- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- "Et tu, Troy?"
Criticism of veteran New England Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd has been rising in recent weeks, the most recent sharp commentary coming from one of the franchise's all-time fan favorites and the most recent inductee into the club's Hall of Fame, Troy Brown.
After Lloyd played 60 snaps and was held to one reception in the Patriots' AFC East-clinching win at Miami on Dec. 2 -- a game in which Lloyd was targeted just once by quarterback Tom Brady -- Brown poured gasoline on the Lloyd-has-been-a-disappointment fire that has been simmering among some of the team's fans in recent weeks. In his role as an analyst on Comcast SportsNet, Brown railed on Lloyd's performance.
"You see (Lloyd) now starting to tail off here at the end of the season," Brown said after Sunday's game. "This is the time when they need him the most. You need to be picking up the pace right now. Your numbers should be going up. Your performance should be going up. And all those things should be getting better, but I don't think he's been showing up for Tom Brady, and Tom Brady is not trusting this guy down the stretch. He's going back to his bread and butter guys, Wes Welker, (Rob) Gronkowski when he comes back he's going to be a guy. You saw (Aaron) Hernandez on Sunday he was the No. 2 guy for Brady. Those are the guys he can depend on to get open and make plays and not be afraid to go over the middle."
So at a time when the 31-year-old Lloyd is set to play in one of the most meaningful games of his 10-year career -- a highly anticipated "Monday Night Football" clash between the 9-3 Patriots and 11-1 Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) -- there seems to be a trail of external negativity following him. Fair or not.
"Tom's not the most patient guy in the world when it comes to that," Brown continued. "He knows there's a point where, these guys have to be going at that full tilt at a certain time of the season and right now (Lloyd) hasn't done a good job building that trust up."
Why isn't he "stretching the field" more?
How come he doesn't work harder for yardage after the catch?
Why are there games when he doesn't seem to be part of the plan?
Those questions, and more, were brought directly to Lloyd on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. It started with the production; he has played in every game, logged 85.8 percent of the offensive snaps (the same amount as Wes Welker) and has totaled 50 catches for 561 yards (11.2-yard average) and three touchdowns.
While Lloyd is on pace for 66 receptions, which would mark the third highest total of his career, some expected more, perhaps because a future Hall of Famer is throwing to him.
"I feel like a lot of times when players get in a situation where the media wants to talk about production, and the player says, 'Yeah, I want the ball more,' it's a little disrespectful to the guys," Lloyd said, when asked if he was aware of growing criticism from the likes of Brown, among others. "We're all working. We're all doing our best. Sometimes the matchups don't match up. I'm working hard, I'm available, and that's all I can really do.
"I've gone through this before. The intentions are the same for all players that face this situation -- [if they say they want the ball], they don't mean to be disrespectful to their teammates or call anybody out, but sometimes it gets taken that way.
"I respect my teammates," he continued. "I believe in them and in their talent. I trust the coaching staff is doing everything in their powers for us to be successful and win games, which is the goal. I'm 100 percent on board with the direction this organization is going. Period."
Part of the reason for the growing criticism of Lloyd is that his production has dipped since snaring 34 catches in the first six weeks of the season.
Since that point, he has been limited to 16 receptions, a stretch that included a one-catch performance against the New York Jets on Oct. 21 in which he was targeted eight times by Brady. They just couldn't connect on the long ball that day.
So what changed over Lloyd's last six games? Health could be part of it, as Lloyd was added to the team's injury report (knee) following the Oct. 21 game.
While Lloyd said Saturday that health and being limited in practices wasn't an issue for him, anyone that has listened to Brady over the past 13 years knows that a certain confidence and trust with his receivers is built over the course of each week. Lloyd and Brady haven't had that luxury, and the bottom-line results seem to reflect that.
Lloyd has been targeted 87 times this season, and his 58 percent success rate is the lowest among Patriots pass-catchers targeted more than 30 times this season.
Furthermore, Lloyd's 11.2-yard average per catch is well below his career average (14.8). He had 16 receptions of 20 yards or more last season, and has just five this season.
Then there is Lloyd's penchant for giving himself up after the catch.
According to ESPN's Stats & Information tracking, Lloyd has 109 yards after the catch this season, an average of 2.2 yards per reception. Of the 44 players in the NFL with 50 or more receptions through 12 games, only the Saints' Lance Moore (1.5) and the Chargers' Malcom Floyd (1.9) average fewer.
In fairness to Lloyd, it's not as if he has shied away from contact when called upon. One of the most recent examples came in the team's AFC East-clinching win over the Dolphins when his block on Welker's 7-yard touchdown catch was instrumental in making the receiver screen work. Lloyd also has delivered some crunching blocks in the running game this season.
As for how he is viewed by Brady, there don't seem to be any issues there. When Brady and his teammates returned to the locker room following last Sunday's win over the Dolphins, Brady went up to Welker and Lloyd, among others, and shared a congratulatory embrace that seemed particularly genuine.
Asked about that moment and his connection with Brady, Lloyd said, "We're in good standing."
That's also the way Lloyd feels about his present situation, even as criticism surrounds him. He called Monday night's game against the Texans "our biggest challenge this year" and noted that the Texans play physical man-to-man coverage, which pairs up nicely with the havoc that their ferocious pass rush creates.
Throughout his career with the 49ers (2003-2005), Redskins (2006-2007), Bears (2008), Broncos (2009-2011) and Rams (2011), Lloyd hasn't been in this type of high-stakes situation often. He's attempting to take it in stride.
"Once players start putting extra pressure on the game, it's a distraction. I'm approaching this just like the rest of the games we've been playing this season," he said. "It seems like ever since Thanksgiving, they've all been huge games."
The "Monday Night Football" stage makes this one the biggest yet, and with the Patriots entering without tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) and budding receiver Julian Edelman (broken foot), one of the big questions is if the Patriots will have enough firepower in the passing game to complement Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
That's where Lloyd could come up big, possibly silencing critics who now include one of the franchise's all-time favorites in Brown. Not that he's motivated to do so.
"My standing in the locker room and in this organization is all that matters," he said. "It's a work in progress. We're still here playing for a goal."
12hEric D. Williams