FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady bent forward and put his hands on his knees in frustration. Then he stood up, slapped both sides of his helmet and jogged off the field.
He had just thrown an interception in the end zone, his third straight bad pass with the ball at the 6-yard line.
No, rookie receivers aren’t the only players responsible for the New England Patriots’ problems in the red zone.
“Just poor execution,” Brady said Wednesday. “I’ve been one of the main culprits.”
The Patriots may be 3-0 but it’s not because of what they’ve done inside the 20. They’re third in the NFL with 13 trips there but have just four touchdowns, a 30.8 success rate that is the worst in the league.
That’s hard to believe with one of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history.
In his 14th season, Brady has to get used to rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson as his primary wide receivers while Danny Amendola is sidelined. And he did throw two touchdowns to Thompkins and seven completions to Dobson in last Sunday’s 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But he failed to connect with them about five minutes into the third quarter when the Patriots had a first-and-goal at the 6.
On the first play, Dobson was wide open in the middle of the end zone, but Brady threw the ball low and in front of him.
On the second play, Thompkins was lined up to the left, but Brady’s hard throw at the line of scrimmage was inaccurate.
Then came the costliest flub.
Brady fired the ball toward the end zone where rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld was just over the goal line, and Dobson, the intended receiver, was behind him at the end line. Neither was open, but Brady threw anyway — right into the hands of safety Mark Barron next to Sudfeld.
Brady refused to blame his new receivers.
“I think throwing an interception right to a strong safety last week doesn’t help,” he said, “especially (when) two plays before I had a wide-open guy. I think plays like that are more the problem. I have to a good job finding the open guys, guys that are running free and then hit them. That will help our red zone offense more than anything.”
Except, maybe, for the return of Rob Gronkowski.
The two-time Pro Bowl tight end is getting closer to playing his first game this season after offseason forearm and back surgery. As usual, he shed little light on his chances of returning for Sunday night’s game at Atlanta.
“I don’t know,” Gronkowski said Wednesday after participating in practice on a limited basis. “As of right now, we’re just focusing day by day.”
That was the phrase of the day for Brady’s sidelined pass catchers, well aware of coach Bill Belichick’s obsession with revealing little about injuries.
“Just going day by day,” Amendola said when asked if he would play against the Falcons after missing the past two games with a groin injury.
“I gave him all the tips,” Gronkowski said with his usual smile, “just day by day.”
Amendola was Brady’s primary target in the opener with 10 catches in a 23-21 win over the Buffalo Bills. He hasn’t played since, and Brady is ranked just 24th in passer rating, 26th in completion percentage and 33rd in average gain per attempt.
“I anticipate being 100 percent shortly. I don’t know when, but I’m getting closer,” he said, before adding that he didn’t know if he would have to deal with any residual issues from the injury for the rest of the season.
Gronkowski’s return would have a bigger impact on the red-zone offense. He leads the NFL with 29 red-zone touchdowns since arriving in 2010.
But he’s coming back from several surgeries, and Belichick said, “I don’t know” what impact Gronkowski would have in the red zone when he returns.
Brady has a pretty good idea about what the 6-foot-6, 265-pound star with excellent hands can do there.
“He’s just a big target and he’s got a great catch radius,” Brady said. “When he’s not out there, look, we have to count on the other guys to do it. I know we haven’t been great in the red area this year, but it’s no excuse. The guys that are out there are plenty capable. I’m plenty capable of getting the ball into tight spots and making the plays.”
But it can get crowded.
“There are 22 guys, if you’re inside the 5, within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Guys aren’t open for very long down there. You have to make the plays when they’re there. When you have a great opportunity like we had last week, you have to take advantage.”