‘I don’t give a s— if you’re a first-round pick, I was 199. But listen, if you get a chance to be on the field, don’t mess it up, because you may never get a second one.’ That quote from Tom Brady encapsulates the type of mentality that has led the former third-string Michigan QB to the top of the sports world, winning six Super Bowls, four Super Bowl MVPs and three regular-season MVP awards in the process.
However, the standards Brady has set for himself, and everyone around him seemingly began to slip in 2019, with the future Hall of Famer experiencing his worst season as a starter.
Despite finishing with a 12-4 record, statistically, the 2019 season did prove to be one of Brady’s less-impressive ventures. Brady finished 2019 with 4057 yards (5th in the NFL), 24 TDs (13th), 10.9 yards per completion (Y/C) (23rd) and perhaps the most damning stat of all – 6.6 yards per attempt (Y/A) (29th). The only QBs to have a lower Y/A than Brady include Mason Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky. So, statistically, Brady appears to be a semi-competent, middle of the pack type of QB who is averse to turning the ball over (8 interceptions in 2019).
However, narratives within the sports world have a habit of becoming an all-encompassing marker which fully engulfs a player’s being. The narrative surrounding Brady this past season, that the 42-year-old quarterback was washed, was a particularly strong one. Moreover, narratives are usually formed based on primetime games in which Brady lost his final three. Compound this with the reactionary state of sports media and you have the conditions to create an overwhelming narrative which completely suffocates the subject – in this instance, after a slew of primetime games in which the Patriots lost and a final Wildcard playoff game which resulted in a game-ending pick 6, Brady, even the greatest QB of all time has succumbed to the cruel mistress that is the modern media narrative.
Brady’s age, 2019 statistics and the narrative has all led to the definitive conclusion that Brady is near done. That Brady putting on a Buccaneers uniform will be the equivalent of Emmit Smith on the Cardinals or Brett Favre on the Jets – the has been looking for one last payday – but Brady is built differently and he is far from finished.
Context is Key
When examining a quarterbacks play, total yards, touchdowns and interceptions are useful parameters when measuring performance. However, a QB could put up a ton of yards and most of them be from yards after the catch (YAC) and the same applies for touchdowns. Interceptions, as Jameis Winston would argue, are inherently a team stat. A quarterback could deliver a pinpoint accurate pass and if the receiver fails to catch it and it pops up in the air, leading to an interception, that stat ultimately ends up on the quarterback’s box score despite it being the fault of the receiver.
Yards per attempt, however, is the most valuable metric used to determine quarterback performance. If a quarterback has a low Y/A then that usually means he doesn’t have a big arm, relies on check-downs too much and is, generally, on the lower end of the QB spectrum. For example, in 2019, Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford were all in the top 10 for highest Y/A. On the other end of the spectrum, you found Daniel Jones, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph.
Brady’s low Y/A, combined with his age, has been one of the biggest weapons used against him in the argument that he is washed. However, no stats are objective, by their very nature, all statistics are subjective. You have to complement them with watching the film and what I saw in 2019 was that Brady is capable of playing at a high level, it’s just that New England’s offence succumbed to the war of attrition, leaving a 42-year-old Brady with virtually no weapons and, more importantly, no weapons he trusted.
“I don’t have any trust that this guy can help us win the game,” Brady told Howard Stern in a recent interview. “If you put him out there, I’m going not to throw him the ball,” This type of mindset is typical for elite quarterbacks, the commonly tagged cold and calculated Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay adopts a similar mindset. These sportsmen at the top of their game are so committed to quality that their threshold for error is incredibly low.
This type of approach comes with both its positives and negatives. The incredibly high standards could act as the tide that lifts all boats, but if the receivers do not rise to the challenge, then you end up with the situation Brady suffered in 2019.
Julian Edelman received 153 targets in 2019, next up on the Patriots roster was running-back James White with 95 targets. The second highest receiver was Phillip Dorsett with 54. 99 fewer targets than 33-year-old Julian Edelman. When Brady did have trust in a receiver downfield, as he did Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett, then he was more likely to let the ball go downfield.
Here we meet the Patriots in Week One at home to the Steelers. A match-up in which the Patriots would roll to a comfortable 33-3 victory. The clip below demonstrates Brady’s ability to still throw downfield with accuracy and precision.
The Steelers are in a two-high safety look pre-snap to discourage anything deep or over the top. However, the play-action brings the FS down and the post safety follows Brady’s eyes over to the left side of the field. So now the safety has the read and react to the P/A and Brady’s eyes. As a result, just enough space over the right side of the field opens up for Brady and the veteran executes perfectly, delivering a strike for the touchdown.
Later that game, Brady delivered a 58-yard touchdown bomb to Dorsett, showing that Brady can sling it deep when he feels confident in a receiver’s ability to succeed.
Speaking at a press conference following the signing of Brady, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians had this to say on Brady’s deep ball, ‘I thought his deep ball was outstanding last year. Through their play-action game, they hit a lot of deep balls. And our quarterback… I thought he put it as good as anybody.’
Another detrimental factor in Brady’s success in 2019 was the releasing of Josh Gordon. Gordon, when available, is one of the premier pass-catching talents in the NFL. He’s a true no.1 receiver who had a large part to play in replacing the Gronk sized hole that appeared after the star’s first retirement in 2018.
Let’s take a look at Gordon’s value in the passing game below.
It’s 3rd&12 at midfield for TB12 and the Pats. The Jets are sensibly in a cover 4 coverage to prevent giving up any big yardage. Josh Gordon is lined up at the bottom of the screen on the outside. Here we see a wheel – seam route concept to put pressure on the boundary corner to pick either the wheel route or the seam route to cover, this route combination is highly effective against cover 3 but is still useful against cover 4.
The Jets corner panics when he senses Gordon run behind him and turns his back to Brady, Brady sees this cue to throw the jump ball, knowing an elite receiver like Gordon has a good chance to come down with it – and that’s just what he does – making an impressive sideline grab.
Gordon was released by the Pats after being placed on IR in November, however, Gordon came back to play for the Seahawks in December and still contributed on a playoff roster. Gordon played his last game for New England in Week Six, as a result, Brady’s Y/A saw a consistent decrease post-Gordon. In Week Six, Brady finished with a Y/A of 8.15, the following weeks Brady registered Y/A totals of 5.53, 7.19, 6.20, 4.60 etc. Brady did not reach a Y/A total higher than 8.15 until Week Thirteen against Houston.
It’s been proven time and time again that when Brady has the firepower necessary he can achieve great things. He even won the Super Bowl in 2018 with a semi-broken Rob Gronkowski. Moreover, Brady’s insistence on acquiring new targets to lighten the load in the passing game for the 43-year-old has been well documented. It is highly speculated that the reason the usually stout and frugal, Bill Belichick went after mediocre wideout Mohammad Sanu so aggressively at the trade deadline was to offer an olive branch to Brady. One that clearly did not work.
Glidin’ in the Pocket
To move out of the air and into the trenches, the Patriots struggled mightily up-front and in the run game this year. This left a 43-year-old Brady often running for his life or being forced to save a Patriots drive after Sony Michel accumulates 2 yards on 1st and 2nd down.
Brady’s manoeuvrability in the pocket has often been one of his most overlooked attributes. Though he does not possess the same dexterity that Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes might, Brady effortlessly glides within the pocket while under pressure time and time again.
A great example is this play against Cleveland in Week Eight.
It’s almost as if Brady has eyes in the back of his head. Looking towards Tampa Bay, it is difficult not to notice the contrast between Brady and Jameis Winston. Although Winston is mobile and has the ability to make plays on the run, Winston lacks the suave composure in the pocket that a veteran QB, such as Brady, has in droves.
Another example came in Week Thirteen loss against Houston. The first in a series of back to back primetime losses for Brady, the veteran QB played one of his best games of the season in this game. A feat deemed even more impressive when his only target was a hobbled Julian Edelman.
Patriots RB1 Sony Michel averaged a lacklustre 3.7 rushing yards per attempt in 2019, ranking him 40th in the NFL. Out of the 19 HBs with min. 200 rushing attempts, Michel placed 17th. Out of total rushing yards in the same group, Michel finished 15th with 912 yards. In terms of rushing TDs, Michel finished middle of the pack with 7. Finally, Michel’s longest run of the year was only 26 yards.
Sony Michel is indicative of a talent problem which New England has had for the better half of a decade. Since Gronkowski was truly healthy, New England has had an issue acquiring explosive talent on the offensive side of the ball. And in an NFL in which the super-charged, super-fast Chiefs reign supreme, speed kills. At age 43, it is easy to see just why Brady was getting so frustrated at his role in New England.
Sticking with the Texans game in Week Thirteen, let’s take a look at this interception by Brady. It’s 3rd&4 at the end of the first quarter, an opportunity to keep the offence on the field and help set the tone early in an important game away from home.
Patriots rookie N’Keal Harry runs a slant against the smaller Roby who is in man coverage. Nine times out of 10 this is an easy completion for a modest amount of yardage, especially when you have Harry, 6’4, posting up against Roby, 5’11.
Brady knows this so he throws what is usually an automatic completion. Although this time, Harry just gets out-hustled by a defender nearly half his size, which begs the question – does Mike Evans get outmuscled here? Harry didn’t see another ball thrown his way for the rest of the game.
This play, and Harry as a player, was indicative of the 2019 Patriots on offence.
The Final Challenge
After conquering the NFL world, achieving countless accolades, earning a litany of endorsements and having a picture-perfect family life, there are few challenges left in life for Tom Brady, which in itself is the biggest challenge an uber-competitor like Brady will have to face. To keep these pathological competitors going, there must always be a challenge. And although Brady has carved out a new quest in Tampa Bay, that is just part of the bigger picture.
Aside from 300lb defensive lineman, crushing linebackers and scathing ballhawks, the toughest opponent for elite quarterbacks has proven to be Father Time. Brady has often stated that he wants to play until he’s 45, 50, 55, etc.
However, unlike reading a deadly blitz before the ball is snapped, Father Time is a threat that lurks in the shadows. Just look at Brady’s long-time rival Peyton Manning. Manning was the best quarterback in the NFL in 2014, by the end of the 2015/16 season he was borderline unplayable.
If Brady were to prosper with the Buccaneers in 2020 it would not surprise me, however, the opposite is also true. It has been proven time and time again that ageing quarterbacks fall off a cliff. Often, the decision to retire is made for them by Father Time.
While the future is uncertain for many of us, one thing is – Tom Brady is not finished… yet.