The New England Patriots are 3-2 five games into the 2009 season. In a year filled with high hopes and aspirations of grandeur, there haven't been many signs to validate either.
Oddly enough, the biggest reason for continued hope moving forward is the same reason they aren't by themselves atop the AFC East as of this writing: Tom Brady has not played like himself.
He's been serviceable at best. Slightly above average, but not consistent enough to call great, or even very good. He's routinely missed on throws that were routine two years ago, he hasn't shown his patented knack for the clutch play, or game-winning drive, and he clearly isn't on the same page as his receivers. Yet.
That's the operative word. Yet. He showed flashes during the opening game of the season against Buffalo. He floundered in mediocrity all game until the final two drives, with the game on the line, when he dug deep and found something within himself, something Patriots fans are desperate to see more of.
That the unrelenting desire and drive to win at all costs. It's been his trademark throughout his entire career, and now, after missing an entire season due to injury, he seems to have lost it.
If you truly believe that, look again. Week One showed that he still has the tenacity to get it done, unfortunately, after a full year of rehab he's more than a little rusty.
Understandably so, his big play threat, Randy Moss, is a half-step slower, and his chief protector, Matt Light, couldn't protect his own genitals with a jock strap, cup, chastity belt, and a half-dozen condoms.
Ironically enough, Light's injury (the extent of which has yet to be determined) could be the best case scenario for the Patriots. Rookie Sebastian Vollmer played with a mean streak on Sunday, and introduced himself firsthand to several Bronco defenders.
Not only did he contain premier pass-rusher Dumerville, but on one particular play, on a screen pass to Sammy Morris, he was blocking one defender downfield, and took out another one with his body on the way by. Any time an offensive lineman takes two defenders out of a play, it warrants noting.
Vollmer has all the tools to succeed. As a former tight end, he has quick feet and hands, both traits that Matt "Turnstyles" Light lacks, and an understanding of how to adjust his blocking assigments on run plays.
Not to mention with pads and a uniform on, he looks like Sloth from the Goonies compared to the other players. He's big, he's smart, he's strong, and he's quick. He will be a fixture on the O-Line for a long time.
All kidding aside, the O-Line has been sufficient, it's Brady who's been off. Understandably so, I mean the man only missed an entire season after knee surgery. Peyton Manning got off to a similarly slow start after minor knee surgery before winning the NFL MVP award, how can Brady be expected to return without missing a beat?
New England fans expected it because Brady's defied so many odds in the past, this was supposed to be just another effortless hurdle. But it hasn't been.
He's rusty, his timing is off, he's missing open targets, and he's frustrated. It shows.
It isn't often the cool-headed Brady yells at a receiver (Galloway in Week 2) or barks at himself all the way to the sideline (this past week against Denver). Is he mad at his receivers' poor execution? Perhaps. Is he mad at himself for missing open targets and leaving points on the field? Absolutely.
That on its own should give New England fans hope. The Patriots are 3-2, in a tie for first place in the AFC East even though their vaunted offense, and particularly their star quarterback, have misfired more often than not.
Brady's skills are still there. Mankins, Koppen, Neal, Kazcur, and now Vollmer are doing their part. It's just a matter of shaking the rust off and recapturing his timing. Believe me, a competitor as fierce as Brady will not tolerate losing if there's anything he can do about it.
He will work harder than ever to sharpen up and shake off the rust. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen. When it does, I pity the team their playing against.
As though the looming threat of Brady isn't enough, the defense had performed surprisingly well in the absence of their best playmaker, Jerod Mayo. Last season's defensive Rookie of the Year worked like an animal to return far sooner than expected and should provide a massive boost to a unit sorely lacking big-play ability.
His impact was felt immediately when his first tackle in four games also resulted in a forced fumble and a turnover.
The defense is not elite, but it is legit, and should put the Patriots in a position to win more often than not. A 3-2 record isn't terrible by any means, but it is the worst start to a season Brady's ever had, which is telling.
There is little doubt No. 12 is doing all he can to return to form, and considering how competitive a player he is, nobody has any reason to doubt him. He can only get better from here, and he could attain his former glory at any moment.
He was just forced to watch helplessly on the sidelines in overtime as the Broncos drove downfield to beat his Patriots. I can't imagine a worse feeling for a quarterback than that. The Patriots are 3-2, and if I were any other team in the NFL, I'd be scared as hell.