Analysis Notebook: Week 9

Tom Brady is no longer a Top 5 QB, he is number 1. Sam Monson revisits the Brady discussion and looks at his remarkable turnaround.

| 2 years ago
2014-11-04_21-55-34

Analysis Notebook: Week 9


analysis notebook copyTom Brady is not a Top 5 QB in the NFL. Right now he is No. 1.

After the struggles of September a motivated Brady, with a point to prove, has been on fire over the month of October and into November with the dismantling of Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos on Sunday. The Patriots have gone from looking like a team that could lose their grip on the division and struggle to make the playoffs to looking as good as any team in the AFC.

Tom Brady has gone from looking like a quarterback who was struggling to counter the effects of Father Time on his skill set to a player completely comfortable in his abilities, the players around him and the scheme. Brady has been re-born.

Over the first four weeks of the season, which featured two ugly games – the season opener against Miami and then the nadir against Kansas City – Brady’s numbers looked ugly across the board. He was struggling to hit the deep pass, he was struggling in the face of pressure (of which there was a lot) and he was struggling with basic accuracy. That Chiefs loss was a turning point. Since then every number, category and trend you can point to has an upwards arrow.

When the Chiefs game finished, Brady was sitting 23rd in the PFF rankings among quarterbacks with a -1.9 grade overall. Since that time he has been the top graded quarterback, by a distance, and has propelled himself up to second in the rankings, trailing only Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t have the same struggles to begin the season. Over that span Brady has amassed a +20.0 grade, 6.3 points better than the +13.7 Roethlisberger has accumulated and almost twice the grade of Peyton Manning over the same span.

The grades represent a play-by-play evaluation of every throw made by those quarterbacks. They are the piece of data we always lean on at PFF because we understand that they can put the intelligence and the context into play that numbers can’t. Did a quarterback make a great pass that was dropped by his receiver? Did he make a terrible throw that got a lucky bounce and went for a touchdown? The grades can account for that, numbers often don’t.

Of course people find comfort in numbers, and when the numbers also match the grading, we can be fairly certain we are all reading from the same page.

PFF has a statistic called ‘Accuracy Percentage’. We take completion percentage, adjust for drops (count them as accurate completions), then remove spikes, throw aways, plays where the QB was hit as he threw – leaving us with just true ‘aimed’ passes. Over the first month of the season Brady sat 25th in that list with an accuracy percentage of 66.4%. To put that into some kind of context he sat between E.J. Manuel and Chad Henne in the list – both of whom have since been benched.

Since then he has been 3rd with an accuracy percentage of 79.9%, more than 13% better than his September performances.

People often point to the supporting cast around Brady as the reason for his highs and lows, but the percentage of passes dropped has actually increased significantly over that time span. He had just three passes dropped over the month of September and has had 14 since. He has thrown more attempts since, but even in percentage terms that is a significant leap.

Deep passing is another area to show a dramatic leap in production from Brady. At one point in the season he was 2 of 19 attempts over twenty yards in the air. Since the Chiefs game he has completed 57.1% of his deep passes (only Hoyer and Brees have been better in the same span) with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He has added back that element to the offense that had gone missing and allowed teams to play the rest of the Patriots passing attack more aggressively.

 

Tom Brady’s numbers under pressure are perhaps the most fascinating over the two time periods and shed some real light on his play. Brady has not been a fantastic quarterback under pressure for some time. His numbers in that regard had in fact steadily declined over the years from a league-leading peak in 2010 to a middle of the pack level over the past year or so. It was this trend that first led me to suggest that Brady would struggle as much if not more in 2014 as his relative down year in 2013. With longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired the line – so long a strength of the Patriots – would likely regress and be average at best. Brady’s numbers under pressure had been suspect enough that even a fall to average status would have a big impact in his play.

Through four games that looked dead on. Brady wasn’t being pressured as much as it seemed, but the impact of a below average pass-protecting unit was profound. Through four weeks he was under pressure on 35.4% of his dropbacks – not great, but nine other quarterbacks felt heat more often, and Chad Henne was being pressured on a frankly ridiculous 45.8% of his passing plays.

Brady was completing a little over 40% of his passes on those plays and was accurate on 60% of them. Neither are particularly significant numbers, being average to below average, except to use as reference for the period since that Chiefs game. Since then his numbers under pressure have not improved significantly. He is completing 42.6% of his passes under pressure and is accurate with a little over 60% of them. What is significant though is that he has been pressured much less. Brady has been pressured on just 24.4% of his drop backs since that game, better than every quarterback in the league other than Peyton Manning, and he has actually allowed an even lower percentage of that pressure to result in sacks than Manning – a statistic Manning owns thanks to his usually unrivalled pocket presence.

These numbers are key to Brady’s resurgence. The line has rebounded from being a below par pass protecting unit to being one of the league’s better. In September, only the Chargers offensive line were allowing pressure at a higher rate than the Patriots. Since that point they have leapt up to sixth. They still have their moments – and when players are beaten it tends to be ugly – but looking at the big picture we have seen a dramatic improvement in the standard of pass protection from Brady.

That is not to say that improved pass protection explains the huge upswing in play however. As I wrote way back in June “Brady is still extremely effective when he is in rhythm within the offense, but when things start to break down, he is no longer an efficient passer. When he had the ball in his hands for 2.6 seconds or more in 2013, he completed just 45.1 percent of his passes, worst among 16-game starters.”

That trend had continued through the first four weeks of this season too. When plays ran longer than 2.5 seconds with the ball in his hands he had a passer rating in the fifties and a completion percentage of just 40.5%. Since then however those numbers have leapt astronomically. Now on such plays he is completing 60.7% of his passes for a rating of 136.7, the second best mark in the league, narrowly trailing Aaron Rodgers.

It is another example of how Brady has dramatically improved his play alongside an improvement in circumstance and support.

But it’s time to focus a little more on some of that support.

One of the caveats I had always pointed to with Brady’s alleged decline was that Rob Gronkowski had the ability to mask much of it. The return of a healthy Gronk could paper over a lot of cracks. I said all along that I wouldn’t be surprised if that actually led to Brady having a slightly better statistical season than a year ago, but I didn’t see anything like this kind of upswing coming.

Gronkowski, put simply, is J.J. Watt on offense. You cannot match up to him, you can’t stop him, all you can do is brace yourself and hope that he doesn’t hurt you too badly.

The thing about Gronk is that he helps the team and Brady in a number of ways, some more obvious than others. Let’s take this catch against the Broncos as an example of the first and most obvious way:

GronkThat isn’t a well thrown pass from Tom Brady. It is high, it’s behind, and it’s pretty dangerous, but Gronk goes all freak-mode on it and hauls it in anyway. That kind of catch radius and the ability to bail passes out is tough to measure, but I think we can all agree that it’s going to make a big difference to the quarterback, both in terms of fixing poor passes and giving him the confidence to put the ball in the air and take a few more shots he would’t have without him in there.

But what about the more indirect ways Gronk helps the offense? Take Edelman’s touchdown in the second quarter:

2014-11-04_21-55-34The Patriots motioned Edelman in to create a trips bunch on the right side of the formation with Gronkowski at the head. It’s a pretty standard route combination from this kind of bunch, and normally a defense splits pretty evenly in response to each release from the receivers, but take a look what happened to the Broncos defense because of the Gronkowski threat:

2014-11-04_21-55-55Denver do at least manage to keep a man on both Edelman and Danny Amendola breaking left and right of the bunch, but Gronkowski draws three defenders to his hitch leaving the other two players in one on one coverage running man-beating routes. Brady simply waits for Edelman to uncover and then fires a pass in low against the good coverage for an easy score. The red zone is always more congested and space is at a premium, and if Gronkowski can create that kind of space for others by drawing defenders to him like a magnet it makes everybody else’s job immeasurably easier.

So where have we come to with all of this?

Evidently Tom Brady right now is right back atop of his game. The talk of dropping off the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks looks ridiculous, and he may have as good a case as anybody for an MVP award.

Brady has dramatically improved his performances from early season struggles, but so have some of his supporting cast. The Patriots as a whole have improved from a team that looked listless into genuine contenders once more. What is perhaps telling is in ESPN’s Midseason MVP Poll, though Brady was a clear leader, Mike Reiss (who actually covers the Patriots) named Gronkowski as the league’s MVP and not Brady because of the impact he can have on everybody around him – including his quarterback.

I still believe that Brady had let his game slip and had been declining in performance for a while, especially in a couple of key areas, but the beginning of this season his teammates kicked that decline into overdrive, culminating in that debacle against the Chiefs. That game has served as the jolt that the entire franchise needed to right the ship. Brady himself has been like a different player since that game, clearly irked by the talk of his poor play and decline, but he has also had help from those around him who have experienced a similar upturn in performance.

Right now Tom Brady is the best quarterback in football. He has shown he can still hit those highs that I didn’t think him capable of just a month ago, but he has had help along the way. The question becomes can Brady and the Patriots sustain those levels for the remainder of the season, or will he begin to slip once more?

When all is said and done the decline of all great quarterbacks is inevitable. Joe Montana slipped, Dan Marino slipped, Johnny Unitas slipped. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will slip. What is truly remarkable is how long both men can fight off father time through sheer force of will.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam

 

 

 

 

 

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Lord Mad

    Should be a picture of you eating crow at the end of your article. Jokes aside, glad to see you write this and own up to things.

  • babalawo49

    he is not on my fantasy team because of idiots like this i had him dropped him after weeek 4

    • mpepin

      And that’s who’s fault?

    • Lord Mad

      Keep your dumb fantasy team nonsense to yourself.

      • babalawo49

        no so shut up idiot

    • eYeDEF

      So when you blindly follow the advice of an “idiot”, what does that make you? The portrait you’re painting of yourself is not flattering.

      • babalawo49

        shut up

  • Criostoir

    this article could have been written in one sentence “sam monson hasn’t a clue and writes shite”

  • Mehua

    Just admit you laid a massive egg and call it a day.

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  • Chris from the Cape

    As a Pats fan, I thought the overreaction to Sam’s criticism by the NE media a little embarrassing, as its the purpose of this site to portray performance from an objective perspective. It is nice that such resulted in exposure to this site, as well as Sam’s being fully willing to own up to the recent change in the AFC hierarchy.

    • Lord Mad

      When you make such a long reaching assessment that a player is no longer a top 5 QB over a small sample size, you deserve as much criticism as you can get. Especially when you make an “I told you so” article 4 games into the season.

      • PFFSamMonson

        Actually the sample size was over three+ seasons. His play was trending downwards. The point is he has reversed that in a way I never saw coming.

        • Lord Mad

          So then can I expect you to write an article in a year or two when Manning does not replicate his gaudy stats from 2013? Brady has technically been on a “decline” and/or “trending downwards” since 2007 for all intents and purposes of that phrasing.

          • PFFSamMonson

            Well no, because play isn’t all about raw numbers. I honestly couldn’t care less if a QB throws for 3,000 or 5,000 yards if they’re making the most of their throws, making smart decisions, timely passes, accurate throws etc.

            Brady as recently as 2010 was league-leading in several advanced statistical categories. Those trended downwards from that point onwards and looked set to continue through the off-season and into this year through 4 games. It was a trend.

            Now he’s completely reversed that trend in an impressive way.

            As for Manning. His arm is already shot, it’s borderline unviable at this point. What’s incredible about him is that he’s been getting better at all of the other things if anything. He’s as good as he’s ever been at mitigating pressure from his line. His throw anticipation is still second to none. I don’t care if he repeats his stats again, but if he suddenly starts to show he’s losing that stuff then sure, I’ll write his decline article too.

          • Lord Mad

            “Brady as recently as 2010 was league-leading in several advanced
            statistical categories. Those trended downwards from that point onwards
            and looked set to continue through the off-season and into this year
            through 4 games. It was a trend.”

            By many metrics I have seen, that was regarded as a top 10-20 performance by a QB in NFL history. You obviously have to expect a degree of drop off. If you think anybody can keep up that level of play and call the drop off “trending downwards” then I think a lot of us need to start evaluating what we consider “trending downwards” because regressing to the mean is not a decline in the true sense of the word. I am not film buff so I will concede that but you can still get a great deal of measurement of a team and/or player’s ability to excel through metrics and advanced metrics or even, their “decline”. This however to me doesn’t illustrate the entire scope of the picture but I don’t need to tell you this, you already know that.

            I just find the way the entirety of the criticism was dealt as myopic and way too premature. There was no sustained drop off from his skill set off of things that couldn’t be understood at watching the dynamics of the team changing in the players surrounding him and the effort of his supporting cast. Even the best of players have a lull and that is what Brady had and it seems to me, and many others, that you addressed that lull of his as the beginning of the end for a top 5 QB. That is my assessment and you can feel free to have yours, obviously.

          • PFFSamMonson

            We’re not talking about Fantastic 2010 which then dropped to an average baseline. We’re talking about a fantastic 2010 that then declined every year steadily in a few categories. That IS by definition a decline. Now whether that decline was all him and whether it is permanent is obviously more of a discussion, but there were clear and obvious signs of a decline in Brady’s play – none of this was fabricated out of thin air.

            With a steady decline in several categories backed up by a visible decline on tape, I didn’t think it was an unreasonable thing to suggest that a THIRTY SEVEN year old quarterback might be approaching the end of his career, and especially with the anticipated struggles from the OL, we might see an even worse Brady in 2014. At no point did I ever suggest he was flat out done, that he couldn’t continue to be viable and a ‘good’ quarterback for some time to come, or even that he couldn’t bounce back a bit. I made a point of doing exactly that.

            What I did suggest is that we had seen the end of his truly special play. That much has obviously come back to bite me in the ass, because this Brady right now is top tier, and that’s something I didn’t see happening.

          • Lord Mad

            That is a fair and cognizant thought process. Thank you for the reply.

          • PFFSamMonson

            Anytime

          • Cory Marquis

            Sam, the problem is that you looked at the statistics, saw a trend, and then looked at the film to for signs what you thought you were going to see. However, you looked mainly at the negative plays. It has led to a perfect example of confirmation bias. Football can’t be evaluated the way you’re doing it.

            Brady led an offense that put up 35 ppg in 2012 despite a difficult defensive schedule, and not having Gronk and Hernandez at the same time for practically the entire season. Who really cares if his “adjusted accuracy” or whatever else declined if the overall results improved?

            It’s what got you into trouble most recently. The obvious answer to most of the Patriot’s woes was that the line play, the inability of his WR’s to beat man coverage, the ridiculously high totals of offensive penalties, and Gronk not being 100%. Brady played a role in there somewhere, but you wanted it to be the main thing and looked for evidence to make it seem so.

            Evaluating football is part Art part Science. Most people use the Art to form an opinion, and then use the science to back it up. You did the inverse, and it led to you missing the obvious point.

          • PFFSamMonson

            OK, but that’s not actually what happened. I’d already seen signs of decline, and then happened upon data that backed it up, more data than I expected to find.

  • Chris

    Gronk is the reason for his improved play. Gronk could make Russell Wilson look good.

    • Lord Mad

      Not reading the article and throwing in your weird obsession about RW? Nice.

      • Chris

        I read the article?

  • Christopher Williams

    I think the key to his resurgence has been his finally trusting his receivers. New England has finally settled on what receivers they were going to take to the dance and Brady is trusting them. His lack of trust has been much talked about for the past 2 years. I think after the KC manhandling they had a team meeting and made it a point to trust.

  • Shaun

    Sam, I’m clearly a huge patriots fan and was sort of shocked when you came out with your article but I respect your work and your opinions knowing they are objective at heart. I’m glad you owned up and frankly glad you were wrong lol.

    Mike Reiss is one of my favorite writers and I’m glad you’ve referenced him. He’s made a lot about Toms dedication to improving his footwork. Apparently the coaching staff noticed he had lengthened his stride in his throws over the past several seasons. AnywAy, I think it’s obvious that Brady his moving better than he has in years and this is supported by an increase in his numbers when he play lasts longer than 2.6. I’d appreciate it if you could share some analysis on Brady when throwing on the run and outside the pocket. Also how has stork contributed specifically?

    Great work. Thanks

  • Brian Levine

    Brady had no one but Edelman to throw to last year. This year, he has a number of weapons. Any QB (Manning, Rodgers and Breeze included) needs targets.

    And even with no receivers last year, Brady still managed to get tot he AFC Championship game.

    The bottom line is that any idiot can obviously become a sports writer.

  • Bill Marcellino

    The problem is that PFF’s underlying theory is fundamentally flawed, and that leads to an invalidly reductive analysis. Sam is observing a “complex emergence”: offensive play outcomes. But he thinks he’s observing a reducible part of it: QB play. It’s the same error as trying to understand complex emergences in human behavior (language use, suicide, parental caregiving, etc.) by reducing it to a part below the level of the whole (genes or neurology). And so bad theory leads to bad data selection and bad method, and you end up with results that have low explanatory power and don’t match the empirically observed world. Now, there’s no way Sam or others could admit this–they would loose their financial stake in selling their “data,” but at least we can understand why someone could do a supposedly “data-driven” analysis, but get absolute garbage results.

  • Phong Ta

    So how’s that whole, “Tom Brady is not a Top 5 QB anymore” prediction coming for you?