- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The clock is ticking. Remember the boyish quarterback with the chiseled cleft chin and the tight spiral who, on Feb. 3, 2002, embodied the gleeful disbelief of the entire region of New England when he clutched his head in wonderment after engineering the first Super Bowl win for the Patriots?
He turned 34 in August.
Tom Brady's once impenetrable armor is no longer pristine, smooth, without chinks. His résumé can no longer be characterized as unblemished or without disappointment.
For the past two seasons, Brady and his football team have been one-and-done in the playoffs. The year before, when a serious knee injury shelved him for the season, they didn't even qualify for the playoffs. The New England Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, which suddenly seems like an eternity. Blame Tim Thomas and those upstart Boston Bruins. Once they hoisted the Cup last June, they pushed the Patriots to the back of the line as the Boston team with the longest championship drought -- as incredible as that may be.
Seven years without a title is hardly catastrophic, but when your quarterback is viewed as the best -- or among the best -- in the game by virtually every expert, at some point you have to deal with the facts: Tom Brady won't be around forever, and before you know it, he will be on the back end of his remarkable career.
So, as the Patriots approach another season with a new assortment of faces and the usual assortment of startling roster cuts, we ask the same redoubtable question: Does this team have enough weapons to maximize the talents of its Hall of Fame quarterback?
The preseason provided mixed results and a couple of developments that were mildly disconcerting, albeit inconclusive. Brady termed the passing game's performance "a bit inconsistent" and admitted, "We're a long way from figuring out where we're going to be."
That sort of analysis is inevitable when one of your favorite all-time targets, Wes Welker, incurs a neck injury, then offers only a lukewarm "OK" diagnosis in the following days. Then there's Deion Branch, Brady's other pet receiver, who did not catch a single pass in the preseason.
That bears repeating -- not one catch.
Numerous football types, some within the Patriots' camp, some observing from the periphery, assure me this is not cause for alarm. New England rarely reveals many of its offensive sets in preseason, I'm told, and the team was probably protecting Branch to prevent a needless injury. Asked directly to characterize Branch's performance to date, coach Bill Belichick lauded his conditioning and his leadership, then declared, "You love having Deion Branch on your team."
Brady's third receiver on the unofficial depth chart is Chad Ochocinco, the normally loquacious receiver who appeared at a loss for words at times to explain his uneven results in Patriots camp. Ochocinco came to New England, presumably, to stretch the field (and bunk with the neighbors), but he was unable to enjoy the benefits of a typical all-inclusive offseason program with Brady, in which he runs his receivers through the same routes again and again and again and again until they are second nature.
That is how Brady bonded with Welker and Branch before Ochocinco. That is how he and Randy Moss established one of the most prolific touchdown tandems in history. Without those reps, the timing can be uneven. For a quarterback who is all about precision, that can be a problem.
"The way you mesh is being together and playing, making mistakes and correcting mistakes," Brady explained.
In other words, there's still plenty of time for Chad to make his mark in this offense.
Perhaps there are plans for Ochocinco that have not yet been revealed. The signing of Dan Gronkowski prompted speculation New England would employ the occasional three-tight end formation (with the "other" Gronk, brother Rob, and Aaron Hernandez), using Ocho as the lone wideout.
All this sounds great, but as the Patriots learned last season, unless they can unveil some semblance of a running game, they will become too predictable offensively. Can Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis keep defenses honest? We'll see.
The more pressing question might well be whether New England can put an improved defense on the field. The common thread of the three Super Bowl wins, aside from Brady, was an opportunistic defense that caused turnovers and made big plays. The galling lack of a pass rush in 2010 (and 2009) was an ongoing theme.
One wonders if Brady feels the urgency as the years pass. He has endured a torn ACL in 2008, battled rib injuries in 2009 and underwent surgery last winter to repair a stress fracture in his foot. The days of skipping through the season unscathed have faded to black. Asked about his football mortality, he conceded, "I think you realize how tough it is to win games over the years."
Brady has never enjoyed the luxury of relying on that prime-time, first-ballot Hall of Fame receiver for an extended period. Moss was that guy in the short term, but he removed himself from the equation for reasons only he understands. Moss caught 39 Tom Brady passes for touchdowns, more than any other receiver.
Brady has thrown 261 career touchdowns to 43 different receivers, everyone from Cam Cleeland to Tom Ashworth.
Branch and Welker are Nos. 2 and 2A on the all-time Brady TD list with a relatively modest count of 19 touchdown catches each.
Not surprisingly, tight ends have fared well in Belichick's schemes. Both Benjamin Watson and Daniel Graham caught 17 touchdown passes during their tenures in New England. Rob Gronkowski caught 10 TDs in his one season.
Would Brady have loved his own Marvin Harrison or Jerry Rice or Lynn Swann? Of course. Who wouldn't? But how many Super Bowl rings does Marvin Harrison have? One fewer than Deion Branch. New England's system of throwing underneath has worked before, just not lately.
The opportunities for those rings are precious, fleeting. That much Brady understands. He watched his friend and rival Manning undergo "routine" neck surgery (really, now, is there any such thing?) that was never supposed to jeopardize the Colts QB's season. But Manning had surgery again Thursday, and the NFL is bracing for a prolonged absence of one of its most visible -- and likable -- superstars.
No one is picking the Colts to win it all. They are taking the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers and a plethora of receivers that includes Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings and James Jones. They like Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, or Mike Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, or Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers or Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers.
And because the New England Patriots have Tom Brady, that prompts most prognosticators to give them a fighting chance.
"There's only one team every year that has a good season and we haven't been that team in a long time," Brady said.
His past Super Bowl exploits provide him with a reservoir of faith and goodwill from fans.
But the clock is ticking, and the thirtysomething father of two with the perfect cleft chin and the glorious golden arm understands the time has to be now.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Tom Brady, now 34, realizes his time for winning championships is running out.