Monday, October 17, 2011

Tom Brady and the Irrelevant Receiver

This year has been a curious one for Tom Brady. His perennial rival Peyton Manning hasn’t taken a snap, and consequently, the Colts are winless through six games. Brady’s been throwing picks—eight through six games, double what he threw in all of last season. Stranger still, Brady and the Patriots lost to the Bills. The Bills are four-and-two.

As strange as it’s been, on Sunday evening you could have found Brady in the usual place: leading the Patriots offense down the field for a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Brady’s made such a habit of it that his teammates—along with everyone in New England—sort of felt like it was coming.

“I’m not saying you get used to it,” Brady’s backup, Brian Hoyer said afterwards. “But you almost expect it.”

The touchdown pass Brady threw with 22 seconds left on the clock was his 33rd game winning drive. Despite the fact that the Patriots hadn’t scored a point in the second half, when Brady got the ball with 2:31 to play, the outcome seemed inevitable. The real question: who would Brady look to with the game on the line?

Brady reportedly took his receiving corps aside and told them to stay sharp and avoid stupid mistakes. On the critical play, Brady read the coverage and altered the routes, looking to Aaron Hernandez. The same Aaron Hernandez who flubbed an easy catch in the endzone against the Jets, resulting in an interception. Hernandez, who earlier in the game had surrendered the Patriots’ first offensive fumble of the season.

The fact that Brady didn’t look to Wes Welker illustrates an interesting fact of this era of the New England offense: with the ball in Brady’s hands, it almost doesn’t matter which players line up at wide receiver.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that Zoltan Mesko could do Welker’s job, nor am I suggesting that the Patriots receivers, past and present, are not selected based on talents and specific attributes. Chad Ochocinco’s brief Patriots career shows that not anyone can play in this offense.

In nine full seasons as the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady has thrown for at least 3500 yards and 23 touchdowns every season. He’s broken many of the most prestigious passing records in the league and he’s won three rings. And in those nine seasons, six different receivers have finished a season leading the team in receiving yards.

You won’t find freaks of nature like Megatron or Andre Johnson in those ranks. You’ll see players like Deion Branch—five-foot-nine and 195 pounds. Then there’s Wes Welker, Brady’s leading receiver for this season and the previous two years; he’s five-nine, he weighs 185, and he wasn’t drafted or even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Sure, Randy Moss was a killer athlete, but he was the epitome of wasted talent until he linked up with Brady.

In 2010, Bill Belichick traded away Moss, who had 13 receiving touchdowns the season prior (2nd place: Welker with four). In those days, the Patriots offense was Brady to Moss—it was their connection that yielded the record-obliterating 16-0 regular season in 2008. So what would Brady do without his feature target? He adapted, finished the season with 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and won the MVP award.

Conversely, what did Moss do? He went to Minnesota, where in four weeks he lauded the Patriots, insulted the head coach, and chewed out the owner of a local restaurant. He was waived by the Vikings and picked up by Tennessee, who used him primarily as a decoy. In eight games with the Titans, he had six receptions and no touchdowns.

This season, Brady is on pace to throw for 42 touchdowns, while also shattering the single-season yardage record—he’s on pace for 5768 yards. He has done so without a marquee wideout (Welker has developed into one of the best in the game, but before this season he played almost solely as a slot receiver). The Patriots have shifted their passing game in accordance with the weapons they have, namely, their talented tight ends and Welker’s versatility.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in cringing every time that Welker lines up for a punt return, unpleasantly reliving his MCL/ACL injury from a couple years ago. But if he goes down again, the Patriots will survive. Tom Brady will excel no matter who lines up beside him.

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