Not all 3-0 records are created equal. Look no further than the AFC East, where the Patriots and Dolphins are both undefeated.
The Pats are the more important 3-0, thanks to a 2-0 start in the division after nail-biting victories over the Bills and Jets, while the Fins are the more impressive 3-0, courtesy of road wins in Cleveland and Indianapolis, not to mention a home rally against the Falcons.
Plenty of people will say that New England is unbeaten on account of the ease of its schedule but, really, who cares? Teams play their 16-game slates in whatever order they’re structured and let the chips fall where they may. It’s more important to consider how they got here.
For once, it hasn’t been the play of Tom Brady.
After years of relying on their offense to score in bunches and stay busy enough to keep a rebuilding or decimated defense off the field, the Patriots are perfect because of their coverage. The secondary has thrived, the run-defense has held marquee backs like Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller in check, penalties have been few and far between, and the group has forced turnovers with regularity. To this point, the Pats are allowing a mere 11.3 points per game, tied for second-best in the NFL, even if they’ve yet to face a legitimate challenger under center.
But, on the Pats sidelines, the man who poses a threat for 350 yards and four touchdowns each and every week on reputation alone hasn’t been the guy we’re all used to. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to call him good.
Brady ranks 26th in the league with a 57.5 completion percentage, 19th with 698 passing yards, dead-last at 33rd with 5.5 yards per attempt, and he has a 5-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It’s early, yes, but the entrancing recital of, “He’ll be fine, he’s Tom Brady,” may not mean what it once did now that the QB is 36. Without his team’s stout defense, similar to in Brady’s early years, the Pats could quite possibly be 1-2 and last in the division.
The quick counter is of course that Brady has been saddled with a new crop of inexperienced wideouts who are still transitioning to the pro game, a rash of injuries to key personnel like Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen, and, well, that whole Aaron Hernandez thing hurts, too. It’s impossible, as well, to ignore that his targets have often either found themselves in the wrong places or dropped upward of 10 balls through just three games. In many cases, those failures have been chalked up to rookies being rookies, jittery and unfamiliar with how to execute what’s in the playbook. The difference is that this is the first time in Brady’s career that he’s had to tutor so many freshman at once, and without a veteran to lean on, save for Amendola in the opener. That’ll hurt anyone’s stats.
That being said, Brady has at times held onto the football too long. He’s not channeling his inner Tim Tebow, but it’s hardly been the hike-and-hurl we’ve grown accustomed to. The QB has also killed potential scoring drives by fumbling at the goal line, being intercepted in the red zone, missing a slew of open receivers, and he’s been crucified for an ever-so-rare appearance of negative energy on the field.
Can his errors be explained away by age? Has a lack of patience crept into his game? Is he less comfortable getting hit than in years past, prompting him to get rid of the ball prematurely? Or, as we’d all prefer, is it merely that he’s only played three games?
Clearly, Brady remains an elite NFL quarterback and one who should and will be in Foxborough for at least the next few seasons. He’s also inarguably past his prime and, despite noticeable improvement from the rookies in Sunday’s win over the struggling Buccaneers, we may be nearing the point where the veteran can no longer, if you will, make chicken salad out of chicken…you know.
Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, et al, are talented, seemingly more so than some of the guys Brady has had to work with in years like the often-referenced 2006 gathering of Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, and Daniel Graham, however, they aren’t yet ready to be stars. That’s fine. Their early-career struggles are the growing pains we expected to see but hoped we wouldn’t.
Eventually for some and forever for others, you’re only as good as the players around you. Brady will undoubtedly put up better numbers and, in turn, be better, upon the returns of his missing veterans. Until then, his stats will continue to be at their more pedestrian levels.
There are times when a QB makes his receivers look better, as Brady’s been doing for years, and other instances when the reverse occurs, which certainly hasn’t happened thus far in 2013. Consider Brady’s chemistry with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. There are few, if any, other players with whom Brady could have replicated his 23-touchdown connection that he had with Moss in 2007. Then there’s Welker, who caught 672 passes from Brady in 93 regular season games. It was a perfect pairing.
It’s common sense to note the symbiotic relationship between a passer and his targets. Matthew Stafford is made to look better because he throws to Calvin Johnson. Eric Decker gets more attention because he’s on Peyton Manning’s radar.
Brady, especially now, is no different. As he works to improve the games of a group of eager youngsters, he needs more help than he once did because the talent around him is starting to define his present-day status and not the other way around. There’s a reason Brady reportedly reached out to Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd with hopes of planning more than dinner and drinks.
Some things are just unpredictable these days. The Dolphins are a viable concern in the division, the Jets are 2-1 while the Giants are 0-3, and the Patriots are unbeaten in spite of their offense, not because of it.
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About this blog
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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