Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Be smart and be Brady's buddy
AS HE SPOKE with reporters Friday, following the Patriots' seventh practice of training camp, and as the conversation centered on the process of incorporating his new receivers into the passing game, Tom Brady started talking very fast.
"Offensive football, everybody has to be on the same page, and that's why we come out and we talk after practice, we watch the film, we talk about it after, we have walkthroughs. Talk about signals and throws and routes and techniques," he said, his voice starting to hurry.
"All that's for anticipation, 'cause when you really believe in the guys that you're out there with, you can play fast. You can play with anticipation. You can play with confidence. If you don't have that confidence, it slows you down, and that's when you're going to make mistakes."
At that point, he finally took a breath.
"So that's what we have to do," he said, smiling slightly. "We have to keep putting that work in."
A day before his 36th birthday, the pace of Brady's voice reflected his continued passion and such a respect for what goes into improvement that it's probably better described as excitement. But it also carried an explanation of what the quarterback believes will decide what becomes of a New England passing attack featuring so many new pieces.
His weapons having been depleted by Wes Welker's exit, Rob Gronkowski's injuries and Aaron Hernandez's incarceration, many are asking whether the Pats replaced those Pro Bowl-types with enough talent - although Brady's comments Friday suggested that in his mind there's a more pressing question to be answered over these early days of camp.
Skill matters, of course. But just as important is the ability to grasp the intricacies of the offense, so as the team readies for the regular season and Brady begins developing a rapport with his receivers, the mental capacity demonstrated by those pass catchers is what will earn the quarterback's confidence and ultimately determine the degree to which this offense replicates its monstrous numbers of recent campaigns.
"Our offense is a lot of communication," Brady said. "You gotta just throw as much as you can in there and see what we can pick up. It's not really a slow-paced offense; you need to think fast, you need to communicate well, everybody's got to be on the same page. It's hard to slow down something for one person. The train's moving at this point.
"It takes really smart football players to be in this system, and guys that have done well have been smart players, can adjust quickly, football's important - they go home, they study, they work at it. That's what it's all about here."
That's why Welker is the franchise leader in receptions, and Chad Jackson was a bust. That's why Deion Branch had three times as many catches in his first game back after five years away as Taylor Price in two seasons with the Pats. That's why Chad Ochocinco may go to the hall of fame, but couldn't hack it in New England.
But that's also why projecting how potent the Pats could be is more complicated than evaluating raw skill. Every workout, every throw, every conversation presents an opportunity to improve upon their understanding of everything, each exhibition game offers a chance to apply it all in competition - and if ultimately enough individuals are able to convince the quarterback they're capable of doing the job, they should at least be adequate.
This is no slouch behind center, after all. This is Tom Brady. One of the best of all time. He is good enough to cover for some of the physical deficiencies his teammates, and to elevate their level of play - as long as they show him that they're worthy of his trust, and he can count on them being where he expects them to be.
"There are a lot of new guys, we're making mistakes, we're trying to learn from the mistakes," the quarterback said. "Offensive football is about 11 guys being on the same page and really being able to anticipate what each other are trying to do. The challenging part of offense when you've got new guys is they're not really sure when I'm throwing it, I'm not really sure when they're going to break, and a lot of it we just have to work out. The more reps we get the better we're going to be."
That's especially true with five rookie receivers - Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins in particular - fighting for roles and roster spots, veterans Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins looking to ingrain themselves, and a guy like Kamar Aiken looking to carve his niche.
In all, there were 18 receivers and six tight ends on the Patriots roster as of Friday, and with Gronkowski still physically unable to perform, Julian Edelman - with all of 32 catches since the start of 2009 - was the only player among them who has caught more than five balls from Brady in his career. It's not like any of them has an extensive history of success elsewhere, either.
But based on what they've shown the quarterback so far, that doesn't definitively mean they won't succeed in New England.
"I think they've come in and worked hard and done everything the coaches have asked them to do," Brady said. "They're smart kids that want to work hard and have really come into this environment and have really taken to everything the coaches have talked to them about, everything I've tried to talk to them about. That's been the fun part: when guys are eager to come in, and learn, and do the right thing."
So fun, he could hardly get the words out fast enough. And though he knows there'll be mistakes made along the way, he can hardly wait to see how it all comes together.
THE PATRIOTS will take today off from on-field work, then practice Monday before heading to Philadelphia. They'll hold joint practices with the Eagles on Tuesday and Wednesday, then take on their hosts Thursday night in what will be ex-Manchester Central QB and UNH offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's NFL debut.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.