Given the departures of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and the injuries to Rob Gronkowski, few people expected the Patriots’ passing game to continue where it left off last season, ranked fourth in the NFL.
But even with that in mind, the passing offense has produced some surprising numbers, and not the good kind. Through five games Tom Brady is producing some of the worst stats of his career — career lows in completion percentage (56.6) and average per attempt (6.2 yards), and the Patriots are averaging just 19 points per game, the fewest since Brady took over as the starter in 2001.
He has been decidedly un-Brady-like, throwing for just 242.2 yards per game, compared with 301.7 and 327.2 the last two years. His completion percentage this year is 27th among starting quarterbacks, his average per attempt 31st.
Brady, naturally, is the one saddled with the stats, and it’s easy to blame the quarterback and say that Brady, 36, is playing poorly or showing signs of age. But how much of the offense’s struggles have been because of his play, and how much have his teammates and outside circumstances contributed to the problem?
To find that answer, we went back and watched every pass Brady has thrown this season. He has misfired on 85 of his 196 pass attempts, and here is what we found:
Broken up by defender
Tipped/batted down at line of scrimmage
Incomplete in tight coverage
Hit/pressured as thrown
Receiver pushed out of bounds
Unfortunately, we don’t have data from previous years to use for comparison. But the struggles in the passing game don’t seem to be all on Brady. Rather, it’s been a team effort.
“We had some throws that were a little off, and we had some guys that tried to make some tough catches and didn’t come up with them, and that’s football,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said last week. “We certainly don’t accept it, and we’re not going to just stand there and not to try improve.”
Certainly, Brady hasn’t been perfect. Officially, he’s averaging five off-target throws per game, but he hasn’t always made the right read, or avoided the pass rush properly, or hit his receiver in stride. And three times a game he’s unable to fit the ball into a tight passing window.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Brady is below the league average in passes of 0-10 yards (61 percent completions) and 20-plus yards (19 percent), where he was 71.6 and 31.5 percent in those areas from 2010-12.
“The pass I threw to Danny [Amendola] down to the half-yard line, if I make a better throw, it’s an easy catch and he walks into the end zone,” Brady said last week after the 13-6 loss to the Bengals. “The execution has to be a lot better. That’s what we’re working on.”
But it’s not like Brady suddenly forgot how to play quarterback, or is aging rapidly. In addition to not having Gronkowski, Welker or Hernandez, he hasn’t had Amendola, Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley in recent weeks, and he’s working with two rookie receivers on the outside (Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson).
“When you take the pieces away in just one year, that’s a transition that’s difficult,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Brady. “But you see everything you’ve seen prior — you see the arm strength, you see the will to win, you see the competitive drive, all those things.”
Patriots analyst Scott Zolak said Brady, who said in the offseason that he felt so good that he might want to play until he’s 50, isn’t showing signs of age. Zolak expects to see the offense look better when the key players return — particularly in the red zone, where the Patriots are scoring touchdowns on just 35 percent of possessions, second-lowest percentage in the NFL.
“I don’t see any change with the legs or the arm, I don’t see him throwing off his back foot, chucking it up in the air, none of that,” Zolak said of Brady. “There are going to be ups and downs, but when Danny’s completely healthy and Rob’s back, it’s like getting two free agents jumping into your offense.”
The opposing defenses deserve some credit, particularly the stout fronts of the Bills, Jets, Buccaneers, and Bengals who have rushed Brady into some poor throws.
And Brady’s receivers haven’t helped matters. They have dropped 18 passes, leaving Brady tied with Sam Bradford for the most in the NFL.
Thompkins has been the worst offender with seven drops, followed by four for Julian Edelman, two each for Dobson, Amendola, and Brandon Bolden, and one for Zach Sudfeld, no longer with the team.
The Patriots are on pace for 57.6 drops, which would be the most by any team over the past six years (Andrew Luck, 50, 2012), according to stats kept by ProFootballFocus.com.
“We’ve got to start making the plays NFL players make,” Brady said last week. “When you play good teams and good defenses, the windows are small, the throws are tight, the catches are tight. You’ve got to be at your best.”
Some quality work focusing on the game
Two pieces of NFL-related media worthy of review:
■ The long-awaited “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” documentary produced by PBS’s Frontline series finally debuted on Tuesday, the same day the corresponding book with the same title was released. ESPN had been associated with this project, but backed out in August, presumably out of pressure from the NFL.
Our thoughts on the documentary, much like the concussion crisis, are complicated.
For those who haven’t followed the story line between the NFL, its retired players, and the controversy surrounding concussion research, the documentary was an excellent summation of past events and painted a vivid picture of a league actively ignoring and discrediting scientific research that suggested football could lead to brain injuries.
It focused on the rapid downward spiral of several former players who ultimately died young, such as former Steelers center Mike Webster and Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. Other stars with noted concussion problems also gave harrowing accounts of their experiences, including Steve Young and Troy Aikman.
The film also highlighted important work being done by Dr. Robert Cantu, Dr. Ann McKee, and Chris Nowinski at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, as well as the important findings of Dr. Bennet Omalu in regards to CTE. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue does not come off well in the film, and current commissioner Roger Goodell finally reversed the NFL’s stance on concussions and embraced the scientific community in 2009 by donating $1 million to BU’s center, among other initiatives.
But overall, the documentary was a bit too alarmist for our tastes, and dead set on pointing all of the blame at the NFL. Many of the problems described in the film were things that happened to players in the 1970s and ’80s and have been improved today. As Pro Football Talk correctly pointed out, the NFL Players Association was not mentioned once throughout the two-hour film, as if the NFLPA had no role in protecting and educating its players.
And Dr. Matt McCarthy, an infectious disease fellow at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, wrote an article for Deadspin last week warning of a “head-injury panic” and reminding us that playing football doesn’t automatically lead to brain trauma, depression, and suicide.
“Despite what you’ve read, the cause-and-effect relationship between head trauma and CTE is far from scientifically verified,” McCarthy wrote. “The direct and seemingly obvious connection tends to be taken for granted by journalists, but it hasn’t been established at the highest level of evidence.”
■ The other is the recently released autobiography from former Broncos backup tight end Nate Jackson, “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.”
An undrafted rookie from Division 3 Menlo College in 2002 who began his career as a practice-squad player, emerged as a solid contributor for the Broncos for six seasons, and ended it with an injury in the now-defunct UFL, Jackson provides an entertaining, enlightening, and at times depressing look at what it’s like to live on the fringes of today’s NFL.
Jackson gives insight into all aspects of his life — the constant trips to doctors and the trainer’s room, the struggles of sticking to a 53-man roster, the elation of finally catching a touchdown pass, the difficulty of maintaining normal relationships with women, and the relative ease of smoking marijuana yet still passing all of the NFL’s drug tests among them.
Jackson has an intelligence, humor, and self-awareness not often found in professional athletes, and it makes for an enlightening, R-rated read. Our one beef — why such disdain for local media, Nate? It wasn’t their fault the Broncos drafted Jay Cutler to replace Jake Plummer, Jackson’s good buddy.
Keeping their Cole by working system
You may have seen Marquice Cole’s name in the news a lot during the first six weeks of the season, and not for anything he did on the field. In fact, Cole has yet to play a snap on defense all season.
But he’s had a familiar path the last two weeks — he was cut by the Patriots Sept. 27; re-signed Oct. 1; cut again Oct. 4; then re-signed again last Monday.
So, what’s going on? Nothing more than a little creative roster management by the Patriots, who are taking advantage of a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to put Cole on a short-term injured reserve, of sorts.
Cole, in his fifth NFL season (second with the Patriots), pulled a hamstring in Week 3. The Patriots knew he wouldn’t be able to play in Week 4, but it’s not a long-term injury, so they didn’t want to put him on IR, which would end his season.
By waiting until the Friday before the game to cut him, the Patriots paid Cole his Week 4 game check — any player on an NFL roster at 4:01 p.m. on Tuesday gets his game check for that week. The Patriots used that roster spot on safety Kanorris Davis, who played special teams against the Falcons.
Then the Patriots re-signed Cole that Tuesday, gave him a chance to get healthy before Week 5, and then cut him again last Friday when it was clear he wouldn’t be ready to go against the Bengals. Again, he got a game check for Week 5 even though he wasn’t on the roster, and Davis once again took his spot on special teams.
The Patriots then re-signed Cole, and by all accounts he’ll be ready to play Sunday.
Cole is a “vested veteran” with five years of experience, which usually means that if he’s cut, the Patriots would owe him termination pay — the remaining balance of his $715,000 base salary. But because Cole hasn’t missed a game check, he hasn’t been eligible for termination pay. He would only receive it if the Patriots cut Cole but decline to bring him back the next week, which the Patriots haven’t done so far.
The Patriots are taking a slight risk by exposing Cole to free agency every weekend, but it’s unlikely that any team would want to sign a backup cornerback with a balky hamstring.
It must be frustrating for Cole to be cut and re-signed every week, but as long as he’s still receiving game checks, it’s hard to complain. And the Patriots have found a way to keep an injured player around without having to use an inactive spot for him on game days.
Not making any travel plans
The NFL’s experiment in London is working out well enough that the league is adding a third game there starting next year, with the Jaguars, Falcons, and Raiders set to host “home” games there in 2014.
Barring a miracle, though, the Patriots won’t be making a return trip to London after playing the Rams there last season. Most of the 2014 schedule is predetermined, and we already know that the Patriots won’t play the Falcons, and will play the Raiders in Foxborough.
The Patriots are scheduled to play one AFC South team on the road next year, but the odds of it being the Jaguars are slim. The Patriots will play the AFC South team that finishes in the same place in the division as the Patriots do in the AFC East, and the 0-5 Jaguars are well on their way to finishing in last place.
Barring a total collapse by the first-place Patriots over the final 11 games, they won’t be finishing last in the AFC East.
Reluctant teams could get knock on door
The NFL is going to start compelling teams to participate in the HBO training camp reality series “Hard Knocks” if teams don’t start stepping up to the plate, but Bill Belichick and the Patriots shouldn’t be too worried. The NFL included enough corollaries in its new rule that the Patriots likely won’t be on the show any time soon.
Teams would be exempt from being compelled to be on the show if: they made the playoffs in any of the past two seasons; have a new head coach; or participated in the series over the past 10 years.
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots ever missing the playoffs two straight years with Belichick and Tom Brady. And then when Belichick does eventually move on, the Patriots will be exempt again when they have a new coach.
This year’s “Hard Knocks” with the Bengals wasn’t very interesting, and if the new rules were in effect, the NFL could have forced the Titans, Panthers, Buccaneers, or Rams to participate.
Stealing from the Steel Curtain
Belichick is tied with legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll with 209 victories, and Belichick is humbled to keep his company.
“He was one of the great coaches when I came into the league in ’75, and for the next 15 years,” Belichick said. “Coach Noll and his approach to the game, his consistency, his level demeanor, and the consistency that they had, I thought was always exemplary, right at the top of coaches that I tried to learn from and take things from them.
“Going against him every year . . . was a great experience because they were so well-balanced, they threw the ball down the field, they ran the ball, they had a good balanced attack. I think I learned a lot from the outside, looking at that program that Coach Noll ran.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.