COMMENTARY | At the age of 36, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's run of excellence is closer to its end than the beginning. As the window of his prime begins to close, there should be growing cause for concern that the team is wasting the end of his career.
Before anything else, it's important to acknowledge that the Patriots are 2-0 this season, and while they have had struggled in those two victories, there's no reason to believe things can't improve as the season hums along. That being said, there have also been plenty of signs that New England could be doing more to capitalize on the remainder of Brady's tenure with the team.
If Brady never played another game, he has already done enough to ensure his place among the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Now in his 14th season, he boasts a 138-39 regular-season record, 45,279 passing yards, 337 touchdowns and three Super Bowl victories (in five appearances).
Despite his advancing age, he has remained remarkably consistent, producing at least 3,529 passing yards and 23 touchdowns every full season he has played since 2002.
His current contract runs through the 2017 season when he will be 40 and likely to retire. Unfortunately, instead of trying to wring the most out of his waning years, the Patriots have chosen a path that so far is full of frustration and inexperience.
The Patriots used to heavily rely on multiple tight end sets and veteran presence. However, Aaron Hernandez was released following his arrest for murder, and Rob Gronkowski has been slow to return from offseason surgeries.
Wide receiver Wes Welker, who hauled in an astonishing 672 passes in six seasons with the Patriots, was allowed to leave via free agency to join the Denver Broncos. Even though the 32-year-old signed a modest two-year, $12 million contract, New England elected not to extend themselves to retain their all-time leading receiver.
The Patriots couldn't have foreseen the release of Hernandez, but the decisions they subsequently made to rebuild their receiving corps should be questioned.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola was signed to a five-year free-agent contract to replace Welker. Although he is five years younger and similarly talented, he was a risky acquisition because of his health history. During his first four seasons, spent with the St. Louis Rams, he missed 22 total games because of a variety of injuries.
He wasn't able to even make it through his first game with the Patriots without going down. In Week 1, his 10 receptions and 104 receiving yards helped propel New England to a come-from-behind win against the Buffalo Bills, but in doing so, he hurt his groin and will miss the next two-to-six weeks.
There is no denying the talent of Amendola, but was it smart to bring in a player with his track record for such a significant role?
The Patriots rounded out their receivers with rookies Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), along with fifth-year man Julian Edelman, who entered 2013 with just 69 receptions in 48 career games.
Edelman has caught 20 passes already this season, but has been used almost exclusively in the short game, as evidenced by his 157 receiving yards. He's also been on the receiving end of some glares from Brady following missed connections.
Thompkins has been targeted an impressive 21 times during the team's first two games. Unfortunately, he has really struggled to get separation from defenders, and caught just six passes for 89 yards.
Dobson missed the first game with a hamstring injury. While he caught three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 against the New York Jets, he also had three drops and was sloppy in his route running.
Boyce has only been on the field for a handful of plays, and has yet to record a catch.
They may just be starting their careers, but both Dobson and Thompkins have already earned the ire of Brady. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal described how the veteran quarterback had multiple visceral displays of anger following mistakes by the two rookies.
The signal caller has completed just 52.7 percent of his passes thus far, and averaged only 5.2 yards-per-attempt. Both figures are well below his previous career-worst marks in those categories.
"We have a long way to go, so no one is coming to rescue and save the day," a resigned Brady told Rosenthal.
Was it naïve of the Patriots to believe Brady could make due with such a massive overhaul requiring so much development and patience? Should the team have secured more reliable options to help make the most of Brady's final years?
With owner Robert Kraft, who is both involved and willing to spend money, the Patriots could have provided better stability in the receiving game for Brady this year and beyond. He has thrived with no-name receivers in the past, but the big difference has been their knowledge/execution of the offense and ability to consistently run routes.
The team did bring in veteran receivers like Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins during the offseason, but cut them all before the preseason was barely underway.
Big-ticket free agents like Mike Wallace were passed over in deference to cheaper options like Amendola, and building through the draft.
The current group of receivers may not be off to great starts, but have potential in spades. The problem with that is there is no time table. Brady's expiration date is ticking down by the week, and giving him a consistent group to work with would be the best way to manage whatever gas he has left in the tank.
The sky isn't falling quite yet. However, the Patriots may not have done everything possible to get the most out of Brady before age catches up to him. There is still time to turn things around, but if his twilight is wasted, it would be a sad end to a truly remarkable career.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- New England