Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
26 Dec 2013
by Cian Fahey
This should be Tom Brady's greatest season.
That statement alone is powerful. In the context of his career, it's almost unfathomable.
Brady is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Fame player. His average season would be the career year for 90 percent of the quarterbacks to ever play the game. In just his second season, he won the Super Bowl. In his fourth and fifth, he won back-to-back Super Bowls. No player had ever achieved that kind of feat at the position he plays. He hasn't won another Super Bowl since his fifth season, but he has made two more trips. One of those trips came after a 16-0 regular season and a record-setting 50 touchdown passes. That season started a streak where five straight Brady seasons (skipping his injured 2008) rank among the top ten quarterback seasons since 1989 according to Football Outsiders' DYAR stats.
Competing for Brady's best season isn't like competing for any average quarterback's best season, but the pieces are there to make a case for 2013.
As a team, the New England Patriots have locked up a playoff spot and the AFC East crown with a week to spare. This is nothing new for the franchise during the Bill Belichick-Brady era. Victory is sweeter this season because it wasn't as much of a given as it has been in previous years. Miami's offseason was spent acquiring assets to make an assault on the regular AFC East champions, while New England's was spent losing pieces from past successes.
Key cogs from the previous season's offense departed in the offseason. Receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Tight end Aaron Hernandez was embroiled in a murder investigation that led the Patriots to let him go. Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the San Diego Chargers in free agency, and receiver Brandon Lloyd was also released for financial reasons. Rob Gronkowski's status was unclear, as he endured surgery after surgery that would cause him to miss the start of the season. When Gronkowski did return during the season, it wasn't for long -- he suffered a torn ACL a few weeks later. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer suffered a similar injury that landed him on IR for the year a few weeks earlier.
The Patriots signed Danny Amendola to replace Welker and added a number of rookie receivers to ease the impact of the veteran losses. Amendola missed a lot of time with injury though, and the rookie receivers couldn't replace the proven veterans. Shane Vereen, who was expected to replace Woodhead as the receiving back, landed on short-term IR, leaving Julian Edelman as Brady's most reliable weapon. Even though Edelman had entered free agency last spring and found little interest, he has played consistently excellent football for the Patriots.
Brady was going to have to make up for a lot on the offensive side of the ball entering the year, and was tasked to do even more as potential solutions continued to crash and burn. Then came the defensive depletions. Defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both landed on IR. The team's best linebacker, Jerod Mayo, also landed on IR during the season, while free agent addition Adrian Wilson never played a snap at safety because of an apparent torn Achilles.
Although quarterback wins are a flawed measure of a quarterback's success, there is a logical argument that can be made to suggest that this is Brady's greatest season because of the turmoil the team has overcome. Unfortunately for him, the tape doesn't back up that statement. Brady hasn't elevated his individual performance on the field. Instead, he appears to be finally fading from the pedestal where he sits among the best quarterbacks in the league.
Brady's season can be broken down into three sections.
Each of these passing charts reflects Brady's accuracy on a given pass rather than whether the pass was caught or not. This means that there is a premium placed on ball placement. Notably, any plays that appeared to be miscommunications were not marked off as inaccurate passes. This gives Brady the benefit of the doubt and lessens the impact of his supporting cast. As it turned out, the idea of struggling receivers was overblown. There weren't many plays that needed to be marked off because the receiver was out of position; instead there were a number of accurate passes that should have been caught. Those passes were still marked down as accurate on the above passing charts.
His performance hasn't wavered dramatically from week-to-week or section-to-section, but he has improved somewhat from his early season struggles. However, the problem is Brady's improvement is only enough to elevate him from average quarterback play to above-average quarterback play. He hasn't been one of the best in the league this year.
The first thing that stands out on the charts above is Brady's deep accuracy. Although he excelled with Randy Moss during his prime, there wasn't a huge amount of accuracy required when throwing the ball to Moss. Now that he has smaller receivers who can't create the same separation as Moss, it would make sense that his accuracy throwing the ball deep would decline. This would be an acceptable excuse, but Brady's receivers getting open hasn't been the issue.
On each of these plays, Brady has plenty of time in the pocket and his receivers are already in stride when he releases the ball. He doesn't have to decipher the coverage or throw with anticipation, so timing is less of an issue. Furthermore, he isn't throwing to rookies, as his receivers are Edelman, Vereen and Amendola. Amendola is the only new receiver of the trio and he had five yards behind the secondary on this play. Instead of laying the ball out for Amendola to run underneath it, the trajectory Brady put on the ball forced Amendola to try and make a one-handed catch with just his fingertips while fully extended.
There were times when his receivers didn't create any separation and Brady forced the ball to them, but there were also times when his accuracy was so poor that the ball landed out of bounds before the receiver had any chance of making even a spectacular catch.
Overall, Brady's accuracy has been inconsistent. He still possesses the ability to fit the ball into tight windows for stretches, but he often asked a lot of his receivers with bad ball placement even when he wasn't under pressure. Those poor passes weren't of a high degree of difficulty either, as he threw too many screen passes behind receivers or to underneath routes that took his receivers directions that they shouldn't have been going.
Maybe most worryingly for the Patriots, Brady's struggles this season weren't in just one facet of the game. If he had one clear problem, such as his deep accuracy, Belichick could build an offense that hid his weaknesses and played to his strengths. Instead, Brady has suffered a smaller, but notable drop-off in multiple aspects of his play.
He still has excellent mechanics and the ability to throw with outstanding velocity. It's his inconsistency throwing the ball and his inconsistency managing the pocket that has hurt him. He's still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL at manipulating the pocket, but he appears to be less willing to take hits and less aware of the field around him.
A large number of Brady's sacks could have been avoided with better vision to see open receivers early or with better pocket presence from the quarterback. While this happens to every quarterback in the NFL and Brady will have evaded other sacks with his movement in the pocket, it's atypical of his career for him to have caused so many sacks in a single season. His offensive line isn't as good this year, especially with the various injuries, but Dante Scarnecchia still has them performing as well as most units in the league.
In comparison to previous seasons, there is an all-around lack of sharpness to Brady's play on the field.
Of course, the popular overriding argument is that Brady is a winner and he has repeatedly proven that this season. He has made a number of late comeback attempts, specifically against the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints. But he has also made a number of drive-killing plays at critical points in different games that taints his good work in those situations. In that (in)famous victory over the New Orleans Saints, Brady made two terrible decisions that killed drives with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. He eventually lead the game-winning drive, but not without a lot of help from his defense and the Saints.
The first play was an incompletion -- a pass that Aaron Dobson should have caught. But a drop from the receiver wasn't the only reason the play failed: It was fourth-and-6. The Patriots needed six yards and Brady threw the ball to Dobson just two yards downfield. It was a good decision from the quarterback, because Dobson had a step on the defender and space to run into for the conversion. However, the poor ball placement from Brady forced Dobson to slow down. While he was reacting to the pass, the defender was closing off the separation that was previously there.
Dobson fails to make the catch, but even if he does, the defender is there to tackle him and take him down short of the first down. If Dobson didn't have to break stride, then the only reason for this play to fail would be a drop. Because Dobson had to break stride, he never had much chance of making the first down anyway. Brady needed to put this ball in front of his receiver. Instead he threw it too low towards his hip.
It's a minor detail, but minor details are huge when you are the quarterback. Minor details are the difference between drives continuing and drives stalling. Between winning and losing.
After this play, the Patriots defense held the Saints to a field goal before Brady heaved a ball down the sideline into double-coverage for an interception. Cautious play-calling gave him a chance to redeem himself, but his decision to heave that pass to Edelman in a situation like this can't simply be ignored. Even Moss probably wouldn't have been able to bail him out on that throw. Brady deserves praise for his successful comebacks, but it's unfair to ignore moments such as these late in games.
He did have many other mistakes late in games that cost him comeback victories. In rain-soaked Cincinnati he badly underthrew down the sideline for a game-sealing interception, on a pass that made little sense. In Miami he did similar against the Dolphins. In Carolina he should have been intercepted when he threw the ball to a defender with 29 seconds left, before he underthrew his final pass on the infamous pass interference/non-pass interference play.
This isn't to say that Brady wasn't let down by his teammates in these situations or other situations throughout the season, but the idea that they are the sole reason for his struggles is simply that: an idea. Looking closer at the film, it's clear that Brady's own decline is the reason he is no longer playing at the historically high levels he established from 2007 through 2012.
It gets overlooked, and the importance of it is played down because of Peyton Manning's success these past two seasons, but Brady will soon be 37 years old. While he hasn't been an oft-punished quarterback during his career in relation to others playing the position, the effects of Father Time do appear to be taking their toll. He still flashes all the physical ability, but a fading physique may be an explanation for his inconsistency as a passer and his growing reluctance to absorb hits in the pocket. Myth and the legend of his career has clouded our perspective, but it's possible that Brady's decline has already begun. Every star fades at some point.
Even the brightest of them all.
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