Six drops against the Jets is all it took for New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell to be stuck under the microscope for the rest of the season. Then he had the big drop on the Patriots final drive against the Eagles.
Iron hands LaFell. Comes up small.
Guess how many drops he's had in between those plays?
None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
LaFell has been the target of an abnormal number of deep passes that haven't connected, with a team leading 18 targets 15+ yards down the field, even though he missed the first half of the season. He's had roughly three other plays where he's been able to land a hand or two on the ball, but some allowed defensive contact led to the break-up, and sometimes you have to tip your cap; anyone would have dropped those.
The Patriots receiver isn't a typical #1 target and the fact that Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman aren't available means that defenses are able to put their top defenders on LaFell, instead of their third or fourth best player. Still, it's undeniable that LaFell and quarterback Tom Brady haven't been on the same page this season.
There have been times where Brady expected LaFell to sit in his route, but the receiver kept running (the goal line interception against the Giants). There have been times where LaFell thought Brady wanted him to stem his route, but instead Brady lofted a ball on the original route (interception against the Eagles). There have been multiple occasions when Brady looks to enter a scramble drill, but instead just chucks the ball downfield, hoping that LaFell can make a play.
When LaFell makes a mistake, it draws more attention, but also for good reason. LaFell's drop against the Eagles, his first in the past six games, was a big one, that could've put the Patriots in position to continue their final drive to force overtime. The miscommunications and the drops have certainly drawn the attention of former Patriots.
"I will say this, when a conclusion is made about a player within that coaching staff, and it's bad, that's a place you don't want to be," Patriots legend Tedy Bruschi said via ESPN. "For example, for any type of player, 'he isn't good vs. the run ... he can't play special teams ... he's not physical enough ... he just can't catch the ball.' Once this conclusion is made, there is no turning back; they're done with you.
"I've got to think LaFell is running out of chances. How many running backs have you seen sitting on the bench when they don't have ball security? The same is true with WRs. I've heard Bill Belichick say this in meetings, 'Hey, receivers! You have two jobs -- one is to get open, the second is to catch the ball.'
"That's all I'm going to say about that."
I think that the Patriots are going to keep going to LaFell to give him the opportunity to make plays, and they're going to continue to throw screens and shallow crossers to let him catch the ball in easier scenarios than jump balls down the field.
"In the end, if the player is not a dependable catcher," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week. "I don't think he's going to be involved much in the passing game."
The real issue with LaFell is more mental, than physical. He needs to get back on the same page as Brady, and back to reading the defense in the same way. The only way he'll improve is by staying on the field.