Go long

There is no doubt that the New England Patriots had trouble hitting the home run on offense last season. Critics began pointing the finger at quarterback Tom Brady, stating that he did not have the arm and accuracy to throw long.

The Patriots threw the football plenty of times in 2002 and QB Tom Brady ended his season behind only Rich Gannon and Drew Bledsoe in the number of attempts, but they failed to garner much yardage with each pass play. Brady finished 25th among all NFL QBs, throwing for just 6.26 yards per attempt.

In fact, Brady's longest pass play from scrimmage, 49 yards, would rank him 41st in the league. That won't cut it in the NFL.

``We're well aware that we're near the bottom of the league in a couple of categories - rushing offense and big plays,'' offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said recently. ``Improving those areas has been our emphasis this off-season."

Weis knows the Patriots need to stretch the field. The catch-22 is making the decision between big plays and the running game. Which comes first?

The off-season hasn't provided many clues to the answer to this question. The Patriots did little in the draft to bolster their running game and WR Bethel Johnson looks more or less like the rest of the possession receivers already on New England's roster.

Despite the addition of Johnson and Dedric Ward, the Patriots primarily addressed defensive concerns during the off-season. The Patriots do possess some speed on the outside (the primary reason the Pats chased Johnson), but the wide receivers are undersized and don't compare well to the ever growing height of the NFL defensive backs.

What Brady needs is someone who can go up and grab the football. There is some question as to whether or not Bethel Johnson can even reel it in if he does manage to get separation.

"I don't know where that came from," Johnson said about the concern about his hands. "But it doesn't matter. I can't control what people think about my hands. I have confidence in my ability to catch the ball. Whether you catch it with your hands or against your body, what's the difference? A reception is a reception and a touchdown is a touchdown."

Questions about Johnson's hands aside, there should be ample doubt that he can get the separation needed anyway. NFL defensive backs are also faster, particularly at safety, one of the most notable trends of the off-season.

The Patriots are fooling themselves if they think they can simply run the safety out of the box with more outside speed.

Tom Brady can and will deliver the deep ball, but few quarterbacks in the NFL can do that consistently and accurately. That's why receivers such as Randy Moss command big dollars. These players can out-leap and out-muscle opposing defensive backs for the ball.

The current trend in the NFL at receiver is not small track stars, but big TEs such as Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap. These players, just like Moss, create match up problems.

The Patriots have already shown their willingness to spread the field. But this strategy was more or less a surrogate running game. New England would be better served by a powerful running game that drew in the opposing safety enough to expose the corners to the deep speed of players such as Johnson.

How might the Patriots accomplish this? It all starts up front, with the offensive line.

Jim Russell

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