FOXBOROUGH — Trust is essential to almost any relationship, whether it’s between a parent and child, with a significant other, with friends, or even between a pet and its owner.
And it is no different for the relationship between a quarterback and his receivers.
Last season, there were six Patriots who caught 21 or more passes from Tom Brady, and four of them are no longer with the team. Wes Welker went from one surefire Hall of Famer, Brady, to another, Peyton Manning, in Denver; Danny Woodhead is soaking up sunshine in San Diego; Brandon Lloyd is being Brandon Lloyd as a free agent; and Aaron Hernandez is prisoner No. 174594 at the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth.
The two who are left, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, both have injury concerns – Gronkowski after coming off five surgeries since last November, and Edelman, who has missed 10 games over the last two seasons.
When those two are on the field, they have Brady’s trust, Gronkowski in particular. In 2011 he had the best season any NFL tight end has ever had, and he was putting up more big numbers last year before breaking his left forearm.
Just as Gronkowski and Edelman had to show Brady they could be trusted on the field, so does Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld. They are Brady’s new receivers, and among them, they have 196 career receptions.
All of them belong to Amendola.
For Kevin Faulk, who had 431 catches, over 300 of them coming from Brady, in his 13-year career as an effective third-down back, there is a very simple formula for earning Brady’s trust: work.
“It’s about putting in work,” Faulk said. “The guys they bring in here, out of 10, six can pick up the offense; they’re smart, football-type guys that can pick up the offense. The other four guys, they don’t put in the work.
“When you come here, this is a business, they expect you to do your job like this is a business, you’re part of a company, and if you don’t do that, it shows — on game day, off the field – and they can tell.”
Three things go into gaining Brady’s trust: you have to know the play, you have to be where he expects you to be on the field, and you have to catch the ball.
Just having two of those isn’t enough; if you know the play and you’re at the right mark but you can’t consistently hold onto the ball when it comes your way, that’s going to rattle his confidence in you, the same way as being a couple of yards from where you’re supposed to be will.
Alge Crumpler’s work began before he even stepped foot in New England. Signed as a veteran free agent in 2010, the Patriots sent Crumpler chunks of things to work on from the playbook while he was at a training facility during the offseason.
Three times a week he’d talk things over with then-tight ends coach Brian Ferentz. By the time Crumpler arrived in the building, he had a good grasp of the playbook, so he had two of the three requirements in his favor.
But then came the task of working with Brady and putting all of his lessons into action – and fast.
“Tommy walks in the huddle and says two plays at 100 miles an hour and expects you to do it and I had to show him that I knew what I was doing,” Crumpler said. “For younger guys, the only way to learn is through reps.”
Crumpler saw younger guys integrated into the offense that season, since it was the year Gronkowski and Hernandez were drafted. They were pretty quick studies: Hernandez totaled 45 receptions, Gronkowski 42.
And for Edelman, the work continues.
“With Tom, I’m still trying to gain his trust, you know?,” he said. “But it all comes to consistency and proving it in practice. I’ve gone out to California [in the offseason] and I’ve tried to be around him for whenever he’s needed anything.
“Everyone’s been working really hard in practice and it’s just trying to be on the same page with him. That’s taking the little things from the classroom and bringing it to the field, things that him or Coach [Josh] McDaniels highlight in meetings, little details, and not taking two or three times to do it, just doing it once, and that’s when confidence is built. That’s how you gain the trust of a quarterback.”
Brady has been in the New England offense so long he hardly needs a playbook. Sure, things change week to week for the Patriots because they game-plan specifically the upcoming defense, but Brady has said there are plays in there he’s run hundreds of times.
So what do you do when you’re a 22-year-old from a small conference and suddenly you’re face to face with a three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback?
“When I first got here it was [intimidating],” Dobson said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. But now that I’ve been around him, it’s way smoother. I know what he expects; he expects a lot. He expects everything to be crisp.”
Asked if Brady is demanding, no one shies from the truth: he is. But it’s almost expected, appreciated even, by most players anyway.
“If I do something wrong, he’s definitely going to let me know. But that’s just part of being a quarterback and receiver,” Dobson said. “You’ve always got to be on the same page. I can’t always take it as, ‘oh he’s yelling at me’ and feel some type of way about it. He’s just telling me what I need to do, and that’s how it has to be.”
Crumpler played with 10 different starting quarterbacks in Atlanta and Tennessee before signing with New England, so he had experience.
And he preferred a guy like Brady, who doesn’t just bark about things being his way – he will take the time to make sure everything is right.
“I just think he’s competitive. Everyone reads his reactions different ways. He’s just a highly competitive guy,” Crumpler said. “He’s always willing to extend a meeting an extra 15 minutes to make sure his guys are on the same page. I’d rather be with a guy that knows what he’s doing.”
As Faulk said, at this point, Brady has earned the right to be as exacting as he is.
“Did we get into arguments? Of course. But we’re all competitors, we want to do what’s best for the football team. At the end of the day you shake hands and think about the next opponent,” he said.
You don’t have to buy into the idea of learning every detail, of making sure you’re in lock-step with Brady, of earning his trust.
But if Brady doesn’t trust you, you’re not getting on the field with him.