FOXBOROUGH — We all know which stat Tom Brady thinks is the most important in judging a quarterback — wins. Brady is a bottom line kind of guy who has been among the top quarterbacks in the NFL for a long time.
There are several numbers that provide perspective on Brady’s gilded career and his 148 regular-season wins and .775 regular-season winning percentage are undoubtedly among them.
But one of the remarkable numbers from Brady’s career is zero — the number of first-round picks the Patriots have used on a receiver during his tenure in New England, which is entering season No. 15. The Patriots have never taken a receiver higher than the second round in the Bill Belichick era.
This is relevant given an offseason of Brady-busting that saw the football analytics website Pro Football Focus detail Brady’s alleged deterioration while pronouncing he is no longer a top-five quarterback, and Belichick drafting Brady’s putative successor under center, Jimmy Garoppolo.
Whether Brady is on borrowed time athletically or not, the bigger question for 2014 is not about his form and fitness, as our soccer friends say, but about the composition and competency of what’s around Tom Terrific. Brady is good enough. His receivers are a different story.
In the modern-era NFL, it’s rare to find another longtime elite, Super Bowl-winning quarterback who has never had his team take a wideout for him in the first round. John Elway, the only quarterback besides Brady to reach five Super Bowls, you say? Nope. The Broncos drafted Ricky Nattiel with the 27th pick in the 1987 draft. Dan Marino had three first-round pick wide receivers.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers qualifies. Of course if you can draft wideouts such as Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb in the second round and James Jones in the third round, then you don’t need to use a first-round pick.
If you’re selecting Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson, it’s a bit different.
That’s not to say all the first-round receivers were quality picks. But it makes you appreciate what Brady has done with less a little more.
With the Patriots it’s not about pedigree, but production. Kid pass-catchers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce, all in season two, need to be better than passable.
So, it was encouraging to hear Professor Brady give pupils Thompkins and Boyce high marks Wednesday at minicamp. (Dobson is still out after foot surgery.)
“It’s been great. I love working with those guys,” said Brady. “So, we’ve had a great relationship since they got here over a year ago. They’ve put a lot of time in and a lot of effort to get to the point that they’re at now. Now, they have to take advantage of it.
“You’re only a young player for a certain amount of time in the NFL. At some point people are just waiting for you to produce. Nobody can really make mistakes, not if you want to be a good offense. The best teams have the most consistent, dependable players. That’s what everyone out here is trying to be for our team. That’s going to make our team the toughest to beat.”
Translation: I don’t have time to wait or waste on your learning curve, guys.
The indisputable decline in Foxborough last season was in the offense.
New England went from 34.8 points per game in 2012 to 27.8. It dropped from first in the league in total offense to seventh and from fourth in passing offense to 10th.
The Patriots added free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell and drafted Jeremy Gallon in the seventh round. That doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of supplying Brady with Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007.
Brady has almost the same cast of wide receivers he had last season and the same uncertainty surrounding the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The improvement in the passing game is going to have to come from within.
You can’t draw any conclusions from a glorified flag football practice in June. But Thompkins, an undrafted rookie last season, showed a nice rapport with Brady Wednesday.
He made a contested catch over Brandon Browner on a fade route for a touchdown. Brady also hit Thompkins with a backshoulder throw, the NFL passing version of finishing a mate’s sentence, later in the practice.
Boyce hurt himself in warm-ups and was sidelined.
Brady, in his minicamp State of the Quarterback address, was asked if he has been fired up by the hits he has taken this offseason. He laughed it off, blithely pointing out that his supermodel wife and loving mother still think he is pretty good.
“Um, I’m always pretty fired up,” said Brady. “I think there are people that always have opinions about us as athletes. You just try to go out there and do your best. You go home at night realizing you left it all on the field. Some days you don’t play your best, but that’s sports. I’ll try to go out there and be the best I can be this year.
“Were they Jets fans or Dolphins fans or Bills fans, Patriots fans? I don’t know. Everyone is a little biased. My wife thinks I played pretty good. My mom thinks I played pretty good.”
Brady is a master at reading defenses and disguising his true feelings.
You bet he is motivated by those naysayers. There is a part of him that will always be that sixth-round pick who thought he might have to sell insurance.
Brady spent time after the team’s nearly-two-hour practice running and simulating drop backs with a resistance band tethering him to strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash.
Nash was intended to be a drag on Brady, but if the Patriots’ personnel holds TB12 back again it’s a problem.