Let’s get this out of the way right now. The Patriots do not have a quarterback controversy.
Oh, there will be talk of one this week, sure. Shrieks, even. And the question absolutely did need to be asked in the immediate aftermath of the Chiefs’ 41-14 dismantling of the Patriots Monday night, if only to get Bill Belichick’s are-you-#*$*#-kidding-me? scoff on the record.
Tom Brady played like Brady Quinn on Monday night, the franchise’s most embarrassing defeat since the 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens, and it wasn’t just his on-field performance that was jarring. It was the realization that with the talented Bengals lurking, it may get worse before it gets better — and oh my gosh, caller, what if it doesn’t get better?
There is no doubt that Brady, like the alleged offense he helms, is a mess right now, and you’re damn right it’s weird seeing him this way. He ranks 33d in the league in passer rating, misses too many receivers on the rare occasions they get open, and spent the last 10 minutes of last night’s loss in a cone of silence alone on the bench. He didn’t look pissed off, and he wasn’t pouting. It was worse than that. He looked like a football zombie, like he wasn’t surprised by this disaster at all.
Brady is — perhaps you’ve heard — 37 years old, so every time he plays poorly here on out, the recurring question will ask whether the end is near, or even upon us. It does not help that he has the most appealing backup of his 14 seasons as the starter, save for the post-Mo Lewis version of Drew Bledsoe in ’01.
Rookie Jimmy Garoppolo threw more passes (7) in long relief than Ryan Mallett, the backup he usurped, did in three seasons here. The second-round pick completed six, threw his first career touchdown pass, and played with a tempo that suggested Tom Brady, Week 2, 2001. He is the future.
But that future is not now, nor is it anytime soon. This is New England, not … well, not every other locale in the AFC East. Joe Philbin inexplicably dumped on Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith may have bombed (and f-bombed) his way out of the Jets’ job, and EJ Manuel — the 32d-rated passer in the league, a spot up on Brady — was bounced like one of his passes, with professional mediocrity Kyle Orton taking over.
The Patriots do not have a quarterback controversy.
What they have is a quarterback quandary.
To put it another way: What in the hell is going on with this offense, particularly Brady? This is essentially the same unit — minus Logan Mankins, who, contrary to what you will hear this week, was not the reincarnation of ’77 John Hannah last year — that finished third in the league in points last season.
This year? They’re playing like a Rod Rust tribute band.
The porous line — what has happened to Nate Solder? — has Brady under nearly constant siege. And on the rare occasions when he has time, he’s habitually locking in on one receiver — call him J.R. Edelgronk — or retreating while feeling a rush that isn’t there, or making poor decisions, like throwing into double coverage when the first-down marker is within a short running distance. It’s like Brady and Alex Smith swapped identities last night.
You know what really became apparent this week? That Brady has made the careers of at least two offensive coordinators. Charlie Weis was fired at Kansas, where neither his bluster nor his playbook were particularly effective.
Meanwhile, Josh McDaniels, the current offensive coordinator, runs the offense like he believes you get extra points on the scoreboard for degree of difficulty. Last night, the Patriots activated every big guy on the offensive depth chart and dressed every running back short of Don Calhoun … then Brady threw out of the shotgun for the majority of the first half.
That’s idiotic. Did I mention that only three receivers were active — a word that barely describes Danny Amendola’s contribution? I don’t know if Aaron Dobson is behind because of his foot injury or if he’s in the same doghouse Chad Jackson used to lease, but he needs to play. He had a promising rookie season and is the only potential downfield threat on the roster.
He can do that. Play him. And while we’re at it, how about utilizing Stevan Ridley once in a while, too. This is a well-rounded 25-year-old running back who ran for 1,245 yards and 12 touchdowns two years ago. Yes, he’s had fumbling issues, though they have been somewhat exaggerated. With a patchwork line, a struggling quarterback who has a tight end still recovering from a major knee injury and three receivers to throw to, it’s nuts that Ridley got just five carries last night.
It’s one of McDaniels’s greatest flaws. He cannot bring himself to ease the burden on Brady. And it’s even more inexcusable if my suspicion is confirmed — I think Brady is hurt. I believed this before I saw ESPN’s cameras catch him stretching and looking quizzically at his calf during the pregame last night.
That’s the injury he suffered before the opener against the Dolphins. I’m convinced that injury still lingers, and it’s affecting his accuracy and velocity. It wouldn’t surprise me, given the pounding that he has taken, if there’s something else wrong, something we won’t find out about until the season ends or it becomes troublesome enough that there’s really a reason for a certain rookie quarterback out of Eastern Illinois to play.
If Brady is not hurt, well, the answer becomes more complicated. I still believe the Patriots will win the AFC East easily, that the line will coagulate and the oddly laconic defense — which is genuinely deep and talented despite the inexplicable presence of Tavon Wilson — will be one of the best in the league.
I believe Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will fix this. But we have to lean on history here — we expect them to turn it around because it’s what they’ve always done. And maybe that’s the strangest thing of all, a quarter of the way through this season: Who would have thought we’d be complaining so much about the quarterback and the coaching?