FOXBORO — For the last 13 years, the question has been almost entirely off limits among New England Patriots fandom.
To ask the dreaded question, on the rare times that it was valid, was to be rejected as a fool, a cynic or a contrarian.
But yesterday, as the Patriots struggled to close out the Miami Dolphins, there was a lingering fear at Gillette Stadium, and the grumbling that had begun to grow weeks ago turned into that most feared question.
What is wrong with Tom Brady?
Yes, the Pats did finish off an undeniably sloppy 27-17 victory over a mistake-prone Dolphins team that led 14-0 in the first quarter.
But, once again, it was blatantly clear that the legendary Brady wasn’t himself, struggling mightily though nearly the entire game.
How bad was he? Statistically, worse than he has been in years.
Brady finished the yesterday’s game with just 116 yards on 13 of 22 passing and a single touchdown.
That marked his lowest yardage total in a game since 2009 when he threw for 115 yards in a win over Buffalo in 2009. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 2006 and his 78-yard disaster against the Dolphins to find a worse game.
That continued a stretch of games where the future Hall of Famer has consistently been off target.
First, before Pats fans become defensive, this is not an attack on Tom Brady’s legacy. This is not a criticism of the QB that won three Super Bowls or set nearly every NFL passing record in 2007.
This is the 2013 edition of the player, and whether you rely on statistics or the eye test, Tom Brady has not been Tom Brady for much of this season.
Yesterday, Brady threw an ugly interception on the first drive while clearly staring down security blanket Rob Gronkowski. In the second quarter he tried to force a ball into Gronk in triple coverage that should have been intercepted, but was dropped and ended up in a Miami pass interference call. He also fumbled on a massive blindside hit, but it was recovered by the Patriots.
Nowhere did Brady struggle more than on third down. The QB was just 1 for 4 throwing on third down, and also twice took sacks to end drives. The Pats ended the night a dreadful 2 for 20 on third down.
Isn’t that where Brady is supposed to be at his best?
In the second quarter, after Brady badly overthrew Gronkowski for an incompletion on third down, there was a noticeable chorus of boos from Patriots fans.
Were they booing Brady or the offense as a whole? Who knows. But the frustration has been growing.
After throwing a touchdown in 52 consecutive games, Brady had been held without a touchdown in two of his previous three contests, and had it not been for the miracle finish against New Orleans he would have been on a three-game drought going into yesterday. He has also thrown an interception in each of the last four games.
His QB ranking is currently sitting at 75.3, by far the worst of his NFL career. His lowest for a full season is 85.7 in 2002, his second as a starter.
And before anyone says the drop in numbers has been due to an emphasis on the running game, that’s just not true. The Patriots ran for just 152 yards yesterday, fewer than the Dolphins (156).
The Pats, of course, are hardly about to panic about their inconsistent passing game.
“Tom is always going to do what he has to do to get the job done,” said newly acquired receiver Austin Collie. “He’s a leader. He doesn’t panic and with him we know we always have a chance, no matter what.”
Brady was banged up yesterday, playing with an unspecified injury to his throwing hand that seemed to be swelling during the contest.
“Without a double one of the toughest football players I have ever played with is Tom Brady,” said receiver Danny Amendola. “There is still work to be done (in the passing game). But we are getting better and we are going to move forward from this week.”
No question, Brady has had it tough this season. All-Pro Wes Welker, and old reliable Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead are gone, Gronkowski is still working back from injury and Aaron Hernandez is — obviously — in prison.
In their place he has been tasked with teaching a pair of inconsistent rookies in Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Tompkins and rely on the injury-plagued Amendola and Collie. And, no, he has not been as bad as, say, Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill was yesterday.
But the reality is Brady is now 36-years-old and behind a weak offensive line and has just lacked that signature sharpness.
Is it time to panic? That would be extreme.
But is it time to worry? It’s starting to be.