Why Tom Brady was the NFL’s best player this season

Senior Analyst Sam Monson breaks down the 2016 season play of Patriots QB Tom Brady, PFF's Best Player Award winner.

| 4 months ago
Patriots QB Tom Brady

(Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Why Tom Brady was the NFL’s best player this season

New England Patriots QB Tom Brady was recently named the winner of Pro Football Focus’ Best Player, Offensive Player of the Year, and Best Passer awards for the 2016 NFL season. To see the winner of every PFF award, visit our NFL awards page.

When the NFL imposed a four-game suspension on Tom Brady at the end of the farcical “Deflategate” saga, it seemed inevitable that he would come back with a point to prove and set about laying waste to the rest of the NFL. Things went exactly to script, and Brady ended the regular season with the highest single-season PFF grade we have ever given a QB over the past decade of grading (99.3).

For perspective, this is a 0-100 scale, so 99.3 is pretty good. With the playoffs included (through the AFC Championship game), Brady has actually raised that mark to 99.5.

2016 PFF Best Player: Tom Brady

Brady is 39 years old and playing the best football of his career. While not exactly unprecedented—Brett Favre and Peyton Manning both had arguably the best seasons of their careers between the ages of 38 and 40—it is extremely unusual, and even more so when you consider the peaks that Brady has crested in the past.

The really remarkable thing about Brady this season is how mistake-free his game has been. We are in an era of declining interception figures, a time where spread offense concepts have created a game of high-percentage passing and horizontal, rather than vertical, aerial attacks. Even so, Brady’s numbers are ridiculous.

The Patriots’ veteran quarterback threw two interceptions all season. 98 NFL games this season featured a quarterback throwing two or more interceptions, and two different QBs threw two or more interceptions in a single game six times—again, Brady threw just two all year. He finished the season with an interception rate of 0.5 percent. That is the third-best figure of all time, and the two players tied at 0.4 percent above him threw four fewer touchdowns combined than Brady did this year, despite his four-game suspension.

It is possible to be pathologically conservative and just never put the ball in harm’s way—if you are prepared to play that way. Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith typically records the league’s lowest average-depth-of-target figure (he was at 6.9 yards this season, 35th of 36 qualifying QBs), and has the eighth-lowest interception rate in league history.

Smith though, doesn’t have the big-play upside to offset that conservatism, and consequently is seen as a limited, game-managing QB that is borderline viable for the Chiefs to remain contenders and win a Super Bowl. Tom Brady led the league in “big-time throws” this season in addition to having one of the lowest interception rates in league history.

What’s more, Brady’s average depth of target was almost two full yards higher than Alex Smith’s (21st in the league), and he led one of the league’s most potent offenses.

The fact that there was even a conversation about PFF’s 2016 Best Player Award says a lot about the season that Atlanta’s Matt Ryan put together, but even with Ryan’s four-game advantage over Brady, the difference between the two in terms of PFF grade was substantial enough to give the nod to Patriots signal caller.

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Ryan only threw seven interceptions on the season compared to 38 touchdowns, but luck sometimes plays a role in determining whether an errant pass is actually picked of, or whether it is dropped or simply deflected away. Putting the ball in dangerous spots doesn’t always result in the interception it deserves, which is one reason raw numbers don’t always match up with PFF grading; play-by-play analysis of the tape can often draw attention to instances where the result of the play misleads. Think about Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the playoff game against Miami. Roethlisberger didn’t see a defensive tackle dropping into coverage and threw the ball right to him when aiming at TE Jesse James. Defensive tackles aren’t exactly used to catching footballs, however, so the defender dropped the pass, and it ended up landing in the hands of James anyway. Roethlisberger ended up with a completed pass on a play that should inarguably have been an interception.

Sometimes the break of the ball can belie what really happened on the play. Ryan’s turnover-worthy play percentage was low, but nine other QBs recorded a lower one in the 2016 regular season. The Falcons’ quarterback put the ball in harm’s way 2.6 percent of the time, while Brady led the NFL at just 0.8 percent. That means Ryan put the ball in danger more than three times as often as Brady did (the thing to focus on there is Brady’s number, not Ryan’s, because it’s absurd).

Only one NFL quarterback put the ball in harm’s way less than twice as often as Brady did (Chicago’s Brian Hoyer), and he only started five games. Our paragon of conservatism, Alex Smith, was at 2.9 percent, just a little worse than Ryan over the season.

At the other end of the scale, Brady led the league in big-time throw percentage, at 6.7—a full percent higher than any other QB, and more than double the figure of the bottom half of the league. He was able to make big plays without endangering the football in a way we have never seen before.

Brady ended the season completing 67.4 percent of his passes, but when you adjust for drops, spikes, passes thrown away, etc. his adjusted completion percentage jumps to 79.5 percent, which is just narrowly behind Sam Bradford’s league-leading figure of 80.9 percent. Bradford, though, recorded the league’s lowest average depth of target figure to produce that historic accuracy, while Brady was putting the ball on average almost two full yards further downfield from the line of scrimmage.

The bottom line is that, over the last decade of grading, Pro Football Focus analysts have never seen a QB play with the efficiency and effectiveness that Tom Brady has displayed this season. His 99.3 PFF grade in the 2016 regular season tops the previous best season we have seen from a QB, which was Aaron Rodgers’ obscene 2011 campaign (98.4). In fact, only three previous players have surpasses the 95.0 barrier in the PFF era (since the 2006 season).

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was the best player in football this season, and a worthy winner of PFF’s Best Player Award, previously named to honor the excellence of Hall of Fame Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson.

| Senior Analyst

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

  • Phong Ta

    Must be weird writing this article after talking about in 2014 how Brady’s play was slipping and he was going to fall into the second tier of good but not great QBs

    • Hulk

      HGH really does work miracles

      • heeehehehe

        you’re confusing your QB’s. Manning does HGH. Brady does avocado ice cream.

        • crosseyedlemon

          And Belichick tests the I.Q of all rookies by asking them on which side of the stadium do the avocados grow.

      • Rick

        HGH doesn’t help with accuracy on deep passes. Practice does.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Circumstances are constantly changing so with just about every QB there are times when their future looks to have upside and times when they appear to have reached a plateau or are regressing some.

  • daren riggins

    Hmmm missed how many games?
    So definitely not all year.

    • Bytes

      Some of this it to subjective. And it doesnt seem to account for situation where receivers made mistakes in routes, or the ball bounces off a receivers hands. Using “putting the ball in harms way” is deemed a metric here but it really isnt.

      • Robert Anasi

        Neither PFF, nor anyone else, can quantify what route a receiver was supposed to run. PFF metrics do include balls bouncing off receivers’ hands. If PFF deems it was a ball that the receiver should have caught, than it’s not marked against the QB. If it’s a high throw or something similar that isn’t catchable, but the receiver tips it, than that’s generally scored against the QB. Of course the system has subjective elements – human beings are watching game film and deciding the category for the plays. I don’t see anyone denying that.

      • Albert Heisenberg

        Dude you dont seem to understand the criteria properly. Putting the ball in harms way isn’t something germane just to PFF, QBR uses an identical metric for it’s valuation.

  • Larry

    Brady has been lights-out this season. In situations like this, I will PFF still had their old system of cumulative grades so we could see if Brady’s grade is still higher than his competition even when accounting for missed time.

    Not to take anything away from Brady, but I fully believe this year’s version of the Patriots team still would have reached the Super Bowl without him. This is just based on the way the season has played out. No real threats in the AFC, one of the best defenses in the league, drastically improved o-line play (rehiring Dante Scarnecchia was quietly one of the best moves by any team last offseason), and very good luck with injuries (no major injuries to any key players besides Gronk), and even without Gronk this is still one of the most loaded and diverse receiving groups in the league. Taking all that into account, along with playing the Texans and overmatched Steelers in the postseason, they still would have reached the Super Bowl without Brady.

    Brady fully deserves all the accolades he’s getting, but my point is more to illustrate how much better the Patriots are than everyone else even when looking beyond the QB position.

    • sparrowhawkes

      “Not to take anything away from Brady, but I fully believe this year’s version of the Patriots team still would have reached the Super Bowl without him.”

      The version of the 2016 Patriots without Brady happened; it lead to a 16-0 loss to the buffalo bills at home in New England and a harrowing last second missed field goal away from losing the opener to the arizona cardinals.

      You mention that the Pats had no significant injuries this year, except Gronkowski. How many articles were out there in the past two years saying that Brady was a product of Gronk’s transcendent play? Then, Gronk goes down and Brady simply puts up one of his best seasons ever, all without practicing and developing chemistry with the team from late August until the middle of October. What did Gronk do when Brady was out? Zilch.

      Now you’re saying Edelman (the 7th round college QB who got zero attention as a free agent two years ago) and undrafted WR Chris Hogan (who was cut by multiple franchises) are part of the “most loaded and diverse receiving groups in the league.”

      Honestly, this argument gets old. How many years do we have to hear that Brady is a product of Belichick or that he’s only doing well because he has the best offensive talent around him or that he only wins so much because the AFC is so bad, even though he ran into the manning colts/broncos, the roethlisberger two time super bowl champion steelers teams, and slugged it out with some stacked ravens rosters repeatedly his entire career?

      It’s been 16 years, man. The guy isn’t a fluke and he’s not a product of some mysterious ‘system’ that every team has game tape on but somehow magically can’t do what Brady does. Time to give the guy some credit as he walks into his 7th super bowl after he’s won four others.

      • Larry

        Wow another Tom Brady fanboy who somehow gets offended anytime another part of the team gets any praise.

        Let’s go back through it:
        You know what argument gets old? Edelman being a 7th round QB (you sound like Skip Bayless). He’s been an NFL receiver for almost a decade now. Before he became a regular on offense in 2013, he was already one of the best punt returners in the game. In 2011 he played a lot of CB due to injuries to other players. He’s a good football player. Kinda sad that you have to sell him short because giving him any credit is somehow a threat to Brady. PFF usually has him as a top 15 receiver anyway (not this season, but in previous ones). Anyone who watches him play can tell he’s a good player. Not a true number 1 like Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson, but a good player nonetheless. Is Richard Sherman a 5th round former wide receiver? (For the record, Sherman was almost drafted as a receiver had he fallen any lower).

        NextGen stats throughout the season often had Edelman and/or Hogan among the league leaders in average yards of separation. Per PFF, Dion Lewis forces missed tackles at a higher rate than any player in the league, at any position. Again, this doesn’t take away from Brady, but give these guys some credit. Brady deserves credit for getting him the ball, and Belichick and former assistant Michael Lombardi deserve credit for bringing him to New England.

        Chris Hogan being cut a bunch of times: Okay, but James Harrison was cut 4 times and then was exclusively a special teams player for a while before becoming one of the best defensive players in the league.

        Kurt Warner was undrafted and cut in training camp as a rookie, worked in a grocery store, then Arena league, NFL Europe, and was unprotected in the Expansion Draft for the new Cleveland Browns. He was continually available for other teams. Did that stop him from becoming a great player?

        Chris Harris is a top 5 corner. Undrafted and available to every team.

        Just because you don’t enter the league as an early round draft pick, that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually become as good as them. Diminishing these Patriots receivers by referring to their draft status is a moot point. The league is filled with guys that were undervalued coming out of college.

        Belichick just sees things in players that other teams don’t. There’s a reason you never see players leave New England and do better elsewhere, at any position. He knew Hogan was underused and saw a skill set and character traits that he thought could be successful in New England. His big play ability has been part, not all, of the reason they have withstood the loss of Gronk better than in previous seasons. Also on Gronk, he was nursing a hamstring injury early in the year. In Week 3, he only ran 2 routes the whole game with one target against the Texans. Otherwise he stayed in to block or was on the bench because of his injury.

        By your logic, Philip Rivers’s best target for most of his career (Antonio Gates) is an undrafted former college basketball player who never played college football.

        Before the season, PFF had the Pats receiving corps as #1 in the league. They updated the rankings after week 4 (without Brady, Lewis, and with Gronk as a nonfactor) and they were still the highest graded in the league at #1. These guys are better than most people think they are.

        It’s okay to give credit to other players. Never once did I say Brady is a product of a system. I think the answer is somewhere in between (it’s neither all Brady nor all system). Other QBs have played in that offense and been far less successful than Brady (Cassel 2008), but Cassel was still far more successful than he was in any other offense (2010 in KC was with Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator).

        There’s no need to think any praise toward the rest of the team somehow takes away from Brady. He’s been the best player in the league this year since coming back, and he’s also playing on the best team. It’s a deadly combination.

        • sparrowhawkes

          aside from the first bit where you name call me a ‘fanboy,’ this is a pretty fair and balanced rebuttal. I disagree with your conclusion because I think the reason so many undrafted and low value players like edelman and hogan do well is because of how great Brady is at throwing them open, but I think you’ve got some good points

        • Albert Heisenberg

          Lastly, in an anticipation of any pseudo-intellectual arguments you may put forth, I’d like to preemptively destroy them by putting this out there:

          “Well he plays in a weak division”:

          Win% by division
          AFCE: 78.2%

          NFCN: 87.5%
          NFCS: 81.3%
          AFCN: 80%
          AFCS: 84.6%

          “But he’s had elite defenses to carry him!”

          Win% when defense allows 21+ points
          Brady: 57%
          Peyton: 48%
          Rodgers: 45%
          League average: 21%

          “But Brady won a ton of games a game manager! He’s a system QB!”

          From the Elias Sports Bureau:
          “The Patriots are 15-7 (.682) when Brady passes the ball 50 or more times, including the postseason. Every other team in modern NFL history (since 1960) has combined to go 100-386-6 (.209) in this situation. The Brady Patriots have singularly won 13 percent of all the 50-attempt victories during the past 55 years of professional football. Lamonica, by the way, never attempted 50 passes in a game.
          Victory in these bombing campaigns is difficult for two reasons: First, it’s usually a sign of desperation. Most NFL teams tend to pass the ball that often only when they’re down big. Second, desperate quarterbacks tend to throw interceptions, sometimes multiple. And teams simply don’t win when they throw interceptions.

          Brady and the Patriots, however, are utterly unique in their ability to win these games: Brady is the career leader in 50-attempt games (22), 50-attempt wins (15) and 50-attempt winning percentage (.682).

          Nobody else is close.

          Peyton Manning is second with 17 50-attempt games, and he’s just 4-13 (.235) in those contests.”
          *The interesting thing about the tenor of these “system” QB arguments is that they not only belie the statistics (which all tell us he is a once-in-a-generation QB) but they belie basic common sense. If Brady is a “system” QB who is easily disposable and merely the product of Belichick (something that is factually incorrect given Belichick’s lack of success grooming QBs from Kosar to Bledsoe), then why doesn’t the Genius Belichick trade Brady for drafts pics instead of eat up huge amounts of cap room by paying his star QB 15 million a year? Why not keep Jimmy Garropolo, the younger, cheaper, more athletic 2nd round pick, instead of use him as trade fodder?

          Answer: Brady is the GOAT. You don’t trade Michael Jordan.

      • Austin Coleman

        The Buffalo game was with a rookie 3rd string QB. And they still beat a playoff team with that guy, how many teams would be capable of that.

        Garoppolo was performing better than Brady when he was in. Let’s not pretend that a 40 year old QB who might be the slowest player in the league is carrying the team. He’s got a heck of a unit around him and plays in an excellent scheme in which open guys are littering the field. NE’s schedule was also pitiful.

    • Rick

      “Not to take anything away from Brady, but I fully believe this year’s version of the Patriots team still would have reached the Super Bowl without him.”
      By the end of Week 3, both of the back-up QBs were injured. They had to play Week 4 with Jacoby Brissett nursing a thumb injury on his passing hand (he couldn’t pass with any strength or accuracy and the Pats were shut out).
      It’s really disparaging not only to Brady but to the rest of the AFC to opine that the Pats would have done just as well without him.

      • Larry

        My point was with the assumption that they would get healthy before too long. Obviously if you go too far down the QB depth chart, things will get ugly. The QB in this claim is a bit of guesswork because of health. No way to know if those guys are just injury prone and would get hurt again anyway. I’m just guessing they would both come back and stay healthy the rest of the way, but who knows?

        Per the rest of the AFC, NE still would have been the #1 seed with one more loss (possibly 2 more losses, depending on who they were against for tie breakers). The only 3 possible opponents for them in the Divisional Round were Houston, Oakland (without Carr), and Miami. Brady was great against Pittsburgh, but they won by a large enough margin that Jimmy G would have also won that game (probably not by the same amount, but still win).

        They are obviously a better team with Brady than without. My point is just to show how much better the entire team is than the rest of the AFC.

        • Albert Heisenberg

          Lol “fanboy” is never a great way to address a repudiation of your crappy argument. High-horsed speculation makes me laugh because it presumes to know what would have happened ceterus paribus. What happens when the defensive coordinators get film on Jimmy G? What happens to Jimmy G’s health if he can’t make consistent line adjustments in pass protection (which is done by most centers, Brady is one of the very few QBs that makes line adjustments for BOTH pass and run plays – even the great Peyton didn’t do that, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen did respectively). Brady is arguably the most intelligent QBs to ever live, and if Belichick happens to keep coaching after he retires all of this will make sense to you just as it did when Belichick was foundering as a coach pre-Brady.

          Just admit it: you don’t like Brady and think he’s overrated, just admit it. “It’s part Brady and part system.” Lol your masquerade is laughable and I love how you’re trying to couch your hate in euphemistic language.

          So let me guess: in Green Bay during the 90’s it was all Favre? In San Fran it was all Steve Young (and not the fact he had Rice and T.O.)? In Green Bay today, it’s all Rodgers – he doesn’t have one of the best offensive minds in the league in McCarthy and, according to PFF, the best pass protecting offensive line in the league…nope, all A-Rod. According to pseudo-intellectuals like you, a defensive mind who had never one produced an All-Pro (or even a Pro-Bowl level) QB in 6 years of coaching suddenly transforms into an offensive genius? Lol…Ok.

          I’m genuinely curious how people like you rationalize away the fact that Belichick had 5 losing seasons out of his first 6 seasons as a coach. How people like you rationalize the fact that it was actually Parcells, not Belichick, that drafted Bruschi, Milloy, and the core of the Patriots defense (the same Parcells who’s scouting bonafides were affirmed when he drafted two future HOFers in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten – and picking Tony Romo from obscurity).

          Brady is the GOAT, and would’ve been great in any “system’ (whatever that means) in on any team. The irony is this: you are willing to dismiss a sample size of 7 seasons of coaching (Belichick) in which a head coach made the playoffs ONCE and 5 losing seasons out of those 7 (zero Pro Bowl QBs, never mind the rarefied All-Pro echelon), and yet play “what-if” on a QB who was 21-5 in college, had more comeback victories in his two seasons than any other QB in the NCAA despite splitting time with Drew Henson in his senior year, and then proceeding to win a SB in his first season as starter and then lead the NFL in TD Passes in his second season as a starter while throwing to HOFers like Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, David Patten, Givens, and Troy Brown (one Pro bowl his entire career).

          The same QB who put up a then-record 50TDs, let the NFL in 4th Quarter passer rating (and total QBR & Passer Rating – top 5 ever), went 16-0 (another record), and got within a miracle David Tyree catch during the FIRST season he was given Pro-Bowl caliber weapons in Moss and converted punt-returned Wes Welker, is a system QB. But Matt Cassell, who threw 29 less TDs, won 7 less games (or 5 less games depending on which metric you’d like to follow), and didn’t make the playoffs despite playing the league’s easiest schedule on the same team that went 16-0, and didn’t make the Pro-Bowl, is somehow a testament to Brady’s value? (You didn’t make that argument, I know, but you implied it in the most surreptitious way possible). The same Matt Cassel that took perennial losers the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs WHILE also making the Pro-Bowl with a better passer rating than Peyton Manning, is somehow evidence of Brady’s merit.

          Since we’re playing hypotheticals: the Patriots were one lucky FG away from 2-2. The Patriots don’t win Super Bowl LI without Brady and it’s not guarantee they even make the playoffs without Brady given what teams would have done to Jimmy G or Brisset once there was enough film out on them.

          Brady is the GOAT, Period. I’ll assume Deon Sanders, Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, and the panoply of other legends who have gone out of their way to call him the greatest QB ever (some even going as far to call him the greatest PLAYER ever) know a lot more about football than you.

          Let me guess, your rebuttal shall be “fanboy…” :-)

  • breakerbaker

    Trying to understand the “harm’s way” metric. Does a ball that bounces off a receiver’s hands and that is either intercepted or nearly intercepted qualify? I know that happened on at least two of Ryan’s seven interceptions. How does receiver play factor into putting a ball in harm’s way? There were obviously other balls that could have been picked off that are completely on Ryan (as is the case with all QBs), but it seems like an awfully subjective stat.

    • Rick

      Certainly the way you’ve defined it it might be!

  • T

    They didn’t pick his best 12, just his only 12. If you want to compare apples to apples just use the final 12 games of every QB and see if they match Brady.