaged 112 catches and 1,243 yards per season while in New England, but he only had 96 catches for 1,121 yards total in his three seasons before linking up with Brady. By that measure, Amendola is twice the career receiver—almost to the catch—as Welker was when he got to town.
Life will be different without Welker, but Brady was finding ways to put together stellar seasons with smoke and mirrors long before he had a 100-catch security blanket.
Brady led the Patriots to the AFC title game in 2006 when his leading receiver was Reche Caldwell, who caught 61 balls for 760 yards and four scores in the regular season that year. In total, 15 different receivers caught balls that year, with 11 players grabbing more than 10 and seven receivers catching more than 20 passes.
Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl championship following the 2004 season with David Givens (56 catches for 874 yards) and David Patten (44 catches for 800 yards) as his leading receivers. He completed five passes to defensive tackle Dan Klecko and linebacker Mike Vrabel that year. He has always been able to figure out a way.
That, however, was almost 10 years ago. At some point, we have to expect the game to catch up to Brady, don't we?
Or do we?
Brady threw for more than 10,000 yards over the last two combined seasons. His completion percentage, while down a few points last season from the three years before, is still one of the best in NFL history. In fact, he has gotten better with age, thanks in part to a wide spread offense. He has completed more passes at a more efficient rate nearly every season he has been in the league.
Surely those players catching the passes had something to do with Brady's success, which leads us back to the beginning: Is Brady still great enough to turn this receiving corps into a winner?
Moreover, is it fair to expect him to do what he has always done in the past? Just because he has been terrific before, is that a reason to expect he can do it with this band of unknown receivers?
King may be right. If Brady does turn this offense back into an AFC juggernaut and keeps the Patriots on the short list of Super Bowl contenders, he will deserve the MVP. There is no reason not to think he can and little reason to suggest he won't.
It just doesn't seem fair that New England is making him do it blindfolded, with both arms behind his back this year. Who knows—maybe the bearded lady will have surprisingly soft hands.
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