The struggles the New England Patriots experienced so far this season come as unpleasant — and unwelcome — surprises.
Fans of the three-time Super Bowl champions have grown accustomed to the high-powered offense led by two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady obliterating opposing defenses with deadly efficiency ever since Brady took over the starting quarterback job in 2001. Brady’s accuracy and composure have led New England to become the team with the most wins in the NFL in the last decade, capturing 10 of the last 12 AFC East titles on the way to five Super Bowls.
This year, however, Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been dealt a massive blow after losing two of last season’s top four receivers in the offseason, including number-one receiver Wes Welker to the team’s AFC rival, the Denver Broncos, and fourth-leading receiver tight end Aaron Hernandez to murder and firearm charges. Moreover, New England has been without leading tight end Rob Gronkowski for much of the 2013 season, thanks to multiple back and forearm surgeries in the offseason.
Although Gronkowski returned for the Patriots’ Sunday loss to the New York Jets, New England has had to make do with rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson along with returning veteran Julian Edelman. Even after acquiring Danny Amendola from the St. Louis Rams to replace Welker, Brady has struggled to build chemistry with his receivers.
Despite playing to a 5-2 record and a one-game lead in the AFC East, the Patriots’ offense has been noticeably sluggish, ineffective and rife with miscommunications between Brady and his receivers, who led the league in dropped passes this year. To add to New England’s woes, Amendola has missed significant playing time with groin and head injuries. And with the return of Gronkowski, it will take time for the tight end to regain his rhythm and timing.
The fault for New England’s offensive issues does not lie solely with the young receivers but also with Brady himself. For all his accolades, victories and prowess, Brady has proved human at several times throughout the young season, throwing untimely interceptions and missing open receivers at inopportune times, in particular in losses against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 6 and division rivals, the New York Jets, this past Sunday. Wherever the fault may lie, Brady’s frustration in his team’s performance is evident, epitomized by multiple sideline outbursts at his young receivers.
To add literal injury to insult, the Patriots’ once strong defense has been hobbled by key losses. They will be without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo because of Achilles tendon and shoulder injuries, respectively. Cornerback Aqib Talib may be out for some time with a hip injury as well.
For all the problems the Patriots have endured thus far, the team remains the favorite to be AFC East champions. They hold the advantage of playing in a weak division and remain the best team on paper. Moreover, so long as Brady captains the offense and football guru Belichick calls the plays, New England can never be counted out.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 22 print edition. Charles Surette is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]