For Tom Brady, 2018 represented a season without constants, one in which the most reliable aspect of his receiving corps was its changing state.
Danny Amendola left in free agency. Julian Edelman got hit with a four-game suspension to open the year. Week 4 saw the arrival of Josh Gordon, one week before Edelman’s return offered a security blanket, but nonetheless required a change to the gameplan. Rob Gronkowski missed three of four weeks in the middle of the season, then saw his production limited upon his return. And finally, Gordon’s contributions came to a sudden halt with his suspension after the Week 15 loss to the Steelers.
The shifting personnel demanded numerous alterations to either play design or to what Patriots receivers were being asked to do.
“The one thing we’re always going to do here offensively is use the skill set of our players the best, use their talents to what they can do so we can be successful,” said Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea. “They’ve done such a good job this year embracing the change that we’ve had. We’ve had obviously some adversity along the way with some turnover and some roster changes at the position. I can’t say enough good things about their ability to do some of the things that they haven’t done before and do them well.”
The need to adapt, however, challenged Brady and the passing game in unusual fashion this season. In most years this decade, Brady has had two and often three members of his receiving corps with whom he connected at least 50 times. This year, among his receivers and tight ends, only Edelman (74 catches) had as many as 50 receptions, the first time since 2011 that the Patriots didn’t have at least two such pass-catchers. For the first time in Brady’s career, he threw more often to a running back (James White, who had a team-leading 123 targets and 87 catches) than any of his receivers.
Yet despite the shifting nature of Brady’s options — including the Gordon suspension, which seemed to portend a final banana peel at the bottom of a set of icy stairs — the quarterback has put together a stretch in the last three games that is as strong as any he’s had this year.
Over the last three games, he’s completed 71.5 percent of passes, his second-highest completion rate over any three-game stretch this year. In the two playoff games, he’s thrown for 691 yards, his highest two-game total of the season. The playoffs also mark the first time this year that Brady completed at least 30 passes and attempted at least 40 passes in back-to-back games this year.
All of this has come once the receiver wheel stopped spinning after the departure of Gordon. So, it’s worth asking: How did Gordon impact the passing game and how has Brady’s pass distribution changed since Gordon’s departure?
Certainly, Gordon represented a very different receiver than the other Patriots options this year: A consistent downfield threat (his 18.0 yards per catch ranked second in the NFL among players with at least 50 targets) who offered a relatively low likelihood of a connection.
In the NFL this year, according to Stats Inc., 121 players were the intended recipients of at least 50 passes. Of those, Gordon’s 56.9 percent completion rank rated last among Patriots and 99th in the NFL – in the bottom 20 percent of the league. It was the lowest completion rate of any Patriots receiver featured so prominently since Brandon LaFell in 2015 (50 percent completion rate on 74 targets).
Still, Gordon’s mere threat seemed to open the field, and a Patriots offense that sputtered before his arrival (while, of course, Edelman was suspended) came to life when Gordon arrived and Edelman returned. The Patriots started completing a higher percentage of passes, Brady’s passer rating went up, and the team’s offense jumped up from 19.0 to 28.8 points per game during Gordon’s time with the time.
It’s difficult to identify how much of an impact Gordon had on that improvement rather than Edelman, particularly given that the average length of Brady’s Air Yards per attempt (the distance, relative to the line of scrimmage, that his passes traveled to the point of a targeted receiver) actually went down from the first three weeks of the season.
Still, Brady’s 116.7 passer rating when throwing the ball to Gordon was his highest for any receiver this year. And clearly, the Patriots passing game reached another gear with both a downfield option and a receiver who works shorter routes. According to research from TruMedia Networks, a Boston-based sports analytics company, Gordon was targeted with throws that traveled an average of 13.5 Air Yards from the line of scrimmage. No other Patriot was targeted more than 12.0 Air Yards downfield.
Nonetheless, since Gordon’s suspension, the Patriots are 4-0, their scoring has shot up to 35 points per game, and while a couple of interceptions in the AFC Championship Game (one on a deflection) dragged down Brady’s passer rating during that time, he’s completing a higher percentage of passes than he did with Gordon on the field.
So what’s happening? With Gordon gone, Brady has made more short, high-percentage throws to his most reliable receivers. His average Air Yards per attempt, according to TruMedia Networks, has dropped about 14 percent from 7.8 to 6.7 Air Yards, and a significant number of throws that had gone in Gordon’s direction have been redirected towards more reliable options White and Edelman.
Prior to Gordon’s suspension, Brady targeted the downfield threat with roughly 14 percent of his attempts, while he tried to get the ball to White and Edelman with 41 percent of his throws. Since Gordon’s departure, White and Edelman have been targeted by Brady with 49 percent of his throws.
With that shift, Brady has traded the high-risk/high-reward throws downfield to Gordon with lower-risk/lower-reward passes to White and Edelman. White has caught 78 percent of balls on which he was targeted in the last four weeks, while Edelman has caught 69 percent of passes on which he was the target.
That redistribution — along with a steadily excellent running game — has turned the Patriots into a methodical force since Gordon’s departure. Whether the Patriots would have made similar adjustments — at a time when Brady appears healthier than he has since his injury against Tennessee — with Gordon is impossible to know. But what is evident is that the Patriots have offered another example of their hallmark ability to adapt schemes to circumstance and personnel as the season progresses in order to create another shot at a championship.
|Before Gordon (Games 1-3)||With Gordon (Games 4-14)||Since Gordon (Games 15-16 and playoffs)|
|Average Air Yards per Attempt||8.6||7.8||6.7|
|Average Time To Throw||2.41||2.45||2.42|