FOXBORO — The two game-worn footballs made Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins light up with excitement as they were placed into his locker last night.
On white athletic tape wrapped around each ball, one read “No. 85, KT, TD 1” and the other “No. 85, KT, TD 2.”
That No. 85 was Kenbrel “KT” Thomas, and each ball represented not just the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but a sign that the Patriots and their fans had been waiting to see since Wes Welker took his Hall of Fame hands and moved to Denver.
With Thompkins grabbing his first two career touchdown passes and Aaron Dobson making a game-high seven catches, the Patriots’ rookie receiving duo finally showed life their squad so desperately needed.
It may not have been a masterpiece.
It may have lacked the sheer precision of Tom Brady-to-Welker, the pure brilliance of Brady-to-Randy Moss and the telepathic link of Brady-to-Deion Branch.
But after a week of abuse from anyone with a microphone or computer and three months of questions whether New England had anyone that could make a play, the two youngsters made the lowly Buccaneers pay last night.
It wasn’t picture perfect, but it was a big step in the right direction for Thompkins and Dobson.
And don’t forget, this was against a Tampa Bay team featuring former All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.
“If I were them I know I’d be feeling pretty good after this game,” said fellow receiver Julian Edelman. “Kenbrell had two big touchdown catches and AD (Dobson) stepped up with some big first downs on third and fourth down. They have been working hard in practice and doing good things, so they were able to execute on game day.”
With the Patriots trailing 3-0 early in the second quarter and in need of a spark, Tompkins provided it when he hauled in a short pass over the middle, shook a defender and sprinted into the end zone from 16 yards out for the first touchdown of his career.
One possession later, the Patriots drove to the 5-yard line and Brady once again set his sights on Thompkins, finding the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder open in the back of the end zone for his second TD of the day.
“That was a play that we work on every day in practice,” Thompkins said. “To go out there, for me to be open and to have Tom trust me to throw me the ball felt good.”
With Welker wearing Broncos Orange, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen inactive nursing injuries and Aaron Hernandez — well, we all know that story — gone, Brady had to trust his young duo to make plays, and they both responded.
“They are doing a great job,” said Brady. “They’ve worked really hard to understand what we’re trying to do on a weekly basis, and our offense changes a lot. It’s interesting because you go through the spring camps and you have practices and because there is no scoreboard you can get a false sense of security. But they have played great.”
Dobson finished the afternoon with a game-best 7 catches on 10 targets for a team-high 52 yards, just under the game-best 65 by Tampa star Mike Williams.
Five of Dobson’s catches went for first downs, three on third down and one on 4th-and-2 that set up Thompkins’ first touchdown four plays later.
“It feels so good,” said Dobson. “It feels like the offense had some good rhythm today. I am just trying to go out there and produce every day. It definitely feels like we are getting on the same page, and I think we need to go out there and have fun.”
Thompkins, meanwhile, grabbed three passes for 41 yards and the two scores.
“He definitely had a great day and I am really proud of him,” said Dobson. “ We started together, so I am proud to see him do that.”
Was it spotless? Hardly. Thompkins dropped a pass that looked bound for big yardage and both struggled to get open at times.
But after a week of critique, the rookie twosome gave the Pats something to believe in.
“I thought we played a really good game,” said Thompkins. “From watching film we had a good idea what they were going to do, and we knew (Darrelle) Revis was out there. But we just needed to have the timing down with our quarterback and I feel like we had a good day.”