During the 2012/13 NFL season elite New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had an array of options available him on his offense, but fast forward to now and Brady’s options look a lot different to what they were last season.
The current roster contains 13 rookies (mostly under Brady’s wing) and Brady is still in parts to find a solid chemistry with them; the return of a certain talismanic Rob Gronkowksi (missing since the end of the regular season last season, due to long-term back/forearm injuries) can’t come soon enough.
Some might argue (like Brady during the 13-10 victory over the New York Jets in week 2) that the current 4-1 Patriots haven’t suffered from the lose of wide-receiver Wes Welker to the unbeaten Denver Broncos, tight end Aaron Hernandez (whose contract was terminated due a charge of murder) wide-receiver Brandon Lloyd (released) and the return from injury of influential tight-end Rob Gronkowski and running-back Stevan Ridley, but the question still stands, how long can Brady mentor such an inexperienced offense for?
With 11 games remaining in the regular season, add the expectant play-off run and even a trip to the MetLife Stadium come 2nd February, the cracks could be slowly starting to show. The Patriots were defeated 13-6 in the Paul Brown stadium in Cincinnati against the Bengals ending the Patriots unbeaten start to the season, but what actually went wrong for Brady and co.
Scoring only six points against a 3-2 Bengals outfit isn’t the most notable point, the lack of a running game is. Without both Stevan Ridley (knee) and Shane Veeren the Patriots biggest run was 12 yards; the return of Ridley (13 rushing touchdowns last season) can’t come sooner.
Also this season Brady has hardly been at his best only averaging 6.18 yards per pass attempt, down from 7.52 prior to the season; only three QBs currently have a lower yards per attempt this season, Blaine Gabbert, new Minnesota Vikings QB Josh Freeman and Sam Bradford.
One of the players looking to step up for the Patriots is versatile wide-receiver/punter Julian Edelman. Resigned by New England in 2013, the former college quarterback, a 7th round draft pick back in 2009 has provided Brady with options for touchdowns by scoring both of the Patriot’s touchdowns in the 23-21 opening day win over the Buffalo Bills.
He also holds the NFL’s all-time leading career punt return average, an average of 13.0 yards per return, breaking the record previously held for over 60 years by Chicago Bears’s George McAfee of 12.8 yards.
The biggest lose to Brady though has to be the absence of Rob Gronkowski, a persistence of both back and forearm injuries have kept the tight-end star out since the end of the regular season last year.
Gronkowski was once part of one of the most feared tight-end pairings in NFL history, alongside Aaron Hernandez (facing a possible stretch in prison for murder) and at times the pair were unplayable, but Brady now has to fine an alternative options to using the twin tight-ends as his main threat for touchdowns.
Since Gronk starting his Patriot’s career in 2010 as a second round draft pick the stats don’t lye to how much of a loss he has/could turn out to be towards the Patriot’s chances of claiming Superbowl XVLIII glory; 2,263 received yards, 187 receptions and 39 touchdowns say it all.
Last season New England scored 67 touchdowns in the regular season (6 in the play-offs), with 11 received by Gronk, so far this season Brady has had to alter the way he set-ups possible touchdown opportunities with his dominant tight-end still vacant.
Whenever Gronkowski is active on the offence first downs are a regular occurrence, last year 45 out of his 55 catches (in the regular season) went for first-downs, 69 out of 90 went for touchdowns the previous season. His return against the unbeaten (5-0) New Orleans Saints would be well-timed to say the least. Gronkowski between 2010-2012 was also the highest receiver of touchdowns in the red-zone, something the Patriots have struggled so far with this season, making even more clear how they have missed him.
New England were kept-out of the end-zone for the first time since the 16-9 lose to the New York Jets back on 20th September 2009 (a game where Brady wasn’t even sacked) on Sunday by the Bengals, the game also ended Brady’s record of 52 straight games where he has thrown a touchdown pass, the second-longest in NFL history, behind New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
Another individual that is looking to step up is rookie wide-receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. After dedicating himself to football the outside draft pick has forged a substantial chemistry with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brady. In the absence of both Gronkowski and another new signing wide-receiver Danny Amendola, so far this season Thompkins has 15 catches for 257 yards, alongside three scores; only second to Julian Edelman on the Patriot’s offence.
With New England and Brady possessing a new offensive line for the current season, people are still convinced they will still reach the AFC play-off final. Danny Amendola could replace and exceed Wes Welker’s reputation at the Patriots, Edelman and Thompkins look like talented and promising players and could well fill Lloyd and Hernandez’s boots respectively and the return of Rob Gronkowski is still to come.
The announcement, after Bruno Mars’s half-time show, of the New England Patriots being named Superbowl XVLIII winners could be well and truly more than just a dream.
But before any dreams of Superbowl XVLIII glory can be considered though, the unbeaten New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees are next up for Brady and Co on Sunday evening.
By Chris Heath