Tom Brady's winning touchdown pass to undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins gave the New England Patriots something to celebrate in Week 6. Not only had the quarterback connected with one of his new targets, but the Patriots had also improved their record to 5-1 -- no small feat for a team playing without its top five pass-catchers from last season.
A look through a statistical warehouse dating to 2001 shows New England wandering in an NFL wilderness when it comes to production from its returning receiving corps (or lack thereof). Every team since then has gotten receiving production from at least one of its five leaders in receptions from the previous season. The Patriots will, too, once tight end Rob Gronkowski returns from injury. But even then, New England is keeping questionable company after parting with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead. The 2006 Houston Texans and 2007 Oakland Raiders each got receiving production from just one player who had ranked among their top five in receptions the previous year. The 2009 Cleveland Browns, having parted with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, got just 18 catches from two of their top five holdovers.
The Patriots have been rock-solid on defense. Brady hasn't forgotten how to play. Gronkowski could return soon. The young receivers have learned lessons that could prove valuable later. But fans accustomed to seeing Brady shred opposing defenses had already fled Gillette Stadium by the thousands when Thompkins made his leaping grab to beat New Orleans. Even with that play and another win, Brady ranks 24th in NFL passer rating (79.5) and 15th in Total QBR (52.7) through six games. He ranked second in both categories from 2006 through last season. His 6.2-yard average per pass attempt is a personal low through six games of any season. The question is pretty clear: Are Brady's struggles really all about the help, or is this a diminished QB?
To better understand what has happened to the Patriots and where they are headed, I enlisted a recently retired NFL quarterback for a run through the coaches' film. We discovered how deep this offense's problems run.