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Patriot Wane: What's Eating Tom Terrific?

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent ISeptember 28, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts to a play in the third quarter of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Trying to figure out the 2009 New England Patriots is like trying to punch a puddle: not very successful and ultimately, painful.

They're an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a Rubik's cube with the stickers peeled off. As soon as you think you have them pinned down, the next Sunday rolls around and everything changes.

In truth, it's been difficult to get a bead on anybody on this team, but Tom Brady may be the hardest man to figure out.

He throws frozen ropes for touchdowns, then he misses open receivers. He throws inch-perfect lasers, then he overthrows his man by five feet. He looks off a safety brilliantly, then he stares down his receiver and nearly throws an interception.

And we thought Brett Favre was the king of waffling.

So far he's managed to guide his team to a 2-1 record, but Tom Terrific's been anything but and he's not even close to being on the same page as his receivers.

Whenever it seems as though he's getting himself into a rhythm, he'll overthrow his man, have it carom off someone's hands, or simply miss an open shirt.

Take the opening drive of the third quarter. In the previous two games, Brady has exhibited a pattern that is becoming all too familiar: he's skittish early, especially when facing a blitz, but settles into a rhythm—as long as he's got plenty of field in front of him.

It was the same song, different verse on this particular possession. Coming out of the huddle fired up, here's how Brady's pass attempts played out in order:

2nd-and-7, NE 36: short left to Moss for six.

1st-and-10, ATL 43: incomplete deep right to Watson (high ball, right off his hands)

2nd-and-10, ATL 43: short left to Chris Baker for six.

3rd-and-4, ATL 37: short left to Joey Galloway for eight (his first catch of the game, finally)

1st-and-10, ATL 29: pass deep left to Ben Watson (phenomenal throw and catch) for 23.

2nd-and-4, ATL 4: incomplete short middle to Randy Moss (forced a throw to Moss, lucky to not be intercepted)

3rd-and-4, ATL 4: incomplete right to Moss (tight spiral, just missed his mark)

It just seemed like Brady was half a bubble off of plum with his receivers all day, especially close to the goal line. He ended up 4-for-7 for 43 yards and a field goal on the drive, but it sure wasn't pretty.

Between the 20s he was great through much of the day, but in the red zone it seemed like he just couldn't get it done. On this drive, in particular, as soon as they got the ball inside the five Brady just lost his fluency with the offense.

On the second to last play, on 2nd-and-4 inside Atlanta's five, Moss broke across the middle past his defender early, extending a hand indicating he was open. Brady waited half a beat before throwing to him, which was half a beat too long as the ball should've been picked off.

The next play the Patriots lined up with Moss out wide, matched up one-on-one, for the old "laser to Moss' back shoulder" routine.

But this time, Brady threw it high and too far behind his target, forcing New England to end another promising drive with Stephen Gostkowski trotting out with the kicking unit.

What filled the gaps between all those pass attempts was Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris moving the ball with authority, going for 36 yards on five carries to push the Patriots into the red zone.

Given the struggles Brady has had in that area of the field, they may have been better taking a knee.

At this point in the season, Tom's mechanics seem to be spot on. His release is quick and fluid, offering tight spirals. Against the Jets, he faced an aggressive pass rush that managed to hit him seven times—but none went for sacks.

Watching that game, it seemed he always got the ball out just fast enough to his receivers, but was limited mostly to short throws, checking down to his slot receiver Julian Edelman for 16 attempts in that game alone.

Defensively, the Falcons are not nearly as strong as the Jets, but the Patriots were able to keep Brady on his feet for nearly the entire game, allowing just two QB hits. 

Left tackle Matt Light, in particular, deserves special praise for just manhandling Falcons pass-rusher John Abraham, one of the best at the position. All in all, the Falcons hit Brady twice, with zero sacks.

For the most part, Brady took advantage of the extra space and time, finishing with 277 yards and a touchdown, but only 25 completions on 42 attempts.

In 2007, Brady might've doubled that output. He constantly had open receivers to throw to, but things just weren't clicking for New England.

Now the paramount thing in the NFL, beyond stats or individual accolades, is to win games any way you can. Ugly, pretty—it makes no difference.

As much as Brady has struggled, there's no way I see Matt Cassel (or just about anyone else) winning that game in Buffalo the way Brady did.

And it hasn't been all his fault, either. Between penalties, not-so-great special teams play, and dropped balls, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Still, with the running game as effective as it was with Fred Taylor (21 carries, 105 yards and a score) pushing the pile, Brady was able to drive deep into Atlanta territory, spreading the field vertically with play-action.

However, that option simply isn't there in the red zone, as the field becomes compressed the closer the offense gets to the end zone. 

The red zone is where quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady make their money, their accuracy separating them from the rest of the league.

When a defense only has to worry about a field just 20-30 yards deep they can play tighter, and an offense has to be more accurate to complete the same throws.

So far in 2009, that's precisely where Brady and the Patriots have struggled.

Even against the Falcons, where he had plenty of time to find openings, Brady missed throws that he'd normally make left-handed.

For the game he was just 3-for-10 inside Atlanta's 20, and two of those completions were checkdowns to Kevin Faulk for a grand total of three yards, resulting in field goals both. 

The bright side is that the New England defense has, to this point, been quite successful in limiting opposing offenses, even without the services of Seymour and Mayo. That's given them the opportunity to win games even with a hamstrung offense.

But with Vince Wilfork needing treatment during the game and Mayo not due to return for several weeks at least, the Patriots will need to dig even deeper if their offense continues to struggle as it has.

If they can't hold the fort until Mayo (and possibly now Wilfork) returns, they can't leave four points on the field after every drive and expect to win games at this same clip. 

Week three was supposed to answer all our questions about the Patriots and the Falcons.

A convincing win in Foxboro over a reeling, but talented Patriots squad would have put Atlanta among the elite teams in the NFL and would fast-track them to a second winning season in a row—for the first time in franchise history.

The Patriots were either going to show they're still the class of the AFC or just another in a long line of teams who simply failed to live up to expectations hoisted upon them in the preseason; just a dynasty on the decline.

Instead, the Patriots coasted to 2-1 but were hardly convincing in doing so, and now we're left with even more questions to consider.

As I see it, the 2009 New England Patriots are still as dangerous a team as they have been for much of the past decade. While their offense has yet to fully hit anything that could be confused for its stride, Brady put in the most unconvincing 277-yard, one-touchdown and zero-interception performance of his career.

If that's Brady on a bad day, the NFL should be worried what he'll do when (or if) things finally begin to click.

But while I'd stake Brady and co. to get it right by December, they have to make it through October and November first if they want any hope of seeing January.

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