FOXBORO -- Josh Boyce ran the right route. He just ended up at the wrong spot.
And when the rookie wide receiver turned Monday night and readied his hands, the pass Tom Brady threw at him from 10 yards away was approaching. Fast.
Boyce located the ball. It’s path was facemask-high but about 20 inches left of Boyce’s helmet. Boyce arched his back and shot his hands where the pass was headed. Too late. The ball glanced off his fingers, shooting another 10 yards downfield before skidding to the turf.
As Boyce trotted back to take another repetition, Brady spun on his left heel away from Boyce. Brady put his head back, the universal sign for exasperation, then looked down.
Soon, Tim Tebow was taking reps at quarterback. Brady beckoned Boyce. As Brady spoke, he put his hands up in front of his face, then brought them down. He shuffled his feet indicating how he Boyce should have come back to the ball. Boyce nodded. Brady clapped Boyce’s shoulder pad.
There’s going to be a lot of that in 2013. You may have heard that, with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead gone and Rob Gronkowski rehabbing, Brady is breaking in a new set of receivers.
The collection of rookies and unprovens have the pressure of learning the NFL’s most complex offense to the standards of the best quarterback of his generation. Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, Michael Jenkins paratrooped into a hot zone in terms of organizational expectations and quarterbacking temperament.
Players with better resumes than Josh Boyce have tried Tom Brady’s patience. Broken it, even. Randy Moss, Joey Galloway, Wes Welker, Chad Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Troy Brown, Aaron Hernandez, Bethel Johnson. Every one of them got lit up by Brady, receiving everything from an eye roll to an “It’s not that f&*^$$# hard!”, to a total freeze out.
When Brady was blistering Tiquan Underwood on the sidelines in 2011, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien intervened on Underwood’s behalf and the area was strafed with f-bombs.
He flips out. And, at 36 and entering his 14th season, the prospect of starting over with a new receiving corps while he faces the same old expectations -- from outside and in -- he may need to exercise more patience than he’s had to in a long time. And that could be a chore.
“Tom’s a perfectionist, man,” said running back Stevan Ridley. “That’s no secret. What’s this, year 14? With Tom, you got a guy that’s one of the best. He wants to be the best and he wants the best around him. For me as a player, what more could you ask of your quarterback? That’s your leader, man. It’s tough working for him because he wants everything to be done the right way, but what other way is there to do it than the right way? He strives for perfection and that’s why he’s had the success that he’s had. He’s our leader and I wouldn’t want to be with any other quarterback.”
While August is just beginning, Brady is initially impressed with the diligence and intelligence of the young receivers the Patriots brought in.
“The guys have really committed themselves to (working), have been really willing to come in here and learn and take to the coaches and listen and take hard criticisms, so to speak,” Brady explained. “When you’re a young player and when you’re a veteran player, you don’t get it all right and that’s why you (practice). Everyone needs the reps, everyone needs the work, so we need to get everybody out here and doing it. Then you see how it all comes together and you really use the skill set of the players that we have on the field.”
Unless the Patriots alter their offense significantly, the new players will be running the same read-based routes that Brady honed to a fine point with icons like Moss and Welker. Amendola, Dobson, Boyce and Co., will be trying to make the right reads and run the right routes -- PRECISELY -- based on the defense and be where Brady expects them. Or bear his wrath.
“It raises the bar,” says Ridley. “That’s what he holds the team to. This is his offense and if you’re not up to par, you’re not working hard or he doesn’t like how things are going, he’s gonna voice it. He’s gonna let you know. He’s gonna tell you to pick it up. He’s not ever afraid to tell you when you’re doing it wrong. I think for him he’d ever tell you anything that wasn’t true.”
“The expectation level is everything,” says running back Shane Vereen. “You want to play at the level he expects. It’s a good thing because it pushes you and helps you to play better.”
Both Ridley and Vereen can mentally finger the verbal scars Brady left on them as rookies.
“I remember the first day I came up here, he threw me out of the drill and put in (Kevin) Faulk,” said Ridley. “It’s just the difference of time and knowing your role as a player.”
“Rookie year, there were a couple of tough times,” said Vereen. “A lot of yelling. ‘NO!” and ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ I was pissed at the time but it helped me become better.”
Brady is cognizant that he may need to take a few more deep breaths after blown routes this year.
“I don’t want to be a grumpy old guy,” he said Monday. “I think I understand that there’s a learning curve and there’s a patience. I think you try to let them know though that there’s an urgency about it, so it’s not like you can afford mistakes.
“We all make them -- I make them myself, I make more than anybody,” he admitted. “You’re patient with certain things. Mental errors you don’t really want to tolerate and I think those things are always preventable, but they’re going to happen. The physical ones, when you drop a ball, that happens, that’s part of playing. I’m going to miss throws, I’m going to throw interceptions, but I never want to make a wrong read or call a wrong play or snap the ball into a bad look. I think those are the things that the harder you work, typically, the better you get at those things.”
The thing with Brady is, he won’t hold any player to a standard he didn’t already attain.
In 2001, soon after Brady was named the starter in place of Drew Bledsoe, Bill Belichick discussed an aspect of Brady’s game that Brady had already mastered through study and concentration.
When Brady would come off the field after a bad play, Belichick would sometimes ask him what he saw. What Brady would recount, Belichick said, always matched up to what the coach later witnessed on film.
If Brady said he saw a linebacker dropping and a safety shading that caused Brady to throw to the sideline instead of down the middle, that’s what the video would show.
Some quarterbacks, Belichick explained, would give explanations that included dropping linebackers or safeties signaling blitz and then, when Belichick would watch the film, those things weren’t actually happening. Not so with Brady.
Which is why, when a receiver is trotting back to the huddle after an ugly play and Brady is making a subtle hand gesture signaling that the receiver should have read the coverage differently, it’s hard to assume Brady got it wrong.
The Patriots offense goes beyond simple post-snap reads, though. Pre-snap reads like being shrewd enough to run a wide receiver screen inside the opponent’s 5-yard line when a corner is playing off is a staple of the Patriots offense. And the pressure of playing the turbo hurryup isn’t just applied to the lungs. It’s applied to the mind as well.
Even though players like Amendola and Dobson visited Brady out in California during the offseason to get extra reps in, it’s a certainty there will be times between now and the opener when the product is going to look rough.
“It’s definitely a work in progress, so I don’t think there’s a definitive amount of time,” said Brady. “I think it’s all about the number of reps that you get and how many times you have a chance to go over certain things. With the practices the way they are and one practice a day, you have to take advantage of the one opportunity you have on the field. . . . The installation, we haven’t even talked about the red area yet and we play [a preseason game with the Eagles] in a week and a half. It’s going fast, and you can’t afford to miss a lot of time now. You’ve got to be able to go out and execute at a high level. We worked in the spring about how quickly this was going to happen and we carried that over from the end of the camps through the beginning of training camp. A lot of guys put the work in that time, so we’re prepared. We just have to go out and keep stringing good practices together.”
Troy Brown was a Patriot when Brady was still playing for Junipero Serra High School. He’s seen smart players come through and rockheads go out. He thinks the new offensive additions are up to what they’re going to experience.
“When you have good people working with you, it rubs off on them too,” said Brown. “There’s a lot of good kids out here. A lot of good kids, a lot of good attitudes, a wonderful atmosphere. I think these guys understand his role as the leader of this football team that that’s what he’s gotta do. If you’re intimidated by Tom and you know him, how intimidated are you going to be by someone you don’t know? Tom cares about you, you know that. So if you’re intimidated by him, how much are you going to be intimidated by someone who don’t give a (fudge) about you? He’s the man. (A player has to say), ‘This is the way he wants it done, I’m going to work my ass off to get it done.’ ”
Said Ridley, “At the end of the day, if you’re trying to win championships, it shouldn’t bother you that much. He’s only trying to win. So for me, that’s how I look at it. Does it tick you off sometimes? Yeah. You get aggravated with your teammates but it’s all for the best. That’s what he strives for and that’s what I’m looking for in my career. I’m with him every step of the way.”