FOXBORO -- When a player like Tom Brady puts together the kind of performance he did last weekend, the tendency is to oogle the numbers. That he compiled 406 yards passing and three touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes in Sunday's 33-13 win over the Browns was impressive, and those statistics helped him earn the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week award.
But perhaps his most impressive number was seven -- the number of receivers to whom Brady completed passes over the course of the afternoon.
Brady has long received praise for his favorite receiver being the open one, and his first game back from a four-game suspension reminded the NFL that he's an equal-opportunity distributor of the football. The number of weapons who were involved also served as an indicator of just how variable this version of the Patriots offense can be.
After one game, the question is already swirling on Twitter, sports-talk radio and embrace-the-debate television programs: Might this offense be the most talented that Brady's ever had?
The reality is that right now he's able to turn to a pair of behemoth tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, dependable and savvy receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, younger wideouts with impressive physical skills like Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, and a sure-handed pass-catching back in James White. Brady's options are wide-ranging, which means that the game-plan possibilities are just about endless.
"There were a lot of contributions from a lot of places, and I think that’s what makes a good offense – not just always throwing it to one or two guys, but spreading the ball around and throwing the ball where they’re not," Brady said during Wednesday's press conference. "Wherever they want to cover, you’ve got to figure out other places to go with it and have guys in those positions to be able to make the plays. We certainly did a good job of that last week, but it always changes.
"Over the course of the year, teams will evaluate you different ways and try to take away different things, and you have to be able to adjust, too. That’s why things play out over a long season. You can’t -- after four games or five games, you don’t really know where you’re at yet. It takes a while to figure out what you’re really good at, how other teams are going to try to defend those things, and how you’re able to adapt to the changes that they’re making, too."
Take the Browns game for example. When Cleveland went all-out to stop Gronkowski in the red zone, that freed up Bennett to take advantage of one-on-one coverage at the goal line. If teams down the line try to double both, that should leave Edelman in single-coverage underneath, or maybe Hogan will have a one-on-one matchup deep down the field.
One of the strengths of Brady's game is figuring out where his opponents have dedicated their resources, then zigging when they zag.
Depending on the strengths, weaknesses and philosophies of the team on the other side of the line of scrimmage, there will be variables every week that need solving. Having a handful of trustworthy options to rely upon as that deciphering takes place helps make the process that much more enjoyable, Brady explained.
"I think that’s the part of the fun part of the strategy of the game," he said. "You can’t come in here every week with the same plan and say, ‘Alright, well let’s just Xerox copy what we did last week and see if that will work again.’ I think you always have to find ways to reinvent yourself over the course of a season, and the teams that can do that are usually the ones that win the most games."
Brady highlighted one play in particular from Sunday that represented the kind of depth he's working with at the moment. When he his Hogan for a 63-yard gain in the second quarter, Hogan was not one of the primary receivers on the play, but as Brady perused his options, he liked what he saw and took a chance.
"Again, it’s just distributing the ball," Brady said. "Whether we’re running it or throwing it, which part of the field we’re throwing it -- outside, inside, deep, short -- everybody has to play a role . . . I would say that [Hogan] was the last guy that I would ever expect to get the ball on that play on the deep one on the right sideline. But he’s in the position, and he gets open, and now he gets the opportunity. You never know when your number is going to get called, so when it does, you’ve got to take advantage of it."
Is this group of teammates as good as any Brady's had? It's too soon to tell. But the plethora of numbers upon which Brady can call makes this incarnation of the Patriots offense a particularly daunting one to defend.