Tom Brady isn’t playing as well this year. I know it, you know it, even he knows it.
“I absolutely want to play better,” he said last Monday on Westwood One Radio. “Certainly yesterday was not a great performance. I’ve got to go out there and play my very best these next six weeks to give our team the best chance.”
In a year when quarterbacks and offenses are establishing record numbers, Brady’s are going the wrong way. He is 16th in passer rating (94.7), behind Mitchell Trubisky and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Brady’s interception rate is its highest since 2011. Last Sunday’s 34-10 loss to the Titans was the worst November, December, or January loss of his career.
And most shockingly, Brady has struggled against the blitz. ESPN’s NFL Matchup show, which partners with NFL Films, has Brady with the worst passer rating in the NFL against the blitz (59.6), defined as five or more pass rushers. Stats LLC is a little kinder, ranking Brady 22nd against the blitz (87.1 rating), which also includes four-man zone blitzes. It’s actually a slight uptick from last year, when his rating against the blitz was 85.0. But in 2016, Brady was the best in the NFL at 126.7.
Brady, last year’s league MVP, found himself on the defensive this past week.
“Everything’s different from one year to the next,” he said. “I’m sure some of my statistics have changed, but I feel good out there.”
And of course, his (relative) struggles conjure an obvious question: Is Brady, at age 41, finally losing to Father Time?
Before the Titans game, Brady noted that he has not missed a practice this year, which is a departure from years past.
“My body is really broken in, so to speak, to football season and it’s doing what I’m asking it to do,” Brady said. “So I’ve been able to practice every single day this year. I feel like I’m just sharp at practice, my mind is sharp, my body is sharp.”
Those who know Brady best say that they don’t see signs of age catching up with him.
“Absolutely not,” said former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “The last time I sat down with him was a couple of weeks ago and he looked stronger and more invigorated and more energy than I saw when he was 20-something years old. He takes care of his body, doesn’t put alcohol in his body. You know the guy is on point.”
Former Patriots receiver Deion Branch agrees.
“It would be one thing if he’s throwing 15-20 picks or taking 15 sacks, but that’s not the case,” Branch said. “I just think everybody’s playing pretty good ball against them right now.”
Clearly, Brady hasn’t felt comfortable with his teammates. Rob Gronkowski has missed the last two games and hasn’t looked like himself all season. The Patriots barely had a semblance of a run game the past three weeks as Sony Michel has dealt with a knee injury. Right guard Shaq Mason, arguably their best offensive lineman, has missed the last two weeks. And left tackle Trent Brown played through an illness last week. They had to rely on trick plays to put away the Packers two weeks ago, and got gimmicky again last week against the Titans.
Brady admits that he has been locking onto receivers. Against the Titans, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, and James White accounted for 32 of Brady’s 41 targets. Chris Hogan, who played 54 snaps, had just two targets, one of which was a throwaway.
“I have to figure out a way to get the ball to everybody, so that we can all make plays,” Brady said last week on WEEI. “I think a good offense has to go through everybody.”
But instead of just taking Brady’s and Harrison’s word for it, we went back and reviewed the All-22 tape and CBS broadcast of the Titans game to look for signs of Brady showing his age.
As usual, the poor performance was a team effort. The offensive line didn’t handle the Titans’ blitz well.
Gordon and Jacob Hollister had bad third-down drops that should have extended drives.
Josh McDaniels called too many slow-developing plays that allowed the Titans’ pass rush to get in Brady’s face — Brady taking seven-step drops, his receivers running deep routes, or Brady running fake-reverse play-action passes that just took too long to develop. Brady was actually quite good on play-action passes throughout the game, when he had time.
There were also a few strange play calls. The ugly, deep incompletion to Gordon was just a one-man route.
And it is becoming obvious that Brady has an issue with Hogan, who has played 72 percent of snaps the last three weeks, but has just six targets and two catches (none the past two games). Hogan was open at least a half-dozen times against the Titans, and was wide open for a potential touchdown on Brady’s final pass of the day, a failed fourth-down pass to Edelman. Hogan jumped in frustration at the end of the play, but that frustration goes both ways.
In the final seconds of the first half, the CBS cameras caught Brady yelling at Hogan to hustle back to the huddle, and again to get to the line of scrimmage.
But Brady certainly deserved plenty of the blame in Sunday’s loss, and perhaps did show signs of aging, as he locked onto receivers and bailed on plays early. The most telling sign was on one third-and-4 play in the second quarter, when Brady had a perfect pocket, all day to throw, yet still bailed out and threw the ball at White’s feet, while never seeing Edelman streaking wide open across the field.
And on another play, Brady ducked into a sack even though he had a throwing lane to Edelman over the middle. He could have made the throw while getting hit, but instead braced for contact.
Is it possible that at 41, Brady just isn’t willing to absorb the hits as much as before? Locking onto receivers, predetermining his reads, and bracing for hits could be signs.
It’s not like Brady has suddenly lost all of his arm strength, or can’t move around in the pocket, like an aging Peyton Manning or Joe Montana. But there’s no question he hasn’t been quite right this season.
“If you don’t play well, if you have a couple of off games, the first thing they want to say is, ‘He’s lost it, he no longer can play,’ ” Harrison said. “I guarantee you, Tom is studying that film right as we speak, and he’s going to come back bigger, better, and stronger. I don’t have any doubts in that.”