On July 25, the eve of training camp, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was one of a few 2012 team captains responsible for facing reporters to deal with several uncomfortable questions concerning jailed former teammate Aaron Hernandez.
With the once-popular tight end no longer in the fold, however, some of those inquiries shifted to the upcoming 2013 season, one which features a closely-covered and dramatically-overturned offensive roster that historically welcomes in very few new key components from year-to-year.
When asked about developing trust in the locker room through preparation, the three-time Super Bowl champion said, “You trust in your teammates to do their job so that you can do your job. The best teammates that I’ve ever had, guys like Wes [Welker] or Deion Branch, I never had to worry about and that allowed me to be able to do my job.
“What that allows me to do,” he continued, “is free my mental burden up so that I can focus 100 percent on what I need to do, and that’s what I appreciate about guys like that because they allow me to be the best that I can be.”
While praising the preparation of Welker, Branch, and others, Brady failed to mention their execution. It’s like when he talks about wanting his receivers to create space, get open, or stay away from defenders. All true, but what he really wants is for them to catch the ball.
Being ready to achieve a goal and actually converting on it are two very different things and that, I’d guess, is where the future Hall of Fame quarterback’s mental saddle becomes a bit too heavy these days. Undoubtedly, it’s a pain point that he remains desperate to alleviate.
The 2013 campaign, which will gain a number of extra eyes come Friday’s preseason opener in Philadelphia, projects to be the most challenging of Brady’s 14-year career with New England.
Mentally. Emotionally. Physically. Everything.
After a 12-4 year and a trip to the AFC title game, Welker (one of Brady’s best friends, and his target of choice), Hernandez (seemingly guilty of leading a double-life at the very least), an effective but confounding Brandon Lloyd, and fan-favorite Danny Woodhead are all gone. Rob Gronkowski is unavailable, and will likely remain so for the first six weeks of the regular season after undergoing five surgeries (one back, four forearm) within the last year. Never before has Brady dealt with such an overhaul.
Entering the 2007 season, the QB had lost Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel, but he’d welcomed Welker, Randy Moss, and Donte Stallworth. Following 2009, Benjamin Watson and Sam Aiken departed but, honestly, who cared? Welker, Moss, and Julian Edelman remained, plus there was that emergence of a pair of stud tight ends.
This will be something else entirely.
We’d all like to believe it’ll be the same old fun-loving, football-spiking Gronk whenever he returns but, after months of limited (if any) workouts, who knows? Edelman’s back from his foot injury, yet the role he’ll be able to handle as well as his health (22 games over the last two seasons) are unpredictable. With the following uncertainties, he’ll be as important as ever.
New acquisition Danny Amendola – “Welker 2.0” if all goes well – is fast, talented, and he has received rave reviews through eight training camp practices, but his medical track record is worse than Edelman’s as he’s suited up for just a dozen games since the conclusion of the 2010 season.
After Amendola, tight end Jake Ballard – fresh off two knee operations – represents yet another player who, while he’s been around the playbook for one year, has yet to play a down with the Pats and may be relied upon for an instant impact.
Veteran Michael Jenkins, reasonably effective throughout a seven-year career with the Falcons and Vikings, will have to quickly familiarize himself with the system.
Then, of course, there are the frequently-discussed and dissected rookie hopefuls, receivers Aaron Dobson (Marshall), Josh Boyce (Texas Christian), and Kenbrell Thompkins (Cincinnati), plus tight end Zach Sudfeld (Nevada). All four will wish to never be uttered in the same sentence as failed freshmen of yesteryear, Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, and Brandon Tate, to name a few. Heck, they’d hate to be compared to Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson or Joey Galloway, at least when mentioning the pair’s time in Foxborough.
From the outset, it doesn’t exactly scream, “Fantasy football lineup.”
For any of his new pass-catchers to be successful, Brady will have to be more patient than ever before and, to his credit, he’s putting in the work, especially with the youngsters. The two-time MVP has noted the youthful exuberance of the rookies while lauding their intelligence and work ethic. He’s even given the company line about the importance of finding a role for players of different skill-sets, how there’s room for everyone to contribute, and that game-plans change from week-to-week. If you haven’t heard, the “train is moving” and everyone needs to keep up.
We know, as Brady so often reminds us, that he and his receivers must be on the same page. He’s even admitted that he is aware it will be a struggle at times.
The questions surround how the veteran will react when those agonizing situations arise with his rookies while Amendola, Edelman, Ballard, or Gronkowski are on the shelf. What then? Can Brady be the player he expects to be when that “mental burden” is weighed down by a lack of confidence that guys on the field can anticipate, adjust, and achieve? Failure to trust means a lack of the no-huddle, and maybe an absence of the prolific offenses fans have become accustomed to in these parts.
There have already been instances in camp when Brady has been visibly frustrated to the point of having to collect himself alone on the sidelines. Communication with his new players is improving, but there’s no way to know how comfortable he’ll be feeling when the season opens at Buffalo on September 8.
Granted, preseason games will provide a better indication of the newbies' talents than 11-on-11 drills, but the exhibitions still showcase varying levels of competition compared to what lies ahead in true in-season game situations. The mystery over what the Patriots have to work with for their passing game may linger until the games count, which is why opening with the Bills and Jets is favorable for Brady. Frankly, what the Pats can look forward to from their receiving corps is as ambiguous to all of us as whether Tim Tebow will make the opening day roster.
In the meantime, the QB will have to live with certain growing pains and frustrations, and demonstrate more patience than he’s been accustomed to in the past – a process that has already begun since the learning curve should be substantial. If only that could have been gifted to him in a neatly-wrapped box on Saturday for his 36th birthday.
Brady obviously won’t be happy with the dropped passes, errors in timing, failed route-runs, or any other mistakes that await him, but he knows they’re coming. Only reps, experience and, of course, communication, will solve those problems with time. In the end, who knows, maybe he’ll be rewarded by finding a new go-to guy. A new Troy Brown. A new Branch. A new Moss. A new Welker. And, all the while, he’s got to do this while babysitting – pardon, mentoring – Tebow.
None of this, mind you, includes the irritation Brady must be internalizing over the unnecessary loss of Welker and the lack of certainty in replacing the franchise’s best receiver not long after he agreed to a team-friendly deal, nor the betrayal he may feel towards Hernandez. He surely didn’t think a reworked five-year pact would start out like this, a far cry from last year’s training camp, when the question involving the receivers was over which veteran would be cut.
Fortunately, Brady is one of the best at his position in NFL history. He’s loyal, routinely says the right things, and he’ll confidently instruct his new pupils alongside a coaching staff that has frequently led its offenses to league records. It also doesn’t hurt that, even with their turnover, the division should be theirs to lose.
But, most important of all, Brady wants to make this work as badly as anyone. The end of his luxurious career is a whole lot closer than the beginning and, no matter how great he claims to feel, he knows it.
Ultimately, all that matters is production. That’s all that ever counts, and more than a decade of history would suggest it will be there for the Patriots come the end of the season.
Then again, history has never presented Brady with something like this.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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