- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady was at it again on Sunday, hollering at his rookie receivers on the sideline, unleashing pure, unfiltered, raw emotion.
Only this time, he was screaming his approval.
After their underwhelming performance last week, New England Patriots rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson undoubtedly could have used a hug, but instead their quarterback delivered a swift kick to their collective posteriors. The message was clear: We don't have time for this. Get up to speed. Learn your assignments.
"I didn't mind it,'' Dobson said of the scolding Sunday, after he caught seven passes for 52 yards against the (still) winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "You've got to learn from it. We know mistakes are going to happen. Our job is to take something positive from it.''
Ten days ago, in a tenuous win over the New York Jets, Thompkins and Dobson were targeted 17 times but hauled in only five catches. There were drops, miscommunications and a whole slew of three-and-outs. Brady's animated frustration made headlines, then triggered a curious debate about whether it was OK for a future Hall of Famer who is a documented perfectionist to get in the grill of a couple of rookies who may (or may not) be running the wrong routes.
Really? Isn't that what leadership is about, demanding the same concentration and excellence of others that you demand of yourself? I loved watching Brady spit nails, take names and demand accountability. If he had just patted Dobson and Thompkins on the helmet and soothed them with, "It's OK, you're just learning," would they have approached Sunday's opportunity at redemption against Tampa Bay with the same urgency and resolve?
I sincerely doubt it.
In the wake of his effort against the Bucs in a 23-3 romp, Thompkins discovered two footballs awaiting him in his locker following the game. The balls signified the first and second touchdowns of his career.
They also signified the first fruit of a green, young talent who still has plenty to learn, but is beginning to understand exactly what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
"It's interesting,'' Brady mused, "because you go through the spring camps and you have practices and because there's no real competition -- there's no scoreboard -- in some ways you get a false sense of security that things are going the right way.
"Then you have preseason games and practice and things are going the right way and none of it matters, because what matters is what you do during the regular season.''
Here's the thing: The Patriots need these rookies to contribute. They are woefully short-handed in terms of viable receiving threats, and teams will attempt to smother Brady's one redoubtable target, Julian Edelman.
That brings us to Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis and how his football world has turned upside down. One of the best shutdown corners in the game found himself on a team that chose not to highlight his exceptional man coverage abilities. Then he lined up against his nemesis, the New England Patriots, where he has excelled in big-time, big-game duels opposite the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. And Sunday, his No. 1 concern was ... Edelman?
Edelman caught seven balls, but he was not the one-man band he was against the Jets, which was a relief to the guy on his side wearing No. 12.
"It was nice [for the offense] not to fall to one position,'' Brady admitted.
The quarterback completed passes to six different players. He clapped enthusiastically as both Brandon Bolden (three carries, 51 yards) and LeGarrette Blount (14 carries, 65 yards) were productive running the ball. When you run the ball, you throw the ball with much better success.
They also are fortunate that Tampa Bay was in the house Sunday. The Bucs could have (and should have) jumped out to a double-digit lead as the Patriots' offense initially stalled, but their kicker missed a 38-yard field goal, the referees missed a third-down interference call that should have drawn a flag on Alfonzo Dennard and their quarterback, Josh Freeman, simply couldn't close the deal when his team got into New England territory.
Even though New England's kids at the wideout position thrived Sunday, there still will be bumps in the road. They are in a hurry to be good, as evidenced by a third-quarter drop from Thompkins, who was so excited to see the ball coming his way he took off without it. The routes could be crisper, better timed, and both Thompkins and Dobson have to hang onto the ball.
Thompkins' 16-yard touchdown connection with Brady in the first half led to a heartfelt embrace with his quarterback, who was in complete concert with his receiver on a play that safety Dashon Goldson admitted afterward he "overpursued.''
"He [Thompkins] did a good job of cutting back,'' Goldson said.
"To go out there and for me to be open and have Tom trust to throw me the ball, it felt good,'' Thompkins said.
It was an uncomfortable 10 days for Thompkins and Dobson, who were dissected and dismissed and dissed for their lack of chemistry with Brady. Calls for Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd from restless (and nervous) fans began in earnest. The veterans Edelman and Brady urged their young teammates to block out the noise.
"I tried to get back to doing what a receiver does, not even thinking about what everybody else was saying about how I played last week,'' Dobson said. "You've got to ignore what everyone is saying.''
What they are saying is even though the Patriots are 3-0 for the first time in six years, they still don't look like an elite football team. Their first three opponents, after all, have an aggregate record of 3-6.
We will learn a lot more about this football team and its rookie receivers over the next three games in Atlanta, at Cincinnati and home against the Saints.
By then Gronkowski presumably will have returned, curing all sorts of ills for a quarterback who is pining for experienced guys to catch the ball. The state of the hard-luck Amendola, meanwhile, is anyone's guess.
In the meantime, the kids will keep on churning, learning, scheming.
Their quarterback is watching. And, as they've learned, he won't hesitate to let them know exactly what he thinks.
Tom Brady's connections with his rookie receivers were worth shouting about.