FOXBOROUGH -- These are trying times in Foxborough with the Patriots facing both the archrival New York Jets and the prospect of their first three-game losing streak since 2002 on Sunday.
You know the panic button is being pounded when among the targets for ire is Tom Brady. TB12 has been picked on lately for his penchant for getting picked off. The 10 interceptions he's tossed this season put him on pace to eclipse his career high of 14.
Blaming the canonized, Canton-bound quarterback for the Patriots' 5-3 record is the ultimate case of losing the forest among the trees. Brady led a game-winning drive against Dallas, didn't have the ball enough against Pittsburgh and had the Patriots in position to beat the Giants if the defense hadn't fallen apart like Rick Perry at a Republican presidential debate.
If you want to critique Brady, don't fixate on interceptions, focus on failing to establish connections. The Patriots' fate on Sunday at MetLife Stadium and this season is ultimately going to be tied to Brady's ability to build a rapport with Chad Ochocinco and/or Taylor Price, even if it's kicking and screaming.
He is going to have to widen his circle of trust or watch defenses continue to close in around him.
It has become obvious the last couple of weeks, as an offense that was once automatic for 30 a game but hasn't scored more than 20 since a 30-21 win over the Jets on Oct. 9, that the Patriots need an option outside who can threaten a defense. That is, after all, why they opened the pearly gates of Patriot Place to Ochocinco in the first place.
Much of the blame for Ochocinco's inability to grasp the offense has been placed on him, but perhaps Brady needs to do more to make it work. That's what the great ones do -- make those around them better. That's what he did in 2006, when he was the Wide Receiver Whisperer, squeezing a 61-catch season out of Reche Caldwell and an AFC title game appearance out of a generic group of pass catchers.
The comparison point for Brady is always his Indianapolis Colts counterpart, Peyton Manning. Like Brady, Manning is an exacting, perfectionist in the passing game. But one area that Manning has had more success than Brady of late is indoctrinating unfamiliar or inexperienced targets into his offense.
As a rookie in 2007, Anthony Gonzalez had 37 receptions for 576 yards and three touchdowns for the Colts. In 2009, rookie Austin Collie had 60 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns, while second-year receiver Pierre Garcon had 47 receptions for 765 yards and four touchdowns. When Manning lost trusted target Dallas Clark after six games last season due to a wrist injury, he cajoled a 67-catch, 631-yard season out of tight end Jacob Tamme.
Brady said yesterday that he and Manning have never talked about the process of assimilating players into their offenses.
For certain wayward wide receiving souls, there was no salvation. Not even Brady could save them from themselves. There was nothing he could have done to make it work with Bethel Johnson or Chad Jackson or Joey Galloway, but Ochocinco looks salvageable. Who knows what Price looks like, because we haven't seen him on the field thanks to a balky hamstring and the conspicuous lack of Brady's imprimatur.
Whether it's trust fall exercises or extra throwing sessions, Brady has to find a way to make it work with one of these guys. He has no choice.
"We work together, the receivers and the quarterbacks, because we're so dependent on each other," Brady said today. "It doesn't matter if I get it and they don't get it, or if I don't get it and they get it. The only way that we're going to do well is if collectively we're on the same page."
So far it hasn't looked like Brady and Ochocino are in the same playbook. Is there more he can do to get Ochocinco and/or Price to be a reliable part of the offense?
"It's just constant communication. There's no secret," Brady said as he searched the top shelf of his locker for something much the same way he is searching for a connection with Ochocinco. "It's just work. It's just getting out on the field and doing it, working at it, watching film on it and talking about it. But there is nothing special. It's just spending the time."
There is no better time for the light to go on for Ochocinco or Price. Since Rex Ryan became the Jets' coach, Brady and the Patriots haven't scored a single point in the second half against the Jets in northern New Jersey. Brady can use all the help he can get against his Xs and Os nemesis.
Back in April, during a promotional appearance for Under Armour, Brady acknowledged the difficulty that a new receiver can have in picking up the intricacies of New England's improvisational passing attack. He said the best he ever saw at it was Deion Branch, who as a rookie in 2002 had 43 receptions for 489 yards and two touchdowns.
Branch said Brady builds a relationship with his receivers in the classroom and then carries it over to the field. But he pointed out that Brady can't run routes for anybody.
"I think he does a great job as far as trying to get all of us on the same page with him," said Branch. "That's his job, but it's our job as well to also know what we're doing as well and be on the same page with our quarterback, especially if you want the ball. If you don't want the ball then don't do it. I promise you he won't throw it to you."
Brady is finicky about where he sends his passes, but ignoring Ochocinco and Price is no longer a route he and the Patriots can take.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.