I’ll admit it if you will. When the Patriots’ passing game struggled during Sunday’s season-opening 23-21 escape against the Buffalo Bills — in other words, on pretty much every possession that didn’t result in a score — I found myself wondering if going with Kenbrell Thompkins and the other kids at receiver was a mistake that should be rectified with a phone call or two early this week.
It’s not necessarily that I want any Tom Brady targets of the recent past back on this football team. The end arrived for Deion Branch at the appropriate time, and there must be some valid reason Brandon Lloyd, who had an uneven but useful 74 catches and 911 receiving yards in this offense a season ago, remains out of the league as the new season begins.
But after what Wes Welker did for Denver Thursday night — a quintessential Wes Welker performance, more or less — and then seeing Randy Moss as, and this is still weird, a studio analyst, it was tough not to immediately long for the days when Brady’s top targets not only were supremely talented, but consistently where he expected them to be on the football field.
Brady might have had such thoughts for old friends himself had he not been so tied up with the business at hand — which, in a micro sort of way, was making sure Thompkins and Josh Boyce had a clue about where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. The macro matter at hand, of course, was winning the dang football game, which is what Brady managed to do, completing six passes for 34 yards on the final drive to set up Stephen Gostkowski‘s winning field goal.
There were times when the young receivers looked like they were operating from a different playbook than Brady, let alone being on a different page. Thompkins, whose rise from undrafted free agent to starting receiver was one of the most compelling stories of training camp, caught just four of the 14 passes thrown his way.
For the first time he looked like … well, he looked like an undrafted free agent playing his first real NFL game, that’s what he looked like. Brady did nothing to hide his frustration with Thompkins’s curious interpretation what his pass routes were supposed to be, especially when Thompkins froze on a broken play in the end zone midway on the drive that eventually cut the Bills’ lead to 21-20.
Had Thompkins taken a step to his right, as Brady expected him to do, he’d have had his first NFL touchdown, and his preseason reputation as a playbook savant might still be intact. Instead, the pass fell to the turf, Brady slumped his shoulders and muttered, and the Patriots settled for three points instead of seven. Somewhere, Joey Galloway shivered.
I suspect there was some buyer’s remorse yesterday from all of those New England-based fantasy football general managers who took Thompkins or Zach Sudfeld as a sleepah. But as frustrating as that performance was, it would be foolish to abandon him yet. He clearly has talent, and his performance in preseason could not have entirely been a mirage.
It was the first NFL game for Thompkins, and for Sudfeld and Boyce. It’s a lot to handle, a boyhood dream fulfilled and a sensory assault all at once. We’ve all got to be patient with these guys — injured second-rounder Aaron Dobson included — until there is enough evidence as to whether they can play or they can’t.
And that applies to the tall, frustrated, fastball-firing guy in the No. 12 jersey as well. You don’t get to be Tom Brady, Great American Quarterback, without expecting perfection from yourself and everyone else. But sometimes — oftentimes — perfection is too much to demand. With this group, the best, most reasonable hope is rapid improvement from Sunday’s uneven performances. Thursday, they better be better, and they should be better.
Besides, there were encouraging signs. It’s natural and understandable to compare Danny Amendola to his predecessor Welker. But you know who he reminded me of more during his 10-catch, 104-yard performance? Troy Brown.
And not just because of the No. 80 on his jersey. His ability to contort himself and catch the ball with his arms outstretched in middle-of-the-field traffic reminded me of so many plays Brown made over the years, first for Drew Bledsoe before Brady took over.
He contributed perhaps the biggest play of the game, a 10-yard catch on third and 8 at the Bills 39 with roughly eight minutes remaining. He clearly has Brady’s trust already. If he’s healthy — a relatively big if, sure — mark him down for 100-plus catches this season.
As for the rest of ’em, I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world in which Julian Edelman is the second-most-dependable receiver, but there he was Sunday with seven catches on nine targets for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Not a bad facsimile of a standard Welker performance, all things considered.
With such a quick turnaround before Thursday’s home opener against the Jets, it might be a bit much to expect noticeable progress from Game 1 to Game 2 for Thompkins, Sudfeld, and the rest of the kids. But the progress will come, eventually and hopefully rapidly once the season begins to flow.
As tempting as it may be, there’s no need to rush Rob Gronkowski back. Don’t pine for Deion Branch or Brandon Lloyd, as hard as it may be to resist in the latter case. And the Aaron Hernandez Sunday-furlough jokes were in poor taste even before they got stale.
The young receivers may have been lost, but the Patriots still won. That’s a formula worth enduring for now.
Don’t write off Thompkins as a Taylor Price or Chad Jackson just yet. Let the new cast adjust to playing with a quarterback they grew up watching on TV. Give them a chance beyond the first real day of their NFL life.
And that especially applies to the famous quarterback himself, whose sometimes counterproductive impatience happens to be one of his own few football imperfections.