One of the pitfalls of pro football evolving, much to the NFL’s glee, into a yearround topic of discussion is that there has to be something to fill the emptiness, even if it’s conversational empty calories. Exhibit A of this palaver is the debate about the decline of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Has there been marginal slippage in Brady’s game as he grows older and seems to experience paranormal activity in the pocket? Sure. But his decline is only a relevant discussion if TB12 has diminished to a point where he is not a good enough quarterback to win a Super Bowl with, if his decrease in ability has noticeably increased the Patriots’ championship degree of difficulty.
We’re not there yet. No need to summon Dan Duquette. Brady, who turns 37 in August, is not in the twilight of his career, even if a black light is being taken to his play, searching for any minuscule evidence of the end. No matter what the numbers say, Brady no longer being a top-five quarterback simply doesn’t add up.
The good folks at the esteemed analytical website Pro Football Focus fanned the flames of this argument with an article earlier this month that made a statistical case that Brady, based largely on his 2013 season, is no longer a top-five quarterback. The piece by Sam Monson is what is known in journalism as a talker.
Monson makes a compelling case with statistical analysis. But judging Brady’s 2013 season by raw data without real context is giving him a raw deal.
How many other quarterbacks could have lost their best wide receiver to free agency, had their freak of nature tight end miss nine games, and taken the collection of offensive talent (I’m using that term loosely) the Patriots afforded him last season to the AFC Championship game?
Three of the first four passes Brady threw in the AFC title game were to Austin Collie (street free agent), Matthew Mulligan (16 career receptions), and Matthew Slater (special teams ace).
Monson alludes to Brady’s lack of weapons and the uncharacteristic struggles of the Patriots’ offensive line, but he doesn’t make the direct, obvious connection to Brady’s diminished statistical efficiency.
Everyone diminishes over time. Take a good look at the before and after pictures of a sitting US president. It looks like a reverse Just For Men commercial.
The main problem is that part of the Pro Football Focus piece seems to inadvertently make the case that Brady’s historical counterpart, Peyton Manning, has hardly declined at all. It cited Brady taking 40 sacks last season, while Manning was sacked just 18 times. Monson wrote that “at this stage in each player’s career, Manning is better equipped to fight off the effects of Father Time than Brady is.”
Anyone who has watched Manning knows he doesn’t possess the same arm strength he once did, sapped by a degenerative neck condition. Yet, Manning at age 37 just authored the greatest statistical season ever by an NFL quarterback, even in obvious physical decline.
Manning threw for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards in 2013. It wasn’t because he has found the football fountain of youth.
For there to be a fair comparison of the decline of Brady and Manning, one would have to project what Brady would do if he had Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and tight end Julius Thomas to throw to. My guess is it would have looked an awful lot like what Manning did.
Monson also provided the astonishing stat that Brady completed only 45.1 percent of his passes when he held the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer, the worst among 16-game starters in the NFL. However, anyone who has watched the Patriots’ offense knows that it’s predicated on Brady getting rid of the ball quickly.
That was tougher to do in 2013 with a callow receiving corps containing three rookies (Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins) who couldn’t reliably run their routes, couldn’t consistently beat press coverage, or regularly catch the football. You can’t get rid of the ball quickly if there is nowhere to throw it.
Any quarterback is going to look feeble when his receivers are blanketed and the pressure is bearing down on him, including Manning.
Pristine Peyton, untouched by the ravages of time, turned the ball over three times in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. On his two interceptions, the better play, perhaps, would have been taking a sack or throwing it away.
The 2013 season that Pro Football Focus focused on looked pretty similar to one that members of Brady’s camp will tell you was the best of his career — 2006.
That was the year Patriots coach Bill Belichick asked Brady to turn table scraps into a gourmet meal with unremarkable receivers — Doug Gabriel, Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and rookie Chad Jackson.
Brady completed 61.8 percent of his passes that season and threw for 3,529 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. He was sacked 26 times. He lost to Manning on the road in the AFC title game.
Fast forward seven years when Brady is handed a similar group of unaccomplished pass catchers. Tom Terrific completed 60.5 percent of his passes, and threw for 4,343 yards with 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He lost to Manning on the road in the AFC title game.
The real message of Monson’s piece is that the Patriots can’t rely on Brady to be Fort Foxborough’s human spackle forever.
It seems like Belichick knows that. The Patriots have loaded up, err, I mean circumspectly improved their team this offseason with additions such as Darrelle Revis and Brandon LaFell. The hope is that they’ve constructed a team that will provide Brady with more margin for error.
Instead of dissecting Brady’s unavoidable decline, let’s just sit back, recline, and enjoy one of the all-time greats while we still can.
More coverage:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.