How Tom Brady has earned the highest PFF QB grade ever this season

No quarterback has ever earned a higher regular-season PFF grade than Tom Brady has this season. Here's how he's done it.

| 3 months ago
Tom Brady

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

How Tom Brady has earned the highest PFF QB grade ever this season


It’s hard to believe, but this season might be the best we’ve ever seen from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in his 17-year, Hall of Fame-worthy career — at the age of 39 years old.

It’s impressive to think that Brady could continue to improve the nuances in his game, particularly after a career that already has him sitting along the all-time greats, but that’s just what he’s done, as we highlighted during the season. His pocket mobility is better than ever, and he’s made a conscious decision to extend plays and create later in the play like never before. Brady has even refined his deep passing in recent years, correcting a career-long criticism that he was a magician in the short and intermediate ranges but not much of a deep-ball thrower.

From throwing short or long, pressured or blitzed, within the flow of the offense or outside of it, Brady has had no discernable weakness this season, and it all added up to this: a 99.3 overall grade that represents the best regular-season grade for a quarterback during the PFF era, which dates back to the 2006 season.

brady-2_quick-stat

Wait, Brady was better than his 2007 season that saw him light up the NFL with 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions? He was better than 2010 when a 36-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio netted another MVP trophy?

Yes, throw for throw, he has been better this season, combining nearly flawless decision-making with precision passing to all levels of the field. Those other seasons were fantastic, obviously, but did include some Randy Moss superhuman efforts among those 50 touchdowns in 2007, and he had some interception luck that helped his cause in 2010.

Let’s have a look at how he’s done it:

Brady vs. the field

The PFF grading system takes into account all elements of the throw from the quarterback, from timing to accuracy to game situation, all while crediting the quarterback even when the receiver is unable to haul in the pass. Likewise, poor decisions and throws into coverage that should be intercepted are downgraded harshly whether the defender comes up with the turnover or not, and all incompletions consider whether it was the quarterback’s inaccuracy or something the receiver or defender did to render the pass incomplete.

BradySpiderChart

That’s the reason Brady graded higher than Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons this season despite Brady finishing second to Ryan in both passer rating (112.2) and yards per attempt (8.2). Ryan had more explosive plays from his receivers on “easier” — or more expected — passes, while also having some interception luck, as he had far more turnover-worthy plays than his seven interceptions would suggest. Brady did not receive as much help from his playmakers and his impressive interception total of two was a legitimate indication of how well he took care of the ball this season.

Brady dominated the grading in every major situation this season. In PFF’s play-by-play grading, he sits atop the list when pressured, against no pressure, against the blitz, against no blitz, on third down, and on intermediate (10-19 yard) throws where he is dominating the field and has a 152.2 passer rating (a perfect passer rating is 158.3).

QB Trait 2016

 

Another way of measuring quarterback performance is the #BigTimeThrow — also the namesake of PFF’s Quarterback Podcast, the Big Time Throwcast — consisting of the highest-graded throws in the PFF system. These throws earn the higher grade due to great timing and accuracy, and they’re usually thrown downfield or into a tighter window. Brady has the highest percentage of big-time throws (BTTs) this season by a wide margin, and he actually ranks third in total big-time throws despite missing four games to start the season due to his suspension.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the turnover-worthy throw — a play so hideous that no podcast would ever dare name itself after it — which are the lowest-graded plays in the PFF system, and per the name, passes that should become turnovers due to a poor decision or dangerous throw into coverage. Brady is also miles ahead of the field here, as he has only four turnover-worthy throws on the season — including his two interceptions — and he had the lowest percentage of turnover-worthy throws in the PFF era at 0.81 percent.

The combination of big-time throws and turnover-worthy throws is usually a great indicator of a quarterback’s success, as it combines big-play opportunities with ball security, and not only does Brady lead in both areas, his ratio of 8.25 BTTs to TWTs is also a PFF-era record.

A few of Brady’s BTTs:

TE Rob Gronkowski gets a step and Brady puts it right on his hands like a long handoff.

This play was negated by penalty, but Brady avoids pressure and creates enough space to hit WR Julian Edelman with a pinpoint downfield pass.

On the very next play, Brady throws one of his best deep passes of the season with an #InStride toss to WR Chris Hogan.

Facing 3rd-and-25, Brady puts the ball where only Edelman can catch it to convert; this is a big reason Brady has the top third-down PFF grade and passer rating in the NFL.

Brady hits the deep post to WR Malcolm Mitchell in stride, and it takes a defensive pass interference to force the incompletion.

Key areas of improvement

If there’s one thing Brady has shown, it’s his ability to succeed in numerous environments throughout his career. Yes, he’s been in the same offensive system his entire career, but the elements around him have been ever-changing. During his tenure as Patriots starter, the offense has had many iterations, whether it was a two-back look, a spread look that revolutionized the NFL, or a two tight-end set that created mismatches like few offenses in NFL history, all while incorporating no-huddle and uptempo elements that gave Brady full control over the game like few quarterbacks in history.

Brady has now managed to add versatility to his skill set, something a 25-year old quarterback struggles to do, but Brady has done so while approaching the age of 40. We covered it in more depth earlier in the year, but he began focusing on extending plays and creating more offense late in the down in 2014, and we saw the fruits of that labor this year as Brady’s 112.0 passer rating on plays lasting at least 2.6 seconds ranked second in the league.

As recently as 2013, Brady ranked 30th in this area, and the number has grown steadily ever since. The newfound vigor to extend plays led to Brady’s average time to throw in the pocket landing on its highest mark since the 2011 season as he averaged 2.49 seconds per dropback, eighth-lowest in the league. It’s a category in which Brady usually ranks among the top three, and he still makes his fair share of quick-hitting throws, but the ability to extend plays has allowed him to find extra big plays throughout the season while also allowing him to limit those turnover-worthy throws by getting rid of the ball and not forcing the issue when receivers are covered.

This can be seen in his excellence on third down, as he ranks No. 1 in the league in QB rating after posting an 11-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio:

2016 3rd down regular season

Final word

Just as important as the final PFF grade is the construction of the grade and figuring out how number comes to be. Some quarterbacks have a high percentage of positively-graded throws but also a high percentage of negatively-graded throws, while others play a more conservative brand of football that involves safer throws and fewer extremes in the grading scale.

Brady has found the Holy Grail this season, showing capable of making pinpoint downfield throws while also taking care of the football and posting the lowest percentage of negatively-graded throws in the NFL. A great career became even greater here in 2016, all at the age of 39 when many former quarterbacks are generally on the decline or out of the league entirely. Brady added yet another chapter to his Hall of Fame career, and if he can put the cherry on top with another run through the postseason, it’ll be another feather in the cap for his case as the greatest signal-caller of all-time.

At the very least, he’ll have his 99.3 overall grade — the best we’ve seen at PFF in our 11 seasons.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • MichaelMcD83

    Aaron Rodgers is listed twice on the Big Time Throw % leaderboard.

    • Pete

      Ya……..listed twice …..on the bottom…

  • Zach

    Every article PFF has ever done explaining the why’s behind a particular grade has been absolute gold, this is no exception

  • RagdollMama

    Damn right! I am so sick of haters saying Brady can’t throw downfield. He is the greatest QB of all time! He is humble and ALWAYS credits his teammates, never takes credit for himself! He is what NFL players should be! Why is he so successful? Because he lives his job. He doesn’t just practice during football season, he does it year round. He does everything he can to maintain his body and works on his skills and man it shows! He is definitely quicker than he was a few years ago and I love the fire in him! Brady should be NFL MVP this year and any media guys who didn’t vote for Brady will look like morons when Brady hoists his 5th Super Bowl Trophy in February! LET’S GO!!!! GO PATRIOTS!!!! GO BRADY!!!! We love you man and we are so proud of your accomplishments and your teammates and coaches! thank you Steve Palazzolo for your insight and article.

  • Andrew Giambrone

    Great post. Pretty spot-on analysis of the things Brady does and values that have helped the Patriots win so much in his tenure.

    Getting the ball out quickly and ball security have been things he’s focused on his entire career. He’s always been ego-less and team oriented. Even in ’01 as a 24 year old, the whole Patriots mantra was “we run out as a team.” When he won some SB MVP truck in ’01 he said something like “that’s the team car.”
    He’s ego-less because he’s bought into Belichick’s military-management style–everyone’s just a recruit. But he became the perfect soldier because he was beat out by a more physically gifted Drew Henson at Michigan, he stunk at the combine, nearly went undrafted and was buried third on the Pats depth chart under a franchise QB.

    The point is this: He harbors a massive chip on his shoulder and probably some sort of mediocrity (or even inferiority) complex. Belichick’s managerial style engenders the feeling that all parts are fungible which feeds Brady’s competitive desire. Thus, at the ripe old age of 39, he reinvents himself (somewhat) by extending plays.
    It also is important that defenses like Denver’s in the AFC championship game were all over his short passing game, rendering it ineffective.

    • petefromhiram

      He ended up winning out over henson

      • WR

        Brady was the better QB when he and Henson were both on the team. Henson was given playing time he hadn’t earned because Lloyd Carr was worried that he would quit football and accept the contract offer he had from the Yankees. Brady had much better numbers than Henson that season, and the Wolverines were clearly a better team when he was on the field.

        The QB controversy at Michigan created the false perception that Brady couldn’t hold down the job, which is one of the reasons he dropped so far in the draft.

        • Pete

          Where’s Henson these days……hahahaha…

    • Albert Heisenberg

      Great theory, but I have a minor quibble with some of your points. Athletic superiority has never, and I mean never, been the key to great quarterbacking. Johnny Unitas was never the athlete Randall Cunningham was; Dan Fouts was never Michael Vick; Dan Marino was never Jeff Garcia. Great quarterbacking happens in the mind and no QB in history, Peyton Manning included, processes as much information as quickly and adeptly as Brady has his entire career. It’s why he is the best at exploiting mismatches despite the talent around him.

      He was a great QB at Michigan too, but Carr’s poor coaching led to the misconception that he and Henson were really neck-and-neck when, in reality, Carr didn’t want Henson to either transfer or sign with a pro MLB team.

      Belichick kept Brady precisely because he saw, from the beginning, that Brady was better than Bledsoe and the other three QBs ahead of him in the depth chart.

      Brady’s football intellect allows him to be very malleable when it comes to game-planning, a skill many other QB greats struggle with (e.g. Manning had problems running Kubiaks system and had to revert to the Tom Moore playbook).

  • Brian

    Random thought… I don’t think there is any questioning anymore that tb12 is the greatest qb of all time. He is the ONLY qb that has the regular season stats, regular season wins, playoff stats, playoff wins, clutch ability, and sb wins. No qb comes close to that total package. That being said, I think Aaron Rodgers is the most gifted qb ever to play. And I don’t think there is any arguing that either. It is really the mj vs lbj argument. Brady is mj. Greatest ever. Rodgers is Lebron. Most gifted.

    • pbskids4000

      Actually since PFF has started grading back in ’06, Peyton Manning has been the superior playoff QB. At least, the last time that I checked he was.

      • football22

        Whose Peyton Manning? 😉

      • Worc1

        Except for the most important stat for a QB or any player for that matter, WINS!

        • Dr__P

          Wins are a TEAM measure

      • Pete

        Manning sucked as a playoff QB with barely .500 career playoff average….Brady is at a .77 clip…….and still counting….big difference

      • Albert Heisenberg

        Nope. Including this year, Brady is the superior playoff qb (and he’s done it with less surrounding talent) – he also has a better QB rating and QBR than Manning both regular season and playoffs.

    • football22

      Actually I think there have been many QBs to be more talented to Brady over the years. What makes him great is his ability combined with the mental aspects of the game. Unlike bball which is almost all athletic-based, the QB position is majority mental and Brady has that in spades over everyone especially Rodgers who can be very impatient and inaccurate at times because his mechanics are lazy.

    • John Bermudez

      this mf..king james a legend unlike rodgers hes good only!!

  • gllmiaspr

    Agree that Brady has done a great job this season. However PFF is stating that this is the best PFF Grade ever.
    It may be since PFF Grades have only been around for a couple of years. But I am looking at last year Premium stats and seeing that Carlson Palmer and Tom Brady had a better PFF ratiing than Brady’s this year
    Is this because Position Grades are cumulative and PFF Grades are not? Are there other differences between PFF Grades and what you post in the Premium Stats section?

    • Zach

      First of all I’m extremely jealous that you still have access to the premium pff stats. But yes, the premium grades are cumulative and they include playoffs also whereas the regular player grades they started doing more recently is not cumulative, more efficiency based. Sort of like TDs thrown vs TD %

  • Antti Vanhanen

    Great article.

    A small typo in the second paragraph “conscience decision” –> should be “conscious decision”

  • football22

    Great article. Brady is the greatest of all time. What a great breakdown of his season. He has been superb in every area. No QB comes close to him especially at his age.

  • DaStrongSKRAWN

    Trash vs Seattle and Denver but he was definitely the best QB this year.
    28:2. Wow. Must applaud him.

    • Nicardo Neil

      “Trash”? Clearly you didnt watch those games. Against Seattle he threw for 316 yds, and led the team down into the redzone 4 times. It just so happens that the Pats used Blount to finish each drive (3TDs and a 4th down stop). Against the Broncos the game plan called for safe throws and the run game against a great D. Brady was not “trash” in either game.

      • DaStrongSKRAWN

        Yes he was. Trash this game too.

        • Pete

          No….just trash your comment…

          • DaStrongSKRAWN

            He SUCKED vs the Texans. You can’t be for real.

          • Pete

            I was referencing the Steelers game…..not the Texans game…

          • DaStrongSKRAWN

            Your comment was a day before the Steelers game and that game wasn’t mentioned at all. Nice try.

          • Albert Heisenberg

            You sound like you’re 8 year old. Brady was a stud vs Seattle, he led them for 4 td drives, and unlike Pey Pey Manning who pads his stats with goal-line TD throws, Brady routinely runs the ball in the red zone.

            The man is the GOAT.

          • DaStrongSKRAWN

            Foh. He stay trash vs good defenses, kiddo. No TD for TB.

  • petefromhiram

    No one has ever had the revolving cast of receivers Brady has had, with only a few seasons with any one great receiver, of which he’s had only a few.