PHILADELPHIA — Tom Brady shuffled back three steps, glanced left, then right, before releasing a pass toward the sideline to Danny Amendola. The wide receiver, in his first year with the New England Patriots, swiveled his head as the ball arrived, extended his arms to control the pass and touched both feet down while drifting out of bounds.
On the ensuing snap, Brady spotted wide receiver Aaron Dobson behind the safety on a double-move and lofted a pass that settled into the rookie’s hands in stride for a long touchdown during a joint practice with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Some in the crowd gasped at Brady’s precision following both throws. A handful of spectators wearing Eagles gear even conceded the three-time Super Bowl winner appeared in postseason form.
Yet after multiple practices in which Brady missed on only a scant number of throws, the two-time Super Bowl MVP wasn’t about to declare all systems go. Neither was Coach Bill Belichick, who, with assistance from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, must determine how to replenish a passing attack without six of its top seven receptions leaders from last season.
“Well, everybody’s working at it,” Brady said Tuesday. “I would say we have a long way to go. We’re doing some good things, and we’re doing some things we need to eliminate. We were talking last night about how to eliminate mistakes before they happen because we just can’t afford to make them and say, ‘Well, we’ll get it the next time.’ Those next times are going to cost you wins and losses.”
Playoff victories have been far less frequent for Brady over the past four seasons, when he’s gone 3-4. The likely Hall of Famer had been 14-3 in the playoffs, including 9-0 as he became the second quarterback in NFL history to win three titles in four seasons.
The task of winning a fourth Super Bowl comes with the added uncertainty of who will become Brady’s most trusted targets.
“It’s a mosaic,” Belichick said.
For the previous six seasons, Wes Welker deftly handled intermediate and short routes for the Patriots. The five-time Pro Bowl selection registered more than 110 receptions and at least 1,165 receiving yards five times in that span.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (187 receptions, 2,663 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns in three seasons) and Aaron Hernandez (175, 1,956 and 18) induced matchup nightmares particularly in the red zone, and last season Brandon Lloyd gave the Patriots a viable deep threat.
Of those four players, only Gronkowski remains, but he is out indefinitely because of multiple surgeries. Welker signed with the Denver Broncos, Lloyd was released and Hernandez is awaiting a probable cause hearing in the wake of pleading not guilty to first-degree murder.
Replacing Welker became the top priority, so the Patriots turned to Amendola in free agency. While the former member of the St. Louis Rams is all but certain to be in the starting lineup at slot receiver to open the season, competition remains heated for other spots.
“It’s still early,” said Amendola, who has missed 20 games with injuries over two seasons. “We’re still trying to work out some kinks and get on the same page and just run good routes.”
Dobson, a second-round pick (59th overall) from Marshall, reportedly has gained some separation over the first two weeks of training camp. Holdover Julian Edelman is working his way back from a foot injury, and other players in the mix include rookies Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins.
The optimistic forecast for Gronkowski’s return, meantime, is by Week 1, but it’s unclear how close to full strength he’ll be after surgery on his forearm near the end of last season and an offseason back procedure.
“They have a long way to go,” Belichick said. “A lot of situations that we’re just staring to get into, the red area, third down, two minute, combination coverages, different blitzes, sight adjust, those kinds of things as we get further into camp and preseason. Then in the regular season that’s all going to pile up, so we’ll see how they all handle that.”
Brady’s track record suggests the process will be smooth, if not seamless.
Welker’s first season with the Patriots, for instance, included an NFL-high 112 receptions with 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. Randy Moss set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions in his first season with the Patriots in 2007, and Gronkowski had 10 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010.
During the Patriots’ championship run, Troy Brown was the only wide receiver to be selected to the Pro Bowl. Brady won titles with Deion Branch, David Patten, David Givens and Bethel Johnson at wide receiver.
“Our offense has been our offense for a long time ever since I got here,” Brady said, “and different players have come, and we’ve always adapted to the guys that we have and what they’re able to do best. That’s what we’re going to continue to try to do, and hopefully the guys can come an all create a role for themselves, and we can hopefully go out and score a lot of points.”