FOXBOROUGH — Duron Harmon practically groaned. For years, he’s seen in practice what has duped countless NFL defenders in games: Tom Brady looking one way long enough to send some poor safety or linebacker running in that direction, then snapping his eyes back at the last second and throwing to a receiver left open when the defender fell for Brady’s most deceptive tool — his eyes.
“Tremendous,” the Patriots safety said of Brady’s level of trickery. “Probably the best that I’ve been against. He just knows everything.”
Play quarterback long enough at a high enough level and it’s like getting super powers. With an encyclopedic knowledge of defenses and footwork and throwing motion honed by thousands of dropbacks, Brady has mastered a technique like no other quarterback.
He can move people with his eyes.
It’s a twofold skill, mental and mechanical, and one of the reasons why Brady picks apart most defenses. And it is particularly lethal against zone coverage. Look closely at the quarterback’s biggest throws and you’ll find he made most of them after tricking defenders with his eyes.
Take, for instance, the divisional-round game on Jan. 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers, who play zone defense 90 percent of the time.
During the opening-drive that ended in a touchdown, the Patriots had a third and 5. Brady glanced left just long enough for Chargers linebacker Jahleel Addae to step in that direction. In a split second, Brady snapped his gaze back to the middle of the field and hit running back James White for a first down.
“It’s really a lot of years of repetitions and a lot of hours of thinking about drills and mechanics and so forth,” Brady said Saturday after the team’s last practice in Foxborough before heading to Atlanta for the Super Bowl. “I think at this point, so much, it would really be hard for me to change too much right now because I’ve had so many years and hours invested in my mechanics and fundamentals, footwork. So, little modifications you could probably make, but for the most part a lot of these things have just been drilled in me so long by all my coaches, from high school to college to this level. It’s just doing it.”
It seems like a fairly simple concept — look one way, throw another. But it’s not easy for two reasons. One, it defies typical body mechanics. Think about teaching kids to throw a baseball: Look where you want the ball to go, they’re always told. By the time Brady releases a ball, he’s always looking at his intended target, but he brings his eyes onto that spot late in his progression, while the rest of his body is set long before. It would feel unnatural were it not for thousands of repetitions.
“To me, he does such a good job because of his mechanics, he’s able to do that,” backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said of Brady during an interview earlier this week. “Maybe your eyes are one way, but your feet are another. Does that make sense? Being able to do that, and your feet are ready to throw to the right but you’re looking left, and then you come back and you’re ready to throw.”
Hoyer demonstrated by setting his feet straight ahead and shifting his eyes left, then right, without compromising his stance or even the position of his shoulders.
Kids are taught to look where they want the ball to go because the body follows the eyes. Brady does it the opposite way, where his body knows how to get set without the eyes locked on target.
“I’m just using right and left examples, you know you want to throw right but you need to look left,” Hoyer said. “Your feet are basically straight ahead but your eyes are here [to the left] and then as soon as you’re ready to throw, your feet get into place. It’s something that you would train yourself to do when you’re just dropping back and throwing.”
The mechanical component is only half of it, though, because there’s no point in moving a defender if a quarterback doesn’t know where to send that defender, or why he wants them there. If Brady is going to look off a safety, for example, he usually has to decide before his receivers get well into their routes. So he has to envision how a play develops before it does. All quarterbacks want to do this, but it’s difficult for those without Brady’s experience.
“The thing about football is it’s endless possibilities,” Hoyer said. “I’m sure if someone was able to do the math you could probably figure it out, but the amount of plays that we have, the amount of defenses that they have, what can be run on that given play, and then you do as much study as you can to boil it down . . . so, it’s all repetition and getting yourself prepared to be able to make those throws in a split second.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Brady “does a good job of studying that and listening during the week and digesting all of that information, and then he has the ability to go out there and execute it under pressure, which is the toughest part about all that.”
Consider one of the biggest plays in the AFC Championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018, where Brady exploited a defense that used similar schemes as the Chargers.
On a third down and 18, the Jaguars were playing a Cover-4 defense, with linebacker Myles Jack covering the middle of the field. Brady dropped back and looked left. Even though the Jaguars had that side of the field well-covered, Jack followed. Brady then snapped his eyes back to the middle of the field and hit Danny Amendola for a first down, the first third-and-15-plus-yard conversion of the season for the Patriots.
“He knows what defense we’re in, he knows where he wants to place the ball. He’s just. . . he’s just so experienced,” Harmon said. “I’m trying to tell you, he makes it hard on the safeties, especially the deep-field safeties of trying to get a good read and a good break on him.”