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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Offensive evolution starts with Moss

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Through the first three games of the season, two of which the New England Patriots played without Wes Welker, quarterback Tom Brady had fired 142 pass attempts. A whopping 40 of them were in the direction of Randy Moss, who led the NFL with 26 receptions at the time.

Randy Moss
Randy Moss had an up-and-down season, but all that matters now is how he performs against the Ravens on Sunday.

This could be a preview of what is to come in the playoffs.

The Patriots are regrouping after the devastating loss of Welker, with Brady saying in an interview earlier this week the offense must evolve. Maybe part of that evolution is "The Tom and Randy Show" making a return.

At the least, more pressure will be placed on Moss to produce, something he's pointed out his shoulders are more than capable of bearing. Could Brady and Moss reach back to their record-setting past and once again find that magic?

It won't be easy, because that figures to be exactly what defenses will be planning for and thus they'll adjust accordingly. Yet even when defenses keyed on Moss, the Brady/Moss combination produced stunning results in 2007, the chemistry between them so evident it was like they had been together for years.

During that season, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning made the point that what Brady and Moss were accomplishing was remarkable because a quarterback and receiver usually need more time to get on the same page. They were making it look easy and he said it was something, from a quarterback's perspective, to truly appreciate.

The same connection hasn't always been there this season.

Moss was held to a single catch against both Denver and Carolina, was limited to two grabs against Miami and had two other contests -- against Baltimore and New Orleans -- with just three receptions.

He still finished the year with 83 catches for 1,264 yards -- solid production, no doubt -- with some of his best work coming early in the season when Brady leaned on him heavily. At times early on, Moss was helping make up for the loss of Welker and the struggles of Joey Galloway by running a diverse combination of routes -- short, intermediate and deep. It was almost as if he was three receivers turned into one.

Moss might be asked to expand his repertoire once again, as Brady, in the pressure moments, figures to be most comfortable going to the experienced player with whom he has the most familiarity.

So it seems safe to say that if the Patriots are to overcome the loss of Welker, it will take a monster effort from Moss.

"I still think Randy is the premier guy, but in order for him to pick up the pace, 10 other guys are going to have to pick up the pace too," said "Monday Night Football" analyst Matt Millen, who believes Moss is a big piece of a larger puzzle. "In order to make up for the loss of Wes Welker, it's going to take everyone, because nobody is going to see it as quick as Welker did, nobody is going to get to the adjustment as fast as Welker, and nobody is going to do it as efficiently as Welker. So it comes down to a collective effort -- the O-line, the tight ends, Brady, Moss, [Julian] Edelman.

"When you ask the question 'What does it mean to be Welker?' the answer is that it's recognizing it that quick. Without that, your offensive line has to give you another half-second. It means Brady will have to be that much more patient with [Edelman]. It means Randy is going to have to go even harder to draw coverage to him. It's not one guy. Everything magnifies for everybody."

Brady echoed that sentiment Wednesday, saying overcoming Welker's absence will take a team effort.

"If a guy goes down, another guy has got to step in and fill the void," he said. "We've got good quarterbacks here. We have good running backs, certainly, receivers, a great group of offensive linemen who have all played. Pretty much everybody on offense this year has played. Obviously, you never want to lose a guy who has 123 catches, but hopefully a lot of the work that we put in over the course of the year can kind of lessen the blow."

Still, a good deal of attention inevitably will fall on Moss, who Millen still believes draws more double coverage than any receiver in football.

Through Moss' season of ups and downs -- the gutsy performance through back pain against the Falcons, the dazzling two-touchdown effort against the Colts, or his effort being called into question by Panthers defenders -- the only thing that matters now is what unfolds in the 60 minutes of football to be played against the Ravens on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Brady has said an evolution is in order and that can mean a lot of things. The idea of attempting to recapture some of the old Brady/Moss magic isn't a bad place to start.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.