FOXBOROUGH — When Aaron Dobson is standing out on the field in his Patriots uniform, muscles bursting out of his 6-foot-4-inch frame, it’s hard to remember that he’s just a fresh-faced 22-year-old kid from West Virginia.
So yes, his first NFL game two Thursdays ago against the Jets, under the bright lights of national television, probably was a little much for him to handle. He caught a touchdown, but he also had three bad drops as he worked through his stomach butterflies.
Everyone saw Tom Brady screaming up a fit that night when his receivers weren’t in the right spot. But they don’t see how a little parental advice, and a quick chat with Brady, helped calm Dobson before Sunday’s 23-3 win over the Buccaneers.
“Yeah, it was a bad night — had some ups, had some downs. I told him to just play, don’t worry about the rest of that stuff,” said his father, Bobby Dobson, who attended Sunday’s game with Dobson’s mother and brother. “And he talked to Tom. He said, ‘Look, I’m a quarterback, I’m going to throw some interceptions. You’re a receiver, you’re going to drop it. The running backs are going to fumble.’
“Don’t let it affect you on the next play or the next game or whatever. And I think he just took that to heart.”
The reasons the Patriots offense struggled so badly against the Jets and was so efficient against the Bucs seem pretty simple. The Patriots had a short week of practice to prepare for the Jets, and an extra long week to prepare for the Buccaneers. And the more Dobson and fellow rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins play, the more comfortable and less nervous they are going to be on the field.
Dobson caught seven of 10 passes thrown his way Sunday to lead the Patriots with 52 receiving yards. Thompkins only caught three of seven passes for 41 yards, but two went for touchdowns, the first two of his NFL career.
Both receivers were far more consistent and productive Sunday than in their first games.
“This is my fourth year, and even my stomach is a little queasy before each game,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who had two catches for 31 yards. “You can’t simulate the feeling of starting an NFL football game. But once you get those first couple plays in, get some hits in, get your head and shoulders going, the game just kind of slows down a little bit.”
Sunday was a feel-good win for the Patriots, sending the Buccaneers home as 20-point losers, but let’s not pretend that all their problems are fixed, especially with Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen all still out battling injuries.
They mustered a pedestrian 358 total yards against the Buccaneers, and through three games are only averaging 19.7 points per game, down from 34.8 last year. The Patriots managed only two touchdowns in five trips inside the red zone, and Brady’s longest completion of the day was just 20 yards.
He’s had to dink and dunk all season with his top receiver threats taken away. Through three games, Brady is averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt — a full 2 yards below his career average of 7.5.
And he has made some uncharacteristic mistakes. Against the Jets, he badly missed his open receivers on four or five occasions. Sunday against the Buccaneers, he threw an interception in the end zone to Mark Barron — Brady’s first since December of 2011. He also short-hopped Dobson, who was standing wide open in the end zone two plays before the interception.
“I certainly could play better,” said Brady, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and the interception. “The interception will bother me for the rest of the week until I get a chance to get out there again. And the missed touchdown pass, that was terrible. I expect to make those plays.”
The good news, though, is that the kids are starting to grow up. The Patriots didn’t plan on having Dobson and Thompkins play such big roles early in the season, but the lumps they take now will only help when Gronkowski and Amendola return in the next few weeks.
Dobson and Thompkins still had a drop each Sunday, but Thompkins had the two touchdowns, and Dobson converted a couple of crucial third- and fourth-down catches, and he drew a pass-interference penalty on a third down, as well.
“Mistakes are going to happen,” Dobson said. “You just got to learn from it, then come out here and do it right. I just wanted to come out there and play better, catch the ball, get back to doing what a receiver does.”
Dobson and Thompkins certainly held onto more footballs Sunday. But the biggest difference between the Patriots’ easy 20-point win and the ugly 3-point victory over the Jets was that they managed to stay out of long down-and-distances.
Against the Jets, the Patriots had seven third-down opportunities of 7 yards or longer, and converted just one. That included a third and 16 and a third and 14, which both led to punts.
Against the Buccaneers, the Patriots faced just three third-and-longs before the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter. They had a third and 18 in the first quarter, but that was really the only unfavorable distance Brady faced all game. The Patriots kept the ball moving forward, and minimized their mistakes.
“I think that was the big thing, avoiding the negative plays and staying out of long yardage, like it usually is,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Once we eliminated the negative plays and stayed out of long yardage, then we were able to move the ball competitively.”
But in the coming weeks, when the schedule gets much tougher against Atlanta, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, Patriots fans need to keep in mind that Dobson is still just 22 years old, and Thompkins is also just a rookie. There will be more drops, more missed assignments, more growing pains.
“He takes it hard right there when it happens,” Bobby Dobson said Sunday, moments after hugging his son in the tunnel outside the stadium. “But you still have to go out there and make a play. Hopefully he can do that and help the Patriots win some ballgames.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.