Analysis Notebook: Week 9
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:
That 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:
The 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:
Denver 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