It has become a postgame parlor game, reading the mood and meaning behind Tom Brady’s every utterance, facial twitch, or hesitation when he answers questions about the state of the offense. We are studying and dissecting Brady’s countenance and cadence for tip-offs the same way he deciphers and diagnoses opposing defenses.
The breathless Brady breakdowns are missing the big picture, however. Instead of focusing on Brady’s thinly-veiled attempts to contain his frustration with a compromised passing game the focus should be on the source of said frustration — the fact that the wide receiver position has been mismanaged by the team for the past two years.
From a micro standpoint, it’s easy to focus on the dissatisfaction of the fabled franchise quarterback despite a 6-0 record. But the macro issue of mishandling the wideout inventory to put him in this discontented position is the more relevant discussion. You don’t have to be Tacko Fall tall to see the big picture here. The revolving door of retreads, rookies, reclamation projects, or last resorts at wide receiver over the past two seasons has taken its toll on Touchdown Tom. It’s one thing to ask Brady to reprise the role of game manager. It’s another to force his hand into doing so.
Receivers possessing the traits of both talent and reliability (on or off the field) have been in short supply the last two seasons in Foxborough. It’s basically 33-year-old Julian Edelman or bust for TBQB. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that Rob Gronkowski, a No. 1 wide receiver proxy, is grabbing a microphone for Fox instead of Brady’s passes. The tight end position has fallen into an abyss. Now, recently released 38-year-old Benjamin Watson is riding back to the rescue in what feels like a rare concession to Brady.
Here’s a non-chronological list of some of the wide receiver options the team has auditioned over the past two seasons since it let Danny Amendola walk and traded away Brandin Cooks, who collected 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in his only season: Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, Eric Decker, Corey Coleman, Bruce Ellington, Dontrelle Inman, Maurice Harris, Cameron Meredith, Devin Lucien, Bennie Fowler III, Amara Darboh, Chad Hansen, Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Demaryius Thomas, who was coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon.
There are a lot more misses than hits there. It makes you question what the plan is. The team is throwing pass-catchers against the proverbial wall and seeing what sticks while sticking Brady with the bill. That’s no way to handle a precious natural resource like the greatest quarterback of all time.
The mismanagement of the position has cascaded into compounding mistakes. For example, desperate for another premium pass catcher, Belichick went into business with Antonio Brown, who had alienated two teams in six months with his self-absorbed, self-gratifying, and erratic behavior.
Business was boomin’ with Brown for all of one game before it went bust when he sent threatening text messages to a woman who had alleged improper conduct via a Sports Illustrated story. Brown’s messy media presence became too much to tolerate, much to the chagrin of Brady and Belichick.
Brady was left holding the bag. The Patriots were left holding Brown’s considerable cap space, which is an impediment in trading for another proven pass-catcher by the Oct. 29 trade deadline. Also, Brown’s addition meant the team was comfortable trading Thomas to the New York Jets. Thomas had four catches for 62 yards in the Jets’ win on Sunday.
You can bet your Under Armour infrared pajamas that Brady would have felt more comfortable throwing to Thomas last Thursday night against the New York Giants than undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, who were pressed into playing 70 and 61 percent of the offensive snaps, respectively, due to injuries to Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon.
Catch as catch can is not a viable plan for arming Brady. This all feels a little ad hoc by the Hoodie the last two years.
There is no way that the Patriots could have planned that Gordon would be available last September or Brown would be this one. When players of that skill level do unexpectedly become available it’s because the warts they come with have overwhelmed their employers to the point of exasperation. These guys represent bailouts for questionable management, not carefully conceived and executed additions to the position.
Brown lasted 11 days. Gordon lasted 11 games in 2018 before getting suspended again and is trying to make it through a season without a suspension for the first time since 2012.
This is where Patriots propagandists point out that the team allocated a first-round pick to helping Brady, drafting wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the first wideout taken in the first round by Belichick in his illustrious tenure in Fort Foxborough. Even that had a tinge of exigency over erudition.
They had struck out on free agent receivers Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley, despite offering more money to Humphries than he took to join Tennessee. Like Richard Gere’s character in “An Officer and a Gentleman” they had nowhere else to go.
At the outset of training camp, the expectation was that Harry would have a major role — basically by default. He landed on injured reserve to start the season with ankle and hamstring injuries and is eligible to begin practicing this week and to play on Nov. 3 against Baltimore.
Now, Harry, miles behind, is being positioned as the latest wideout bailout. He has all of one preseason game and two preseason catches under his belt. He has never caught a football from Brady in an NFL game, exhibition or otherwise.
It’s just more of the same for Brady to deal with.
Brady has a PhD in passing but is being forced to run a remedial aerial class instead of a master class due to what’s around him — or what’s not around him. Although the Patriots are first in the NFL in points per game at 31.7, they rank seventh in offensive points scored with 155. They are tied for 22d in red-zone touchdown percentage and rank 13th in third-down percentage, which is where they finished last season when they lost five regular-season games for the first time since 2009 before reinventing themselves to win the Super Bowl.
It’s incumbent upon Brady to get the most out of what he has with the non-Edelman pass-catchers. So often as he has in his career, he has to make up for what’s missing.
It can’t be his ideal to be running three-wide receiver, one-tight end sets with undrafted rookie receivers Meyers and Olszewski, the latter a converted Division 2 defensive back, and 2018 seventh-round pick tight end Ryan Izzo part of the personnel. That was the case in the second half of the 35-14 victory over the Giants.
Brady might be misdirecting and projecting pent-up disillusionment, frustration, and resentment about the current situation on to the callow kids. They look and sound petrified to mess up, like they can feel his disenchantment. Their comfort and confidence have become collateral damage in the battle of Tom vs. Time.
It’s not a great situation for Brady or the kids, but it’s the situation the team has put them in.
So, keep focusing on Brady’s body language or the language he uses to discuss the offense, but the real story demanding such scrutiny is how Brady reached this point.