Back in June, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus caused quite a stir nationally when he penned an analysis of Tom Brady and stated very definitively the Patriots quarterback is no longer a top-five player at his position in the NFL.
Elite? Maybe, but not to the levels of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, or Ben Roethlisberger, according to Monson.
Most in New England laughed and mocked. I like to think I respectfully disagreed with a not-so-respectful headline.
Fast-forward four months and the Pats are sitting a disappointing 2-2 four weeks into their season and reeling from their most embarrassing loss in more than a decade. Oh yeah, and with the unbeaten Bengals on their way to town hoping to capitalize on being just the third visiting favorite at Gillette since 2003.
The team is a mess; downright dreadful compared to its lofty preseason expectations of Super Bowl contention. Sure, there’s still time for Bill Belichick’s squad to turn things around but, looking at the upcoming schedule, another 12-win season likely isn’t the cards. A first-round home playoff game? Of course; the AFC East is appalling.
With all that has gone wrong from the paltry offensive line to insufficient receiving options to an overhyped defense led by a perhaps underutilized star, it was only a matter of time before the focus shifted to a 37-year-old Brady.
The morning after Brady’s horrendous performance in Kansas City – a game in which the signal-caller completed just 14-of-23 passes for 159 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions before being relieved by Jimmy Garoppolo – I received a tweet from Mr. Monson.
You have to respect that, right? I mean, if there was ever a time to pile on Brady, it’s now.
On Wednesday, Monson followed up with his latest Brady findings on ESPN.com, which included a passing mention of my…umm…contention.
Before going on, there’s something we should all remember: Pro Football Focus is designed to provide emotionless statistical analysis. As Patriots fans and followers, we’re admittedly biased, at times to unwarranted levels of sacred cow-ism. Now that that’s out of the way…
Monson’s argument that Brady is on the decline is not incorrect. We’ve all seen it, though the difference has been staggering this season when viewing the numbers and, to the first substantial degree, even when watching the games.
Fan out the figures and you’ll see a guy who, in his final 10 games of 2013, passed for at least 277 yards eight times, averaged 300, and sported a QB rating of 85.7 or better in all but two contests.
A quarter of the way through 2014, Brady has yet to touch 250 yards – he’s averaging 198 – and his QB rating of 79.1 is 29th among the 34 qualifying quarterbacks. He’s near the bottom of most significant categories.
Those are just the numbers. Loop in the eye test and you’ll see poor decision-making, forced throws, overthrows, and a certain look on Brady’s face we’ve just never witnessed. Last year’s early-season frustration morphed into anger to the point of screaming at teammates on the sidelines. There was a waft of, “You want me to do this alone? Fine, watch me!” This year, that aggravation seems to occasionally devolve into defeatism in an answerless abyss.
But Monson doesn’t need me to make his point, so let’s let him paint his picture:
The offensive line is certainly a major factor. His protection has abandoned him just when he needs it most, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he isn’t part of the problem. On plays where Brady has felt no pressure this season he has a passer rating of just 83.0 and a PFF grade of -4.7.
Much of Monson’s piece explores Brady’s repeated late throws, lack of anticipation, and general uncertainty with the football. He essentially calls it a myth Pats receivers aren’t getting open and instead pinpoints the quarterback’s inability to find them when he’s had the time and space.
Monson acknowledges how poor New England’s offensive line has been, but feels that does not excuse Brady for making “the kind of mistakes you see rookies making, and not something you expect from a future Hall of Fame quarterback.”
[Sorry, I blacked out and thought we were discussing Mark Sanchez for a second.]
Through four games the New England offensive line has allowed 55 total pressures (sacks, hits and hurries). That is two more than any other unit in the league, 25 more than the league average and a massive 45 worse than the best unit in the NFL (Cincinnati). It’s impossible to separate that completely from the influence of the quarterback – as the longer he holds the ball the tougher it is for linemen to block and the greater the chance they will surrender pressure – but only three passers have averaged a lower time to throw figure than Brady’s 2.3 seconds this season. When he does hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds he is completing just 40.5% of his passes – dead last in the NFL among qualifying passers.
All fair and, frankly, fact-based criticisms.
Once again, however, I believe Monson’s number-crunching ignores some basic realities:
For starters, as Monson’s evidence plainly shows, Brady’s offensive line is a joke further mitigated by Belichick the GM’s continued insistence to screw over Belichick the Coach when he traded the franchise QB’s best lineman. Would Logan Mankins be the difference? Of course not; Brady was sacked 40 times last season with Mankins on the roster. But, whether through performance or a much-needed attitude adjustment, you’d be crazy to believe the veteran wouldn’t help a mismatched hodgepodge of questionable talent.
To that end, the Patriots have made some dubious personnel decisions, from letting Wes Welker go to signing Danny Amendola to relying on a fragile Rob Gronkowski for top-tier production to making healthy receiving options like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins inactive for, in Dobson’s case, reasons that seem to boil down to an immature relationship between a coach and player. Meanwhile, as impactful pass-catchers were available in the offseason for reasonable dollars or even in the draft, the Pats elected to dole out money on the other side of the football or sit on some cash for future use.
[I should mention, I agree prioritizing defense gives a team its best chance at securing a title but, in the Pats’ case, it does nothing to improve Brady’s offense and only leaves his numbers and, thus, reputation to suffer.]
The game-planning and play-calling, either because of Belichick or offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, has been suspect at best, typically in regard to not emphasizing the run. The offense has become somewhat predictable and, without higher-caliber targets and respectable protection, Brady has faltered. As even the QB has suggested, New England’s offense is not equipped to perform regularly at a high level. Forget about where Brady falls among the league-leaders at his position and think about where most other quarterbacks in the NFL would wind up in his cleats.
That, I suppose, is the bottom-line Monson should consider.
It really isn’t about who’s a top-five this or that when there are so many factors to influence that ranking.
The Patriots’ O-line has allowed 10 sacks this year (9 to Brady, 1 to Garoppolo), which is tied for sixth-most in the game. Brady has been hit more than any quarterback in the league. This weekend’s opponent, the Bengals, have barely allowed Andy Dalton to be touched. Not one sack. The Broncos and Ravens are second, allowing three apiece.
Imagine Brady not only playing with the likes of A.J. Green, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius and Demaryius Thomas, or Steve Smith, but also having almost no fear of getting knocked down? Suddenly, those pressure-throws would become few and far between.
This isn’t about being 37 or getting scared; it’s a byproduct of Brady bracing himself for a hit every time he gets his hands on the ball and feeling as though he needs to get rid of it immediately to prevent a loss of yards. That’s not to excuse panic because it’s clearly worsened for Brady in recent years, but it is a contributing factor to ill-advised throws. Remember how comfortable Manning was in the pocket during the AFC Championship Game when he literally didn’t endure one hit? There’s a reason he broke all kinds of passing records last season.
Point being, I have no doubt Brady would be having similar, if not superior, seasons to Dalton, Manning, or Joe Flacco if he played in those same environments. Others, too.
To tell the truth, I’m not sure Monson would disagree after writing the following:
I believe Tom Brady is in decline, but that decline has been highlighted or even magnified by the struggles in his pass protection. I also believe that he has more than enough talent and ability left to succeed this season and is quite clearly the Patriots’ best chance to win games. Those people mentioning a quarterback controversy are crazy. Brady has struggled before in games or even for stretches, but nobody in the AFC East has yet taken advantage of the New England struggles and they are still well in the running to win the division and make the playoffs.
In other words, Brady is only a small part of the problem. It’s true; he isn’t free of blame. There are receivers getting open who, for one reason or another, Brady tells us he trusts and then defiantly ignores them on game-day. That’s his stubborn flaw, maybe a fatal one for this team eventually. Ultimately, though, it’s those around him who really need to be better.
There aren’t five QB’s in the NFL I’d rather have lead my team, all things being equal with respect to their supporting casts. There are, however, at least 25 receivers and offensive lineman I’d welcome with open arms.
Maybe Brady is unhappy, insecure, or flustered to the point where his relationship with the organization is delicate. Perhaps the Garoppolo era is coming sooner than intense TB12 supporters wish, and well ahead of the three years left on the incumbent’s contract. For now, though, this is still Brady’s team, one with a laundry list of concerns ahead of the quarterback position.
So there we have it. For Belichick and Brady, it’s on to Cincinnati. Hopefully the Pats’ play improves, otherwise we may be checking in with Mr. Monson again at the midpoint of the season.
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