SEASONS do not end until the playoffs for the Patriots, who have reached the postseason in eight of the last nine years. But if any of the Pats requires a reminder that such success is not a given, he need only talk to new wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. A veteran of nine seasons and five teams, Lloyd, 31, has never participated in a playoff game. "Guys here are like, Are you kidding me?" he says. "Not one."
Lloyd has won just 32 of his 112 career games. He is able to recite, in chronological order, the names of each of the 13 quarterbacks from whom he's caught passes, an unremarkable group that includes Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett, A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens. So Lloyd, who signed a three-year, $12 million free-agent deal in March, is thrilled to find himself suddenly snagging spirals from Tom Brady. "There's no comparison," he says. "No disrespect to those other guys. But it's Tom Brady. It's the records, the MVPs, the Super Bowl championships, the leadership, the knowledge of the offense from being in one place for 13 years. It's everything."
To be fair, Lloyd didn't exactly pull his weight early on, after being drafted by the 49ers out of Illinois in the fourth round. From 2003 to '09 he averaged just 23.42 catches and 338.6 yards. "I wasn't the most polished wide receiver," Lloyd says. "But I knew if I stayed around long enough, eventually I'd get better." As improbable as that sounds, it's just what happened in 2010 with the Broncos, when his 1,448 receiving yards led the league. He built on that breakout last season, even though he spent his last 11 games as a member of an otherwise desultory Rams attack. (He was traded to St. Louis in October.) Over the past two seasons, the 6-foot, 200-pound Lloyd not only has more receiving yards than all but five players, but he's also become a preeminent deep threat, a precise and cagey route runner, and a sure-handed and acrobatic mover of the chains. Since '10, no player with more than 90 catches—not even the Lions' Calvin Johnson—has had a greater portion of his receptions result in first downs than Lloyd's 80.3%.
He was, in other words, precisely the player New England needed to turn an already superb offense into one that should be all but unstoppable. Yes, last season the Pats piled up more yards from scrimmage (7,021) than all but four other teams in NFL history, but even that offense lacked a key piece: a receiver who could stretch the field by consistently getting open deep and wide. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker accounted for more than 75% of Brady's completions of 20-plus yards, but those receptions were disproportionately of the catch-and-run variety. All three ranked in the NFL's top nine in yards gained after the catch, and they function best between the hash marks. Deion Branch and Chad Johnson proved unable to get open outside, which is just what Lloyd does best. "I think I can provide a broader route tree for Tom to throw passes outside the numbers and down the field," Lloyd says.
It helps that the Patriots' offensive coordinator is the man who knows just how to take advantage of Lloyd: Josh McDaniels, who as the Broncos' coach in 2009 and '10 oversaw Lloyd's transformation from unwanted washout to sudden star. McDaniels was also the Rams' coordinator last year, and he's returned to New England after a three-year absence.
With Lloyd filling Randy Moss's role, comparisons with the '07 New England squad, which won every game until the Super Bowl, are already being made. "We're a different team," says defensive end Rob Ninkovich. Indeed, this year's group will have trouble approaching perfection with a defense that is only moderately improved from last season's, which ranked 31st (the '07 unit was fourth), and an offensive line that could be without four key members: the officially retired Matt Light, the possibly retired Brian Waters and the injured Logan Mankins (torn right ACL) and Sebastian Vollmer (back).
Even so, a historically productive attack should yield yet another AFC East title and another playoff berth. That would be a sweet reward for New England's newest weapon.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 2
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 13--3
9 at Tennessee
23 at Baltimore
30 at Buffalo
14 at Seattle
21 New York Jets
28 St. Louis*
22 at New York Jets (Thu)
2 at Miami
10 Houston (Mon)
16 San Francisco
23 at Jacksonville
Of New England's 14 first- and second-round picks between 2007 and '11, six were used to select defensive backs, and yet last season the secondary's rock had been an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra in '08. Not that the defensive backfield was any good. The Pats nearly set the NFL single-season record for passing yards allowed (they rank second on the alltime list, with 4,977), but the passing D would have been even worse if not for the 5'10", 195-pound Arrington, who tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. According to STATS Inc., opponents threw to receivers covered by Arrington 100 times in 2011—only 15 corners were targeted more—and yet he allowed completions on just 52 of those passes, a rate comparable to those of Pro Bowl selections Johnathan Joseph (54.1%), Charles Tillman (53.8%), Champ Bailey (51.5%) and Charles Woodson (50.7%). Arrington will cover slot receivers this year—an increasingly important position in today's NFL—while two of those high draft choices, Devin McCourty (who gave up the second-most yards of any corner, on a 60% completion rate) and Ras-I Dowling, will start outside. It will come as no surprise if Arrington again outplays his more highly compensated backfield mates.
Percent of offensive snaps in 2011 on which the Patriots had two tight ends on the field, 40% more than the NFL average.
Passes against base defenses attempted by Tom Brady. Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Eli Manning each attempted more than 200.
Tackles broken after the catch by third-year tight end Aaron Hernandez, which is more than any other player in the league.
ELISE AMENDOLA/AP (LLOYD)
Lloyd has a big incentive to continue piling up huge yardage: a first playoff appearance after nine seasons.
TOM CROKE/ICON SMI (ARRINGTON)