Commentary

Brady's greatest challenge yet

Patriots QB hopes to reach a sixth Super Bowl despite his cast of unproven WRs

Originally Published: August 12, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Tom Brady won't say it. He can't. But look on the field -- his options are limited. Aaron Hernandez is in jail. Wes Welker is in Denver. Brandon Lloyd is on the street. Rob Gronkowski is hurt.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski and Tom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady hopes to have red zone threat Rob Gronkowski back after the TE underwent surgery in the offseason.

Approximately 85 percent of the New England Patriots' offense from a season ago is gone. Only 21 of Brady's 402 completions last season were caught by wide receivers currently on the roster. The Patriots have Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and a bunch of guys who weren't even teenagers when Brady won his first Super Bowl. Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins are rookies. Matthew Slater is a special-teams ace with one career catch in five seasons in New England. And Michael Jenkins is on his third team in four years.

This isn't 2006 bad -- the Patriots' receiving corps that season essentially consisted of Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson, an aging Troy Brown, Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney -- but it isn't good, either. Brady is trying to get to a sixth Super Bowl and win a fourth. To do so, he's going to have to win with unproven receivers. If he does, Brady would go down as the greatest quarterback to win more with less in the history of the National Football League.

And he just might.

"The combination of Brady, the system they run, the pace and the repetitive accuracy can overwhelm defenses as early as the first quarter," said one scout who is used to facing the Patriots. "I've seen it. There are tricks to playing them. Some teams can't handle it, no matter who the receivers are."

On Friday night, the Philadelphia Eagles' first-team defense certainly couldn't handle it. After three days of practicing against New England, when Brady picked the Eagles' secondary to death with a steady diet of short, quick passes, the Eagles allowed the Patriots to score a touchdown on their opening drive. Brady didn't throw a single pass. On New England's second drive, Brady completed seven of his eight passes to four different receivers, including a perfectly placed throw in the end zone to running back Shane Vereen.

Then backup quarterback Ryan Mallett replaced Brady, and, working with the same receivers and in the same system, promptly went three and out.

I spoke to Brady after the game, and he was matter-of-fact about the makeup of his team.

"Our team is our team at this point," he said. "There's no more draft. There's no more free agency. The guys we have we're going to go with. We're just trying to get everyone on the same page and get everyone to go out there and play as well as we can."

Brady said he has spent extended time with his receiving corps trying to "develop some trust in each other."

"They've got to know that I trust them and care about them and care about what they're doing," Brady said. "So, we're trying to build a rapport with one another, spending time together. That's with all the players; that's just not the young players. That's how teams develop. We've got a fun group of people that are really willing to learn and have been very receptive to what we're trying to do, but we have a long way to go before our first game. We're going to need all the help and all the time we've got."

Peyton Manning and Wes Welker
USA TODAY SportsUnlike Brady, Peyton Manning's teams regularly feature elite receivers, with this year's squad swiping Wes Welker from the Pats this offseason.

Brady has been in this position before. Rare has been the season when he has been surrounded by outstanding wide receiver talent. Brady has won with players like David Givens, Deion Branch, Troy Brown and Donte Stallworth. He's won throwing touchdown passes to former linebacker Mike Vrabel. He's won with an aging Randy Moss and an ineffective Chad Johnson. And Brady's won with Welker, one of his closest friends who now is playing with his biggest rival, Peyton Manning.

Maybe that's why he doesn't seem overly concerned about the wide receivers with whom he has to work.

Nevertheless, as thin as the Patriots are at wide receiver, the Broncos are loaded, and the Broncos are New England's biggest competition in the AFC. Manning has a wealth of options. Demaryius Thomas is a freak of nature. Eric Decker is a decent player made better by Manning. And Welker is the perfect fit for Manning in the slot. As he was throughout his career in Indianapolis, Manning is surrounded by a wealth of reliable options.

This season, at least on paper, Brady is not. While Brady wouldn't bite when asked about losing Welker to the Broncos, it had to sting.

"I would say every team this time of year has challenges," Brady said. "Everyone at different positions has strengths and weaknesses. The depth of your team and how it's going to play out and injuries, there's so much that I know it makes a lot of sense for a lot of people to make the predictions about how things are going to go, but no one really knows.

"From our standpoint, we're just trying to string good days together. We've built since the first day of our offseason conditioning program, and we've spent a lot of time together, and we're trying to continue to do that. It's like a full-court press until we get out there for the first game."

That day will come in a matter of weeks, when the Patriots open the season at Buffalo and begin the long march to January with a group of unproven receivers Brady has no choice but to believe in.

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