In my list of my top 101 players of the 2010 season, the inevitable happened. One pick stood out from the rest, provoking a fury from some fans in Boston.
Tom Brady at number 33.
The league MVP. The man who led his team to the best record in football. The quarterback who threw only four interceptions to go with his 36 regular season touchdowns and 3900 yards.
No. 33? Really?
He landed behind guys like right tackle Kareem McKenzie, safety Quintin Mikell, and left guard Carl Nicks and, on the surface, the ranking seemed to some designed to create controversy and possibly even a tad illogical.
Firstly, it’s important to say again what the list was. It was based solely on the 2010 season, including the post season, it was one man’s opinion (mine), and it was tackling the unenviable task of cross-ranking players at different positions, something we usually try and steer clear of.
Expanding on that, I was looking at what each player did relative to his position. Only a fool would say Kareem McKenzie had more of an impact, or was more valuable than Tom Brady, which is why he appeared nowhere on our MVP ballots, unlike the Patriot passer. So what I did in this list was look at what you’d expect from a player at any position, and how much better that player was than the expected.
Call it one man peeling back the weighting of relative value between positions to see who performed most exceptionally.
Still, that doesn’t explain why NFL MVP Tom Brady is so low (this list represented just the top five percent of NFL players, so the gap isn’t that big) and why there are five quarterbacks above him. Those five were guys who between them averaged 12 interceptions more this year than the three time Super Bowl winner – each of whom also threw fewer touchdowns. Plus Brady was the victim of more dropped passes than all of them, bar Peyton Manning.
I’ll admit when you look simply at the numbers, it’s hard to look past Brady. It would be safe to say he had (not for the first time) one of the greatest statistical seasons you’ll ever see.
But, watching all those other players and recognizing how good they were at their jobs, I genuinely believe 32 others did more at their respective positions than Brady. I’ll show here how and why he slotted where did among the top quarterbacks.
The Patriot QB did most things exceptionally well, just not as well or with the frequency as others. In one area, however, he was in a league of his own: not making big mistakes. Which brings us onto the subject of grading. As you may (or may not know) we grade each player on each play on a scale from +2.0 to -2.0 in 0.5 increments.
I looked back through our grading for the top six QBs from last year (in my opinion). Looking at how many times they graded negatively for a play and comparing that to how many times they dropped back to pass. This was an area that you’d imagine Brady to excel in, giving his general lack of mistakes.
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The interesting thing there is that Brees and Manning finished as the top dogs, largely because they dropped back from center more often. Where it becomes really interesting is looking at the more severely negative plays. A -0.5 is a bad play, but to get a -1.0 or worse you really need to do something extremely wrong. This is where Brady sets himself apart, avoiding the big mistakes that can kill a team.
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To make only eight really bad decisions or throws is a quite incredible year, and it was a big part of New England’s success. It also explains that while Brees and Manning made a lower percentage of bad throws than Brady, theirs may stick in the mind more as many were were significantly bad and that leaves an impression on observers. Those also often resulted in interceptions, and interceptions are remembered, recorded and recited in debates, but remain just a hand-full of plays over a season.
Maybe this is why we here at Pro Football Focus tend to view Tom Brady’s season a little differently. We’re watching the same games, and we recognize there isn’t a quarterback who (for the most part) made better decisions. His 2010 tape included far fewer bad plays than any of the other challengers, but now we come to the point where we part ways: the grading of positive plays.
Before we have a look at our numbers, I asked our chief analyst to give a run down on how we grade quarterbacks on the positive side. He prefaced it all by saying this was a very simplified version – summing up a 13-page document on grading quarterbacks in a little over 250 words – but here’s what he had for us:
0.0 Base Play – Any throw you expect any player to make. Hitting a guy open on a 1 step slant with off coverage is 0 no matter how many yards it makes. It’s a smart decision but a throw that anyone could and should make.
+0.5 Base Play – Making a throw to beat single coverage to pick up a first down. Leading a receiver to allow him to gain YAC for a first down. Making a play with their feet (scrambling or moving in the pocket) to create an easy throw (the throw in itself may not be difficult, but he made it easy with his movement).
+1.0 Base Play – Beating tight coverage or splitting loose double coverage to pick up significant yardage/first down. Good deep throws will mostly (unless it’s wide open) get this grade, leading the receiver past deep coverage etc. Making space with their feet (see above) and making a “good” throw on the run.
+1.5 Base Play – Beating tight double cover, using your legs to beat tight single cover or loose double cover etc. Splitting double cover to lead a receiver deep etc.
(+0.5 bonus for plays made either at a crunch time or that have a pivotal effect on the game, e.g. touchdown to win the game, crucial 3rd down conversion to run out the clock, etc.)
With that in mind, here’s the number of throws made by each quarterback that received positive grades:
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This is a large part of why I had Aaron Rodgers at No. 1 (these numbers do include post season play). Every time you watch him, he’s doing more than making sound decisions, he’s making tremendous play after tremendous play. It’s not that Brady (who isn’t that far off from Brees) isn’t capable of making these plays, or isn’t even making them, he’s just not being asked to do it as regularly as Aaron Rodgers and others were.
Consider it a compliment to the New England system that it doesn’t put Brady in a situation where he has to constantly make breathtaking throws. A testament to their ability to create mismatches which has Messrs. Welker, Branch, Woodhead and other running free.
In any case, it doesn’t get any better when we start looking at the truly exceptional (+1.0 and beyond) throws made by quarterbacks.
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Here, Brady is a long way off the other guys, and it’s a big reason why we just liked the others that bit more. It may not be perfect, but it’s an objective set of rules applied to every NFL player and it’s something we, as a team, trust in. It’s why with a straight face I can say Tom Brady was the 33rd best player in the NFL in 2010 in my opinion (although the gap between 1 and 33 isn’t as big as it would seem).
What Really Matters
There’s no anti-Brady conspiracy (he had a tremendous year). It certainly wasn’t designed to provoke controversy (we wouldn’t write a piece that could possibly call into question our credibility if we didn’t believe what we were saying). It was simply an attempt to look at every drop back and every throw objectively. Now you can argue about the limitations of grading the quarterback play from a pre-snap perspective, but then how can anyone say Brady performed better than anyone else in this regard? We’re all in the same boat of not knowing what changed from the huddle to the hike.
Nobody, especially not I, is saying Brady isn’t a better quarterback then all these men, or that if you asked me tomorrow to choose a quarterback to build a franchise around, it wouldn’t be Brady. What I am saying, though, is when the ball was snapped, Brady didn’t do as much as the other guys in making plays beyond what’s expected from the average quarterback.
Does he flourish in the system, or does the system inhibit? That’s a question it poses to me, because we’ve seen Brady do it all before. Ultimately though, it’s kind of irrelevant. What matters at the end of the day is that Tom Brady in New England works. He makes better decisions than other quarterbacks and is adept at not forcing the ball into bad spots (in part because the team is built in such a way that he doesn’t really need to). To truly appreciate New England’s offense you need to look past Tom Brady, league MVP, and look at what it is they’re able to do.
By having players like Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez they can effectively turn a 12 personnel look into a four receiver set and they get linebackers covering somebody they shouldn’t be. It means the Patriots don’t need to make the tricky throws, and can get away with a higher percentage of shorter balls, letting their receivers rack up the YAC.
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So while you may disagree with just how good or great a year Brady had, I think we can all agree that New England’s offense, even after the crushing playoff defeat, was something special in 2010.
After all, isn’t that what really matters?