The New England Patriots are perfect on paper with a 2-0 record. And yet both victories offered uncomfortable glimpses into the heart and soul of a sloppy, disgruntled offense struggling to connect. In the end, they made just enough plays to squeak by the Bills and the Jets, yet plenty of problems linger for quarterback Tom Brady and his chess pieces.
Patriot Nation, though normally unified, has splintered into two distinct groups.
The first group maintains a positive outlook for New England's chances in 2013. They believe two wins is two wins, no matter how ugly the style. They're of a mindset that two games within a five-day span in September hardly paints a portrait of what this offense will look like in November. And with so many rookies in the mix, they believe patience will eventually become a Super Bowl-caliber virtue.
The second group has more of a doomed view. They'll take the wins in a tangible sense, but they count the wins as losses from an emotional standpoint. And with regards to receiver Danny Amendola being sidelined for a few weeks (via ESPNBoston.com) and tight end Rob Gronkowski still rehabbing, they view this chronically shorthanded and injured offense with a "you get what you pay for" mentality.
Which group do you belong to?
While you chew on that, here are stat predictions for each of New England's offensive players heading into Week 3's matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Week 1 Stats: 7 receptions, 79 yards, 2 TD, 35-yard longest reception, 9 targets
Week 2 Stats: 13 receptions, 78 yards, 0 TD, 10-yard longest reception, 18 targets
Analysis: Julian Edelman is New England's best offensive player right now. He's been dynamic, smart, highlight-worthy and durable (knock and wood).
In Week 2, with Danny Amendola absent and Tom Brady's rookie receivers dropping everything, Edelman delivered a defining "security blanket" performance. From that point forward, he ceased to be "Julian Edelman, ace returner on special teams" and he finally became "Julian Edelman, wide receiver." Patriots fans waited five years to see him make that transformation. It was worth the wait.
Edelman now has a shot to earn a longer contract and become one of Brady's top receivers for the remainder of the quarterback's career, but that honor will be totally dependent on the receiver's ability to stay on the field. For the injury-prone Edelman, health is a game-to-game affair. It's a dangerous tightrope walk which continues on Sunday.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 10 receptions, 94 yards, 1 TD, 36-yard longest reception
Week 1 Stats: DNP
Week 2 Stats: 3 receptions, 56 yards, 1 TD, 39-yard longest reception, 10 targets
Analysis: Rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson's first career reception was a 39-yard touchdown which put his team up 7-0 on the Jets. The score came early in the game, and it looked like Dobson and the Patriots would spend the rest of the night on easy street.
But soon after, Dobson's hands went haywire, as seven targeted passes went astray in his vicinity. To be fair, a few of those passes were inaccurately thrown (possibly a side effect of the quarterback's overblown frustration that night). Nevertheless, a foreseeably swift victory suddenly descended into an ugly dogfight over point scraps.
Though Dobson hit some valleys, it's worth hanging your hat on his first catch and score, which offered the same sense of cool ease which which defined his style in college. Even in the midst of all those drops, that touchdown signified a star buried deep down, just waiting to emerge.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 3 receptions, 39 yards, 0 TD, 18-yard longest reception
Week 1 Stats: 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 TD
Week 2 Stats: 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 TD
Analysis: For me, one quote perfectly summarizes the slow-going with rookie receiver Josh Boyce; it comes from Paul Perillo, analyst for Patriots Football Weekly on Patriots.com, who made this up-close assessment while observing the young receiver at training camp:
Boyce is certainly fast, and at times he's shown some shake and ability to get himself open. What he hasn't done consistently is catch the football. He often seems to fight the ball even when he makes the catch, and too often he hasn't been able to hold onto it at all. Drops happen to everyone but so far in camp they've happened to Boyce too often, and on Thursday he had another during an early drill.
On Sunday, Boyce will be challenged by a physical, rugged Tampa Bay team which coach Bill Belichick described as "two plays away from being 2-0." It would be great to see Boyce breakout, but it feels like a stretch to see him outmuscling that defense.
His time will come later this season.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 2 catches, 13 yards, 0 TD
Week 1 Stats: 4 receptions, 42 yards, 0 TD, 20-yard longest reception, 14 targets
Week 2 Stats: 2 receptions, 47 yards, 0 TD, 38-yard longest reception, 7 targets
Analysis: Heading into New England's offseason workouts, undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was an obscure character on the fringe. Then he started catching everything thrown his way and it became clear he was destined to be a part of the Patriots' plans, whatever those plans happened to be.
But after two regular season games, Thompkins only has only six catches on 21 targets for fewer than 100 total yards. This wasn't quite the plan everyone was hoping for.
Still, though, Thompkins is the real deal. Through spring and summer, he was consistent and brilliant. Two disappointing games aside, he's a rare talent, and fans should stick with him. This kid goes up and gets it. He'll find his groove.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 8 catches, 101 yards, 1 TD, 31-yard longest reception
Week 1 Stats: 9 carries, 46 yards, 0 TD, 20-yard longest run, 1 fumble
Week 2 Stats: 16 carries, 40 yards, 0 TD, 9-yard longest run
Analysis: Some things are easier to predict than others. For example, injuries to Gronkowski and Amendola have always been easy to anticipate. Similarly, you can expect running back Stevan Ridley to fumble. He did it four times last year and again in the playoffs.
Then, in Week 1 against the Bills, he fumbled, and it was recovered and returned 74 yards for a Buffalo touchdown. In Week 2, he came oh-so-close to fumbling again.
This problem isn't going away. He might not fumble against the Buccaneers, but he will fumble down the road. Just as injuries to Amendola and Gronkowski are commonplace at this point, you just have to accept Ridley's fumbling and live with it.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 14 carries, 82 yards, 1 TD, 0 fumble (for now)
Week 1 Stats: 7 carries, 15 yards, 0 TD, 5-yard longest run
Week 2 Stats: 4 carries, 11 yards, 0 TD, 7-yard longest run
Analysis: Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason, running back LeGarrette Blount authored a twisty 51-yard rushing score, which seemed to establish him as a fierce weapon in the Patriots' ground arsenal.
But to this point, he's rushed for less than 30 yards with a long run of only seven yards.
The Patriots could certainly use a boost from Blount, given the wrist injury to running back Shane Vereen, which will sideline him until Week 11. Blount will feel a spike in numbers, but it's tough to see him spinning enough magic to ease the intense sting of losing Vereen, who was on the verge of stardom.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 7 carries, 24 yards, 0 TD, 9-yard longest run
Week 1 Stats: 1 reception, 5 yards, 0 TD, 2 targets
Week 2 Stats: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 TD, 0 targets
Analysis: Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was brought in last season to compensate for a depleted tight end unit.
He never took off in a major way, but he had two standout catches near the tail end of the season, including a 41-yard catch against the 49ers and a 32-yard catch against the Jaguars. Those catches served as a friendly reminder that Hoomanawanui is capable of sneakily making a quick gash of yardage here and there.
But for now, Hoomanawanui's quarterback seems exclusively interested in building a rapport with his receivers. The intense priority on the rookie long-ball threats will likely leave the tight end's numbers low.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 1 catch, 6 yards, 0 TD
Week 1 Stats: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 TD
Week 2 Stats: DNP
Analysis: Just a few short weeks ago, tight end Zach Sudfeld was slated as the next great hope. But for now, he has no catches on his professional resume. A sense of unease has crept into the air, leaving Patriots fans clamoring for reinforcements.
According to ESPN's Ed Werder, there's a "50-50 chance" tight end Rob Gronkowski will play on Sunday. This 50-50 outlook reflects a current uptick in the cultural desire to get Gronkowski back, which is certainly linked to the disappointing performance of Sudfeld and the fear-inducing gap at tight end.
But is it worth jeopardizing Gronkowski's recovery process to appease this fear?
Ideally, it would be best to let Gronkowski heal and keep pressing the new recruits to get better. Of course, that's easier said than done with Sudfeld nursing a hamstring injury. Still, though, look for Sudfeld to play a limited role and show glimpses of improvement.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 4 catches, 36 yards, 0 TD
Week 1 Stats: 29 completions, 52 attempts, 288 yards, 2 TD, 1 pick, 1 fumble
Week 2 Stats: 19 completions, 39 attempts, 185 yards, 1 TD, 0 pick
Analysis: Watching Brady lose his temper and stare down his receivers with a cold glare during the Jets game was a bit like watching a parent getting flustered when their kids are screaming in a crowded restaurant. It's odd to think this parent is in charge of turning these kids into disciplined receivers who can win the Super Bowl. It's the greatest challenge of his career.
Two somewhat contradictory thoughts come to mind. On one hand, this is a radically unfair responsibility to place on Brady's shoulders. On the other hand, it's downright fascinating to see the greatest slinger in the league rediscover the game he's mastered, even at the expense of his nerves.
This is an experiment of epic proportions.
Week 3 Stat Prediction: 28 completions, 289 yards, 1 pick, 2 TD, 1 QB sneak
And now, for some final thoughts...
Wide Receiver David Patten, Super Bowl XXXVI
New England's offense is in rough shape right now, there's no denying it. However, there are a few things to consider in terms of the bigger picture.
Back in 2007, the Patriots averaged a whopping 36.8 points per game. In 2012, they averaged a tremendous 34.8 points per game. Those seasons served as bookends on a period of time when New England's offensive output was superhuman.
Interestingly, though, in New England's three championship seasons (2001, 2003 and 2004), its largest offensive average from week to week was only 27.3 points per game (2004). Plus, Brady only threw 18 touchdowns and 2,843 yards in his first ring year of 2001, which is peanuts compared to his 50 touchdowns from 2007 and his 5,235 yards from 2011.
The point is, a superhuman offense doesn't necessarily win banners and parades. For Brady, smaller numbers delivered the rings, while the bigger numbers ultimately delivered heartache.
So, if you find yourself yearning nostalgically for the overpowering attack of Randy Moss and Wes Welker or the jaw-dropping duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, just keep in mind that those elite tandems never actually won anything.
If this is truly a team which defines itself by rings and banners, then those high-powered offenses between 2007 and 2012 aren't worthy of being the yardstick by which we measure the 2013 Patriots.
So then, who cares if this isn't the same offense anymore? Who wants another near-perfect (or actually perfect) season with another playoff collapse? Good riddance to that.
It's a good thing that the Patriots are trying something different this year. Bumpy as it may be, they've changed the experiment to achieve a different result.
All of this sloppiness could be just what the doctor ordered.