FOXBOROUGH—As sports writers, we are constantly asked to react to events at the drop of a hat. This column comes to you no more than an hour-and-a-half after the New England Patriots routed the Carolina Panthers, 30-7, in the third preseason game for both teams.
Sometimes, in our rush to judgment, some rash statements are thrown into the blogosphere and stir up a polarizing conversation.
One preseason game isn't going to end those discussions—and it shouldn't—but it provides us a new context to look at the events that led to those earlier conclusions.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had, from a statistical perspective, the worst regular season of his career in 2013. Yet, somehow, he held fast in the 2013 MVP discussion into the month of December—despite wild circumstances that would have led most other quarterbacks to their outright demise.
Now, with more time to get in lockstep with those receivers, Brady has given us our first example that maybe, perhaps, possibly, we overreacted. Even still, he's not ready to heap praise on the offense just yet, saying after the game:
Yeah, it wasn't bad, but there are a lot of things that we left out there...We got bailed out there a few times on a few defensive calls. Missed some blitz stuff, missed some throws. I think we can be a lot better. It's an important week for us to try to get better. The days are winding down until all these games count. It gets pretty exciting here in a few weeks, but you've still got to try to use these days to make as many improvements as we can.
Given how Brady and the offense looked tonight, any improvement from this stage would make them very tough to stop.
Spread The Ball
There's been some consternation in New England over the lack of a true No. 1 target for the Patriots offense. Never mind the fact that we've yet to see any preseason action from the only player who could reasonably fill that role, tight end Rob Gronkowski, but perhaps this offense will be more noteworthy for the ability to get everyone involved.
Brady went a perfect 15-for-15 for 167 yards when throwing to wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen, and went 2-for-3 when targeting wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. (The lone incompletion was a drop.)
The offense will only become even more dynamic when they get back Gronkowski, as well as second-year wide receiver Aaron Dobson, who has also yet to play a snap in the preseason.
It was a slow start for the Patriots offense, with just three points in the first quarter—and those points were a result of a short drive by backup quarterback Ryan Mallett—but the offense found its stride in the second and third quarters to give the Patriots some nice momentum heading into the final preseason game.
No Rob Gronkowski, No Problem
For a time, it appeared Brady would be lost without a reliable tight end to catch passes over the middle. In a dramatic change from recent years, not one of Brady's 21 attempted passes targeted a tight end.
Long gone are the days when Aaron Hernandez was making defenses look silly, and Gronkowski has missed as many games as he has played over the past two season (18 played and 18 missed, including playoff games).
Gronkowski will be back at some point, we're just not yet a hundred percent sure when that will be.
As expected, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski will sit tonight. Everything is still on course, though -- Optimistic, but not certain about Wk 1.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) August 22, 2014
In the meantime, Brady seems more than content to throw it to his wide receivers.
Perhaps this is as good an indication as any as to the logic behind the Patriots constantly loading up on slot receivers. Some people (myself included) have called it redundant to have so many receivers with such similar skill sets on the roster. How could an offense function with so much of its production dependent to its slot receivers?
That being said, having those reliable slot receivers has helped give Brady options over the middle in the absence of reliable tight ends. Going a step further than that, his 35-yard hook-up to Edelman on a seam route was a play we would normally see between Brady and Gronkowski.
With so many receivers returning to health, and with more options at Brady's disposal than before, Edelman has been viewed by some as a regression candidate. Based on tonight, and a strong preseason overall, he still has the potential to catch 100 passes.
Once Gronkowski comes back, though, those slot receivers could be freed up even more. That's a scary thought for opposing defenses.
What's The Difference?
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the headlines were loaded with wonder over whether Brady and his receivers would be able to get on the same page. With so little continuity from 2012 to 2013, Brady's drop-off in performance was easy to explain.
This year, however, the continuity in personnel makes for a little smoother transition from last season.
Instead of getting familiar with a whole new cast of receivers, Brady is building on what he learned from that group in 2013. Instead of trying to get his receivers to see the defense through the same set of eyes, he is able to trust that they will be in the right place at the right time.
The chemistry experiment nearly blew up in the Patriots' face at times in 2013. The data collected from that season provided fodder for foolish debates like the one outlined at the beginning of this column. But the 2014 season will provide new context, and give us a new look at what could be the old Brady.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained via team news release.