FOXBOROUGH — OK, I’m sold.
I’ve been hesitant to fully buy into the hype surrounding Tom Brady and his favorite weapons this training camp because, well, we’ve been down this road before.
Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins looked great last training camp, too. Brandon LaFell looks like he’s connecting with Brady, but we also thought Brady would be able to seamlessly transition with all of his new receivers last season, too.
And then we all saw what happened in the regular season. Amendola couldn’t get on the same page with Brady, and Brady hardly bothered to look Amendola’s way by the end of the season. Thompkins made a few nice catches early (especially against the Saints), and then fell off a table, catching one pass over the final seven games. Brady never did develop a good rapport with his new receiving corps, and the offense struggled all season whenever Rob Gronkowski wasn’t in the lineup.
So I’ve been in wait-and-see mode on the Patriots’ offense this season.
Friday night in New England’s third preseason game against Carolina, we saw. And now I’m sold, even if Gronkowski doesn’t play much early in the season.
This offense is ready to roll.
The difference between the Patriots’ offense Friday night and the one that played in Detroit in the third preseason game last season is massive.
As Brady said last week, the third preseason game is a good barometer of the team’s progress. Last season, the Lions tossed Brady around like a rag doll. He only threw for 185 yards on his 24 attempts, with an interception, two sacks, and no touchdowns as the Patriots got crushed, 40-9. It was a sign of things to come for the Patriots, whose offense struggled to move the ball and score points without Gronkowski.
Friday night, though, Brady was a maestro. It was as impressive as we’ve seen him and the offense perform in the preseason in quite some time.
In five series that took him into the third quarter (Ryan Mallett played one series in the first half), Brady was unstoppable. He completed 17 of 21 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns. No sacks, no turnovers, and 20 points produced as the Patriots raced to a 20-0 lead.
Last year, Brady had an entirely new receiving corps. This year, they all returned, and you can see the difference in a game like Friday night’s. They had a lot of kinks to work out last year. This year, not so much.
“You’re right, there’s not as many things you need to go over,” Brady said. “You’re still trying to make improvements, you’re always trying to get better. No matter what point you’re at, you’re trying to build. It’s just, we were building from a different place last year.”
Yes, I know it’s only preseason. The Panthers weren’t blitzing or showing anything exotic. And the Carolina secondary isn’t exactly the Legion of Boom.
Still, the way Brady connected with his receivers and ran the offense without a blip was impressive, to say the least.
He was perfect when throwing to his favorite targets — connecting on all 13 passes thrown toward Julian Edelman, Amendola, and Shane Vereen for 155 yards.
More importantly, Brady and his teammates looked like they were on the same page all night. Brady threw a perfect deep sideline pass to Thompkins to convert a third and 19. He zipped in a couple of passes to Thompkins and Amendola to convert first downs, showed great anticipation on a 13-yard slant route to Edelman, showed excellent touch on a 35-yard lob pass to Edelman, and caught the Panthers defense sleeping with a wheel route to Vereen out of the backfield, which the running back easily ran into the end zone for a 40-yard score.
The Patriots also ran the 2-minute offense efficiently — starting on their own 9, Brady got them in position for Stephen Gostkowski to boot a 60-yard field goal right before halftime.
They picked up 13 first downs, converted 5 of 7 third-down opportunities, and only committed four penalties on offense — two pass interference calls and two false starts (one on Brady, of all people).
In short, this offense looks like they’re in regular-season form. That’s what happens when all of Brady’s top targets return, and he doesn’t have to explain a new offense to a bunch of newbies and rookies.
Edelman had eight catches for 99 yards. Vereen had five catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Thompkins caught two for 35 yards, Amendola and LaFell added two catches each. And this was all without Gronkowski.
Now, let’s not pretend that there still aren’t issues. You still hold your breath every time Stevan Ridley touches the football. The offensive line is still very much a work in progress, especially at center, where Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly alternated series last night. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is dealing with a foot injury and didn’t play, and the identity of the right guard is a mystery — Connolly? Josh Kline? Jordan Devey? Marcus Cannon?
And is Mallett worth keeping? It was interesting that Belichick inserted him into the game randomly in the first quarter, and then never again. If he is going to be the backup this year, shouldn’t he get more preseason snaps?
That’s all minor stuff, though, when considering the big picture. Most importantly, Brady is on the same page as his receivers. His receivers look more comfortable with the offense. The feeling-out process is over with.
These guys are ready. And they’re going to be good.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.