Be Careful, NFL: Tom Brady Is in Trouble, and That's When He's at His Best

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 19, 2017

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls an audible from the line of scrimmage in the second half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

Tom Brady has been here before. 

Brady has been everywhere before. But the current, depleted state of the Patriots offense is familiar territory for him.

Rob Gronkowski is in "day-to-day" groin mystery limbo. Julian Edelman is out for the year. Danny Amendola is in the concussion protocol. Chris Hogan was seen struggling with a right leg injury Sunday. Malcolm Mitchell is out, and newcomer Phillip Dorsett appears destined for the injury report. Even the replacements need replacing.

This is the time in Brady's career when he's supposed to be getting extra help. John Elway had Terrell Davis. Peyton Manning let the Broncos defense drag him across the finish line. Heck, even Wolverine got a stabby sidekick to carry him through his final adventure. But Brady must revert to lone gunslinger mode.

Brady was here in 2015, when Gronk, Amendola and Edelman could never get into the same huddle at the same time. Guys like Keshawn Martin, Brandon LaFell and Brandon Bolden had to fill in. There were a pair of two-game losing streaks and some scary moments, but the Patriots finished 12-4.

Brady was here in 2013, when a Gronk-and-Friends injury rash left him throwing to the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Michael Hoomanawanui. There were some shaky moments, like a 13-6 loss to the Bengals. But there were also shootout victories, and the Patriots finished 12-4.

Brady was here in 2006, before the Patriots pivoted from a balance-and-defense team to an aerial circus. New England cobbled together a receiving corps out of Reche Caldwell, 35-year-old Troy Brown and trade acquisition Doug Gabriel (the Phillip Dorsett of the mid-2000s). There was a two-game losing streak, and even a shutout loss. But the Patriots finished 12-4.

Between the loss to the Chiefs and the ever-expanding injury report, we're searching for portents that the end is near for the Patriots. But all we find is familiar territory and a bunch of seasons most teams would hang a banner for.

A pessimist could note how the Patriots lost in the AFC Championship Game on the road to Peyton Manning's teams in all three of the seasons listed above. Regular-season losses when Brady was throwing to nobodies robbed them of home-field advantage and potentially some Super Bowl rings for their off hands.

The Patriots are the only team in NFL history to enjoy the luxury of spending a decade worrying about home-road playoff ramifications in mid-September. Manning is now retired, and the AFC has not yet sorted out its Patriots resistance efforts without him. Brady can do what he has always done during receiver crisesbeat opponents with one half of the depth chart tied behind his backand worry about the playoffs once he leads the Patriots there.

Brady has never been slow to embrace new weapons like Rex Burkhead.
Brady has never been slow to embrace new weapons like Rex Burkhead.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

But can the 40-year-old Brady still conjure wins out of the ether, or from an arsenal full of weapons named Rex Burkhead and Dwayne Allen?

Based on Sunday's sleight-of-hand masterpiece against the Saints, Brady is better at doing more with less than he ever has been before.

Brady threw for 447 yards and three touchdowns with none of his slot buddies and a hobbled Gronk. He fired slants to Chris Hogan and James White. He floated downfield changeups to Burkhead and Dorsett, pulling the string and dropping trick shots into spots on the field where few would dare to throw.

Brady head-faked and pumped to open up throwing lanes. He ran sneaks. He scrambled, then scrambled off the field to make sure the field-goal unit could add three points before halftime. He performed much of his magic from within a collapsing pocket. 

It wasn't perfect. There were interceptions nullified by penalties and fastballs into tight windows that arrived perilously late. But lone gunslinger Brady knows he doesn't have to be flawless. When he cannot rely on his weapons, he can count on his experience. And Brady has been in the no-weapons predicament so many times that the only thing he doesn't know how to do is panic.

Brady isn't even as shorthanded as he has been in crises past. The Patriots insulated themselves against another year of injuries to Gronk and the Slot Machines. They traded for Brandin Cooks, then used the NFL's most disorganized organizations as their ATM machine. One year after liberating Hogan from the Bills, the Patriots did the same for Mike Gillislee this offseason. They also freed Allen and Dorsett from the Colts and Burkhead from the Bengals. They plundered five quality offensive role players from three teams that combined to score 55 points across the first two weeks.

Brandon Cooks is one of the few experienced receivers Brady has at his disposal early this season.
Brandon Cooks is one of the few experienced receivers Brady has at his disposal early this season.Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to chuckle at the Patriots' ability to separate beggars from their bindle sticks. It's also easy to overestimate just how good New England's acquisitions are. Only Cooks is anything more than a machine cog when paired with an ordinary quarterback.

Brady has thrown to some special receivers in his career, like Randy Moss and Gronk, and some specialized ones like Edelman, Amendola and Wes Welker. But much of his career has been spent doing what he will now do to persevere through this latest rash of injuries: getting extraordinary results from ordinary guys.

Years and decades of thriving amid chaos is what makes Brady who he is. It's easy to go into GOAT mode when Moss is outleaping the entire defense or some customized five-receiver set has the defense tied into mismatched knots. Heck, Trevor Siemian can look like a Hall of Famer when everything is going his way. But Brady earns his opportunities to win Super Bowls with a (relatively) healthy supporting cast by winning regular-season games with the likes of Thompkins, Jabar Gaffney, Bolden and now Burkhead and whatever Jacob Hollister-types appear on future stat sheets.

This is just another run-of-the-mill Patriots receiver injury panic, on the heels of another early-season "whoops" game against an opponent eager to make a statement. It's another chance to scrutinize the game tape for signs that Brady is aging, only to find the same signs of age that were both obvious and irrelevant two Super Bowls ago. Brady has been like the crafty late-career Michael Jordan for so long that even the Jordan comparison feels like a cliche.

We will interpret Bill Belichick's grunts and gestures to determine Gronk's health status and search for signs of Amendola's return to the practice field. But the Patriots won't provide clues about anyone's true health status until they either undergo surgery or take the field.

We will adjust our fantasy lineups: Hogan, Cooks and the running backs in, anyone on IR out, Gronk a last-second emergency lineup speed dial. Maybe we will take the "under" for a week or two as the Patriots batten down the hatches, or circle upcoming games like the Falcons Super Bowl rematch as potential stumbles if Brady is still shorthanded.

But don't worry about the playoffs, the Super Bowl or Brady's future, because we've been down this road many times since the dawn of the millennium.

When he led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory in 2001, Brady's top receivers were Troy Brown, then a veteran third receiver and return man, and David Patten, a no-name free agent. No other player on the roster caught more than 30 passes as Brady spread the ball to Kevin Faulk, fullback Marc Edwards and a bunch of guys who could win you some trivia questions today. Terry Glenn, the most talented receiver on the Patriots payroll, disappeared early in the season due to hamstring injuries and personality conflicts.

Brady won his first Super Bowl with a receiving corps that saw only two players catch more than 30 passes that season.
Brady won his first Super Bowl with a receiving corps that saw only two players catch more than 30 passes that season.DOUG MILLS/Associated Press

There were some losses, some pun-intended nip-and-tuck moments. But the Patriots went 11-5 and laid the foundation of a dynasty.

Brady hasn't just been here before. He started here. And he knows how to get where he wants to go, with or without help.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.