Offense struggling to find itself

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When one NFL personnel man assessed the Patriots' offense through five games, he asked some simple questions: Who are they? What is their identity?

The answers, in contrast to one recent record-setting season, have not yet surfaced this season.

This isn't 2007, when Randy Moss sliced through the Jets on opening day, and it was clear from the outset that the offense -- with Tom Brady firing on all cylinders -- had the makings of one of the most explosive passing attacks in NFL history.

Instead, the '09 Patriots are still trying to discover what they can hang their collective hat on, what plays they can feel confident calling in critical situations.

Are they a three-receiver offense that spreads the field and attacks through the air? Or will they become more dependent on tighter formations and the running game as in 2008, when they were taking some of the load off backup turned starting quarterback Matt Cassel?

They've tried a little bit of everything but at this point still don't know for sure.

"We've had our moments that have been good, but other times we haven't established much of an identity yet," receiver Wes Welker said Wednesday. "We're still looking for it and trying to find it."

Welker is confident the answers will come because of the work ethic and skill of the players around him. During the course of his career, he's seen offenses that come together quickly, and others that take longer to jell.

Why has it taken longer for the offense to establish itself this season?

Perhaps more than anything, the Patriots' lack of production from the No. 3 receiver spot has hurt them. After Jabar Gaffney signed with the Broncos as a free agent, the plan was for lower-cost veteran Joey Galloway to fill his role. But Galloway has been inactive the past two weeks, unable to establish the desired rapport with Brady.

So career special-teamer Sam Aiken has been thrust into the No. 3 spot, and not surprisingly, he's caught just one pass in two games. Aiken, a solid No. 4 or No. 5 option, is not the long-term answer as the third receiver if the Patriots plan to run the majority of their plays out of a three-wide package, as they did in Sunday's overtime loss at Denver.

The lack of a defined identity also can be tied to Brady's early-season struggles, as he's missing on deliveries with which he traditionally has been flawless, such as his overthrow of Moss on a would-be touchdown Sunday. Although defenses deserve credit for disguising and switching up their coverages -- which sometimes can be a forgotten factor in missed throws -- Brady clearly still is adjusting to his return from torn ligaments in his right knee.

And not to be overlooked is the void left by Josh McDaniels, the team's offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008. Brady and McDaniels had a special chemistry, which was evidenced by the warm embrace they shared by the Patriots' team buses after Sunday's game.

Brady accomplished some magical things with McDaniels calling plays, although it's easy to forget that they had some early growing pains in 2005 -- when McDaniels replaced Charlie Weis, whom Brady revered both personally and professionally. A similar transition is taking place now with Brady and up-and-coming quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, the team's primary playcaller.

When it comes to team identity, Brady said the rough sketch is put together in March in free agency, when new players are acquired. The team then proceeds to passing camps and minicamps with new ideas and concepts, hoping that leads to a well-polished product by the regular season when "you're kind of forming what the team is going to be."

"In some ways, we've done some very positive things over the five weeks," Brady said. "In a lot of ways, it's been inconsistent, which reflects in the amount of points we're scoring." New England's 20.8 points per game ranks 20th in the league. "So if we can be more consistent, we'd be scoring points and winning more games, and everyone would be feeling a lot better around here. Because that hasn't happened, we're still searching."

The search is for an identity, because at this point, the Patriots haven't consistently done anything well enough to define who they are.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.