FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady's been down this road before, a road that separates him from almost any other quarterback in the history of the game.
That doesn't mean it's not a lot for the New England Patriots to ask that he travel it again. And you don't need to be in the team's meeting rooms or in the huddle to understand just how far everyone here has to go.
During a sun-splashed practice last Saturday morning, anyone with a roster and a notebook could easily decipher the difference between where Brady's offense is and where it'll need to be when the team opens the regular season on Sept. 8. During one six-play sequence of 11-on-11 work, Brady had six different combinations of skill players around him, and 15 different guys working within those groupings. Earlier in the day, during a seven-play sequence in 7-on-7s, Brady worked with seven different combinations of skills guys, and 17 got first-team reps with the quarterback.
Still have that roster on hand? Good. You'll need it.
Here are the 17 Patriots players who cycled in and out of that seven-play sequence: Aaron Dobson, Daniel Fells, Danny Amendola, Jake Ballard, Stevan Ridley, Michael Hoomanawanui, Mike Jenkins, Brandon Bolden, Kenbrell Thompkins, Leon Washington, Brandon Ford, LeGarrette Blount, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater, Kamar Aiken, Zach Sudfeld and Lavelle Hawkins (who has since been released).
And here are the personnel groupings from that sequence:
Play 1: Dobson, Fells, Amendola, Ballard, Ridley
Play 2: Hoomanawanui, Jenkins, Bolden, Thompkins, Fells
Play 3: Amendola, Dobson, Washington, Hoomanawanui, Fells
Play 4: Ford, Blount, Boyce, Thompkins, Amendola
Play 5: Bolden, Slater, Jenkins, Aiken, Hoomanawanui
Play 6: Thompkins, Amendola, Washington, Ballard, Dobson
Play 7: Ridley, Sudfeld, Ford, Hawkins, Jenkins
That lineup is presented here not in an attempt to draw any conclusions -- it would be silly to do that based on a practice held in late July. But it does illustrate how, even with the spring already under their belt, the Patriots are still looking at just about everyone in an effort to put Brady in the position to drive the franchise to its fourth championship.
If there's an obvious parallel to draw here, it's to what happened in 2006.
In 2006, the situation was exacerbated when Branch held out, the Patriots tried to call his bluff by allowing him to seek a trade, and Branch found a team willing to pay the freight in Seattle. This year, of course, the scenario was far grimmer -- Hernandez was released after he was arrested as part of a murder investigation -- but just the same, an unforeseen circumstance left the offense short-handed.
Those around Brady will tell you that the 2006 season might have represented his finest hour, when he threw the Patriots on his back and had them on the verge of Super Bowl XLI -- only to be denied by a miracle Colts comeback. And who were the receivers on the Patriots' roster for that AFC title game? Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Troy Brown, Chad Jackson, Bam Childress and Kelvin Kight.
Seven years later, New England might need a similar effort from its iconic signal-caller.
Getting tight end Rob Gronkowski, who's running now but is still in the early stages of rehab after having forearm and back surgery, in the fold again will certainly help matters. Still, there has to be a reason that coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are tinkering so much and working different players through with the first team now, at this stage of the game, when so many other teams already have their depth charts fairly well established and are focused on fostering chemistry among their starters.
And the logical one would be this: Even they don't know how they'll answer the questions at hand yet.
After that practice, I asked Amendola, the wideout in whom the Patriots are most deeply invested at this point, about how he views all the shuffling that took place Saturday.
"We're getting there every day," he said. "You'd like to say you've got a good grasp on things. You're still trying to get that consistency and get better every day. It's a work in progress."
He then said that, compared to other camps he's been in, "It's intense here. Everybody's excited to be here and come out and compete. It's all about winning."
It would be foolish, with Brady and Belichick still operating at an incredibly high level, to think the Patriots won't keep doing just that. But if last Saturday could teach you anything, it's that how they'll get there remains a very open question.