Analysis Notebook: Week 4
In case you were hiding on Mars in early June, I managed to accidentally break the NFL media world for a few days by suggesting that Tom Brady is no longer a top 5 QB. It ‘went viral’ as they say, generating comment on Sportscenter, First Take, and pretty much anywhere else on TV and the internet. If you were talking NFL that week, the chances are you addressed the topic at some point. My bad.
My ‘idiotic ESPN report’ made the argument that Tom Brady has actually been declining for a while now, it’s just that he was coming down from such a height and the decline was happening slowly enough so as to not draw much attention. His performance under pressure has been getting steadily worse over time, but the New England offensive line had always been one of the better units in the league under long time O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
Last year the unit was merely average, and I believe was a significant factor in Brady having a statistical down year. The article argued that now more than ever Brady needs protecting by his line in a way some other passers don’t, and if the line didn’t improve we might see further decline. As it happens the line hasn’t improved – it’s gotten a whole lot worse.
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.
We saw Brady on Monday night against the Chiefs post his poorest PFF grade of the season, as well as some pretty wretched looking conventional statistics. He threw for just 159 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 59.9, but more than that, we got to see on prime time what the tape has been showing for a while; Brady just not playing well.
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.
You only need to look at the interceptions he threw against the Chiefs, both of which came from a clean pocket, to move past that excuse. The line isn’t helping him out, but there is more to his play than poor protection.
This play – his second interception – highlights the biggest problem Tom Brady has at the moment; he is late on too many throws, just not throwing with anticipation. This has never really been one of his biggest strengths, even with Welker at his peak he would wait for him to shake a defender rather than throwing early and trusting him to be there.
Brady had Danny Amendola in the slot to the left about to run a square-in route against the Kansas City zone defense. The throw was there, and as we can see he was working from a clean pocket, but Brady was just too late throwing it. Instead of putting it in the air for Amendola to catch just after he clears the first man, he waits until he has cleared him and then leads him right into the second defender.
This isn’t a failing of protection, of receiver, it’s not even a poor decision or play design – it’s just a bad mistake by Brady and a total lack of anticipation. This is the kind of mistake you see rookies making, and not something you expect from a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
The other interception people will claim was a miscommunication between wide receiver and quarterback. That much is true, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at what Brady was actually throwing to even if the receiver had run exactly the route he was expecting him to run. There is nothing Julian Edelman can run on this play that changes the fact that Brady tossed the ball right to a waiting cornerback who was always going to be a factor in the play. Given the route design Brady will have been expecting him to move inside to cover the hitch from the outside receiver, but he was looking right at him the whole way and should have a clear view of that not happening. Brady can’t just put the ball in the air because the chalkboard says the corner shouldn’t be there when he can quite clearly see that he is.
The other thing you’ll hear people say about Brady is that the receivers just aren’t getting open. This is an argument brought to you by people not watching the tape. The Patriots are working with a stable of largely unheralded receivers, and Brady’s numbers are down…but unfortunately on this occasion 2+2=17.
A quick scan of the PFF database threw up multiple instances of Brady just missing open receivers.
You can find a snapshot like that of most quarterbacks, but the point isn’t so much that he is missing receivers but that they are wide open in the first place. He may not be working with Wes Welker and Randy Moss, but Brady isn’t struggling because his receivers can’t get open. Often times they’re open and waiting for the ball that is too late arriving.
Check this pass (top left of the image above). Brady had Edelman breaking towards the sideline and looking for the ball in acres of space. The pass should already be in the air when he looks for it, but it’s not.
Instead of hitting him as soon as he comes out of his break Brady was late enough to lead him all the way to the numbers and allow the cornerback Sean Smith a play on the ball. Had the pass been there on time Smith would have been nowhere near it and Edelman would have had room to work after the catch, instead it’s broken up and incomplete.
So what does all of that bring us to?
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.
While it’s far too early to stick a fork in Brady we should at least be able to acknowledge his flaws without tarnishing his legacy.
The bottom line is that he is a 37 year old quarterback, and one playing behind arguably the worst offensive line he has ever had to deal with. Anyone expecting him to play at his MVP best is sipping a special kind of kool-aid.
Like death and taxes the decline of every great quarterback is inevitable, we really don’t need to pretend so hard that it isn’t. This takes nothing away from a Hall of Fame career, and the sun will rise again in the morning even if we acknowledge it. The question is can the Patriots get him, and themselves, back on track this season?
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam