Left hand tap. Step in to the throw. Gun it down the field. Open man. On his hands.
Dropped/missed route. Incomplete.
Yell, yell, yell. Walk to the bench. Can only bellow so much. Everything complete – but only half.
For the first time in years, and maybe even for the premier time in his career, Tom Brady doesn’t look like he has control. He controls his team, the final play call, the expectations; but once the football reaches his hands, he doesn’t have everything reigned in. But it isn’t a disaster because of his audibles, his right arm, or even his psyche. What he can’t dictate is the exact location the ball will end up. If it ends up in someone’s hands is completely up to his men – now his rookies. But how can it not?
It has been a curious sight not only for those who have been accustomed to seeing the high-octane New England offense but for those who aren’t used to seeing a plethora of Brady passes not chalking up yardage. Starting roughly a week-and-a-half ago when the Patriots opened their season against the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots’ offense looked more than new. One-dimensional would have been a stunning rose to describe the depth of Brady’s options: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, sprinkled with a little bit of Shane Vereen. Ball heavy action to only a few receivers, again and again and again and again. No thanks, Brady said most of the time when he made eye contact with his rookie receivers. I’ll take my chances with guys who barely caught passes last year, number 12 must have quipped. But even with a bull’s approach to passing in Week 1, Brady still had some level control. Less than he had in 2012, but he knew he had control when three receivers were on the field.
And then the New York Jets came into the town, oh, those Jets. Rightfully jeered by most of the National Football League, pointing at the football, Mark Sanchez, and a back pocket, Rex Ryan’s squad has the ordinary-unordinary habit of exposing the Patriots’ vulnerabilities. And their game Thursday – home opener at Foxboro, short turnaround, on national television – it was the perfect chance for every observer to see exactly how Brady’s control has disintegrated. His rookie receivers, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, didn’t understand how Brady would guide them. They didn’t grasp or execute the route, the timing, the spot Brady wanted them to be once he tossed the ball to their hands. A wrong turn here, a stop when they were supposed to go, a late run to catch up to their placement – it’s normal for it to happen sometimes in the NFL, but we almost never see Brady have these issues with his receivers, let alone the same issues hampering him for the majority of his pass attempts in a game. And then the drops and balls off the hands – the dreaded drops and balls of the hands! Even the best receiver will drop one or two once in a blue moon. But three drops from Dobson alone in one half? Well…maybe that’s not an example of control.
I can admit it: Everyone is jumping the gun very quickly when they examine the Patriots’ receiving status. Two games tell you almost nothing about any team in any league. Training Camp just ended, and the sample size for the statistics are so small, even for the NFL. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots have a large sample size of over 200 games that indicate that they know what they’re doing and have had control. Disaster doesn’t often bloom from nowhere and ruin a team like that. Even as recently as last year, when the Patriots looked like they were on the wrong side of 3-3, having lost to a young Seattle Seahawks side, they survived the Jets in overtime and went on to win nine of their next 11 games.
But there are worrying signs for New England’s and Brady’s control beyond a two game observation. What really makes the Patriots cusp their chins apprehensively and make them wonder if their first two games are tremendous omens, is that there isn’t a lot of help on the horizon. New England didn’t make many effective transactions in the offseason to return their vaunted offense to a semblance of what it was before they boggled the Wes Welker re-signing, only snagging Amendola. Thus, their “dream” catching core for this year has been settled as Rob Gronkoswki, Amendola, and Edelman. It isn’t a gruesome offense to work with, but it hardly appears to be one that can score 557 points this season. Even more damaging is that Amendola could be out two to six weeks because of a groin injury, Vereen is out until Week 11, and Gronkowski’s giant hands still haven’t graced a game field yet, forcing Brady to dabble with the rookie receivers, control in flux. The Patriots look like they might be a better defensive team this season – holding Buffalo to 286 yards and 4-13 on third down; preventing the Jets from getting into the Red Zone all but two times, and forcing four turnovers – but these are observations from only two games, against two weak offenses, with more data from the last few seasons suggesting that the Patriots shouldn’t hang their hopes on stifling opponents’ yardage totals. Receivers who can catch a barrage of Tom Brady touchdowns are what drive the Patriots deep into the playoffs almost every year.
But the rhythm of control in the National Football League is very volatile, more so than most people think. A quarterback has less control over his completions than most people realize or care to admit. As corny and straight out of the NFL bank of clichés it may seem, trust is what builds completions. The quarterback has to know to whom he’s throwing, comprehend his tendencies when running or at least know that his man will end up in the exact place to catch the football that the QB desires. Once the football leaves the quarterback’s hand, though, there’s no guarantee it will do anything. There’s nothing you can do once it’s gone. It is common sense, a complete obvious conclusion that a five-year-old could elucidate, but fans don’t seem to remember it all the time. The QB seems like the king, the most valuable cog who sets up all the offense to score points that are needed to win football games. That may be true. The QB is the most important player on the field, the general who controls the major facets of offense before and after the snap. But he can’t be his receivers. It’s up to them to catch the football. Even the greatest quarterback can look like humbug if his receiver drops the ball; he will appear even worse if the receiver doesn’t run the proper route, watching the ball hit the ground or the hands of a defender, stabbing the thrower’s stats. That isn’t seen on a box score. Completions are a true gambler’s game: You assess your odds, make a prediction, and then hold a poker face as you watch yourself either shine or crumble. Tom Brady’s first two games are a prime example of this. No great is great when his receivers don’t catch passes or properly run routes. A great quarterback doesn’t need fantastic receivers, yes, but no one can play on a Most Valuable Player level when the receivers can’t perform their basic functions. It of course works the other way, too, as a receiver can only hope his or her quarterback gives them the proper pass. Meet me half way, the game is.
And that can’t always work, because you only have half the control when throwing or receiving. That is what we are witnessing with the Patriots right now, and what we will see the coming weeks and for much of the season. Brady is going to have to rely on Thompkins, Dobson, and Zack Sudfeld at some point. He won’t have four or five great receivers that put them out of the picture; the team’s depth isn’t as strong. To maintain the Patriots’ multiple layers of offense, the rookies will need to play even late in the season when the Patriots will fight for a postseason spot. So, he’ll only get half of everything. He is Tom Brady and at the top of his game even at age 36, so he will get his end of the deal done. He will, and has already, stayed upright in the pocket, read defenses, called the right audibles, and aired out passes for sideline receivers. There haven’t been many mistakes on Brady’s part so far, evident by his one interception total, one that went off Sudfeld’s hands. His part is all done, just as it is always taken care of every season. Everything else can only be in his control when he can easily manipulate his receivers and see results. But that isn’t the Patriots of the moment. He is, because of this, only half the quarterback he can be. He isn’t a Most Valuable Player; he’s half a valuable player. He isn’t a playoff level quarterback; he’s a September QB. He isn’t a Super Bowl-winning player; he’s a regular NFLer. He can scream into his helmet all he wants, grab his head, grit his teeth and screech at his receivers: He is only half Tom Brady until the youngsters give him his control.