Tom Brady was already facing a historic change in his receiving group, before the Aaron Hernandez news broke this week. If Hernandez does not play in 2013, then it will be the largest turnover for an elite quarterback in the last thirty years. When Brady takes the field in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, he very well could be without his top five receivers from last season. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Woodhead are gone. Rob Gronkowski just had back surgery on Tuesday, and his status for the start of the year is in question. Julian Edelman and his 235 receiving yards could be the leading returning receiver on opening day if Hernandez is also out.
I looked at the following quarterbacks: (a) those that are in the Hall of Fame and played at least five seasons since 1978, (b) those that are not in the Hall of Fame but won at least one MVP award since 1978, or (c) those that made at least five pro bowls since 1978. That list of quarterbacks was then pared down to find the seasons during their careers with the highest turnover while playing with the same franchise in consecutive years, in terms of percentage of receiving yards from the previous season that were not on the roster the next year.
Here were the seasons for the elite quarterbacks where at least 50% of the previous year’s receiving yards were no longer on the roster.
Esiason tops the list in his last year with the Jets, when his yards per attempt dropped from a mediocre 6.3 to a dismal 5.8, as Rob Moore went to Arizona, and Art Monk was let go after a forgettable season in New York. His leading receiver the next year was undrafted rookie Wayne Chrebet. Two years earlier, Esiason collapsed after Eddie Brown and James Brooks retired. Others benefited when the offense was upgraded around them (see Fouts and McNabb).
For comparison, the most change that Montana and Young experienced in San Francisco was 19.7% (1988) and 28.5% (1999) respectively. That’s the benefit of having Jerry Rice and lots of stability over the years. John Elway (40.7%), Peyton Manning (44.1%) and Troy Aikman (48.0%) all saw the biggest turnover as they moved from their rookie years to the second season, as the team tried to upgrade around them.
With just the players already gone in free agency, Brady would come in at third on the list, at 60.5% of the receiving yards from the previous year off the roster. If Hernandez does not play in 2013, Brady would be first, with over 70% of the yards gone (and this assumes that Gronkowski will be back to play).
Brady already appears on the list twice, in both 2006 and 2007. Yes, Tom Brady has had success with different receivers in the past. “Success”, though, is a relative term. After the 2005 season, New England lost both of the top two receivers, Deion Branch (via trade to Seattle) and David Givens. Only two players the following year had more than 400 receiving yards, Ben Watson and Reche Caldwell. Tom Brady’s yards per attempt dropped by a full yard, to the second lowest of his career (6.8).
After that season, of course, New England acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth. Caldwell and host of other offensive players retired or went elsewhere. Tom Brady had the best season of his career. Change can be good when you add all-pro talent in place of replacement level players. That though, is not what is happening in 2013.
It’s possible that Wes Welker can be adequately replaced by Danny Amendola. It’s possible that Shane Vereen seamlessly moves into the Danny Woodhead role and provides the receiving threat from the backfield. It’s possible that some combination of Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones offsets Brandon Lloyd. Any one of those things is entirely plausible; with each change, though, the combination of all of them working out seamlessly becomes less likely.
It’s fairly improbable, meanwhile, that the other tight ends on the roster, led by Jake Ballard, can offset any injury loss of Rob Gronkowski or the absence of Aaron Hernandez. For the love of Tebow, let’s not assume that the Patriots can just summon great tight end production. If they could, then Ben Watson and Daniel Graham would have been as incredible as Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady is looking at a downgrade in his offensive personnel, as he turns 36. Can he work magic? I think we have grown accustomed to the Brady and Belichick combo just ruthlessly carrying forward without missing a beat. It still comes down to the Joes, though. Brady looks better when his #1 targets are Randy Moss and Wes Welker than when they are Reche Caldwell and Ben Watson. Yes, Brady took teams deep in the playoffs with Caldwell as his best receiver; the Patriots were also 2nd in points allowed that year, just like they were in the two Super Bowl years with Branch and Givens as the top receivers.
If New England is again among the best teams, it will be due to some combination of the defense finally making a leap back to the upper echelon, or the new players on offense being all-pros themselves so that the offense continues with the same efficiency.
[photo and artwork by Michael Shamburger]