Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
NEW YORK (AP) — Yes, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and that's pretty much the way the league wants it.
In the past 20 years, quarterbacks have won The Associated Press Most Valuable Player award 14½ times — Brett Favre shared it with Barry Sanders in 1997. Peyton Manning, with five, and Favre with 2½ account for more than half of the QB choices.
During those two decades, no wide receiver has been honored. Indeed, a wideout never has been MVP. No, not even Jerry Rice.
Ask Manning or Favre or Kurt Warner or Steve Young about the importance of dependable and, hopefully, game-breaking targets, and their support is unending.
Nothing better illustrates the significance of having a top wide receiver or two — or three plus a tight end — than what's going on with Tom Brady.
Anyone who questions Brady's standing among the greatest quarterbacks to play the game hasn't been paying attention for the past dozen years.
Brady won Super Bowls by making Deion Branch and Troy Brown key contributors, but his best work has come when he's had dynamic and healthy stars to throw to: Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.
All three of New England's championships came before the NFL became a Wild West aerial show.
Before rules changes that heavily favor the passing game. And before college programs dropped their Neanderthal offensive approaches and sparked the wave of scoreboard-lighting tallies that now has become common in the pros.
New England should be among the leaders in every passing category with Brady at the helm. Except that Welker is in Denver, Gronk is in and out of the lineup with injuries, and other than Julian Edelman, no one else has stepped up.
The Patriots rank, GULP!, 27th in passing offense. Brady has three TD passes in three games — he and Moss averaged just under 1.5 a game in 2007 — and New England has fewer points in 2014 than 13 teams. That includes Cleveland, whose starting quarterback is Brian Hoyer, Brady's backup for three seasons in Foxborough.
Brady's bunch has had problems in pass protection, and he's been sacked seven times, pressured plenty of others without being knocked down. A big part of that is that Brady has only two targets he trusts implicitly, Edelman and Gronkowski.
Not that he'd ever say so publicly.
So he lays the blame not on a mediocre, albeit inexperienced, group of receivers, but on — who else? — himself.
"Just be the best quarterback I could be," he said. "I think that's what my job is, and my responsibility as a player is to do whatever the coaches ask me and do it the best way I can.
"That's trying to do everything well on a consistent basis. Be a good leader, obviously make the plays when they're there, have great command and understanding of what we're doing, try to put our team in the best position possible to win."
In the current NFL, with reliance on the running game so diminished and rules to protect pass catchers so emphasized, teams that can't win through the air will struggle.
Of the top nine receivers in yards through three weeks, all but Denver's Emmanuel Sanders already had truly established themselves as major threats. And Sanders appears headed for a career season with Manning throwing to him.
"I mean, as a receiver to say that you're going to the No. 1 offense in the National Football League last year, why wouldn't you want to be a part of that?" said Sanders, who left Pittsburgh as a free agent in the offseason.
"My whole deal is when I first came out in free agency, I wanted to go to a spread attack. I like to block, but I didn't want to block 75 percent of the time. I'm 185 pounds.
"Of course. I can't even express how I feel. I can only smile."
Perhaps most encouraging for NFL offenses is how ready young receivers are when they come out of college. Even the classic non-throwing teams such as Alabama, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Oklahoma turn them out. Try Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watson, for instance.
Pro teams also have learned to look everywhere for receivers because, well, colleges are throwing the ball everywhere — from the traditionally pass-happy Pac-12 to the NAIA programs.
Sanders went to Southern Mississippi. His former teammate with the Steelers, Antonio Brown, went to Central Michigan. Washington's Pierre Garcon went to Division III power Mount Union in Ohio. Those three are among the latest NFL standouts at the position.
And hey, high school kids go to 7 on 7 passing camps. Receivers can find a place to hone their skills year-round even before they become eligible for the NFL draft.
Plus, they generally are the best athletes on their college teams — and their pro clubs.
Who knows, maybe Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson will eventually earn Brady's confidence and see more balls coming their way. Their development might become essential for the Patriots to keep up with the other bigtime passing teams.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL