With Rob Gronkowski out against the Bills, Tom Brady faces a historic receiver turnover
It's official: No notable quarterback in the NFL's modern era will have to go through more receiver turnover from one season to another than Tom Brady. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski did not make the trip to Buffalo for the Pats' season opener against the Bills, per Albert Breer of the NFL Network, because he's still dealing with the effects of offseason surgeries to his back and forearm. Per ESPN's Mike Reiss, Gronkowski was officially downgraded to out on Saturday evening.
This leaves Brady without his top five receivers from last year: Gronkowski, Wes Welker (signed by Denver), Aaron Hernandez (you know that story), Danny Woodhead (now in San Diego), and Brandon Lloyd (currently an unsigned free agent). That's 83 percent of New England's 2012 receiving yards from 2012 out the door, and according to Jason Lisk of the Big Lead, that's by far the most turnover for any quarterback since 1978 with at least five Pro Bowls and/or one MVP award to his name.
Boomer Esiason of the New York Jets was the most prominent victim of change before Brady; he lost 66 percent of his receivers in time for the 1995 season. In that season, Esiason's net yards per pass went from 5.75 to 4.93, his DVOA (Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric) dropped from 25th to 36th.
Brady is on the list two other times -- his 2006 and 2007 seasons featured a pretty epic amount of receiver churnage. The 2006 season was notable for the loss of Deion Branch, who was traded to Seattle (a move that Brady publicly slammed), and the 2007 season was even more notable for the additions of Welker and Randy Moss.
Sometimes, change is a good thing. But is it a good thing for Brady in this case? His estimated targets include Danny Amendola, the talented but oft-injured receiver signed by the Pats to a five-year, $28 million contract in March. Amendola was listed on the team's Friday report as probable with a groin injury. There's also Kenbrell Thompkins, the preseason star who has been Brady's primary post-roster apocalypse target, and erstwhile sub-starter Julian Edelman. Rookie Aaron Dobson has the raw talent to contribute, but he's out with a hamstring injury. You can expect more targets to running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Tight end Zach Sudfeld appears to be the main man in an offense that, with Gronkowski and Hernandez, featured as many productive two-tight end sets as any team in the league over the last few seasons.
In short, while Brady's perhaps the best quarterback in NFL history, this will be a tall order.
"This is where we really need to be picky," Brady said this week of the team's preparations. "Where we really need to have a heightened sense of awareness about all the things that we’ve talked about, things that we’ve covered, that we’ve got wrong, that we’ve made corrections for. Because you play a team like Buffalo with the new coordinator [Mike Pettine] and you’re really not sure what they’re going to do. In a way, you have to prepare for everything, and a lot of the focus from the last four days has been just that -- trying to really put together a game plan."
Can Brady pull it off? If anyone can, he can, but Peyton Manning's seven-touchdown performance on Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens proved one very obvious truism: It's better -- even for for great quarterbacks -- to have great targets than not. And Brady will be spackling things together as never before.
What really hurts in a more complex offense like New England's is the number of option routes -- the post-snap decisions made by receivers based on situation and coverage. In one Patriots playbook I've seen (2004 version), there were 25 different one-man routes, 17 two-man route combinations, and five three-man route combos. New England's offense has become more complex since then, and those combos don't include the options based on the routes.
"At times, there are four decisions that a receiver needs to make after the snap the way our offense is," receivers coach Chad O'Shea told TheMMQB's Greg Bedard the week before New England lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, back when Bedard was with the Boston Globe. "That's one of the advantages of our offense, that we give players a lot of flexibility within the system to take what the defense gives us. And that's definitely something that's unique about our offense." The question is just how unique the Patriots can continue to make it. They may have to simplify out of necessity, just to keep their passing game upright.