Tom Brady has played 280 regular-season games in his transcendent NFL career. The Patriots’ 13-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys Sunday was in some ways one of his worst statistically.
Yet the first word that comes to mind when we think back on what we saw Sunday? Encouraging.
Brady ended Sunday with a stat line that looked like it should have belonged to one of his unaccomplished predecessors in Patriots history. He finished 17 of 37 for 190 yards and one touchdown pass. His 44.95 completion percentage was the fourth-worst of his career in a game in which he took the majority of snaps.
(The worst, if you’re curious: 36.84 percent in an October 2004 game with the Dolphins in which he went 7 for 19 for 76 yards … and the Patriots won, 24-10.)
Brady’s quarterback rating Sunday was 70.8. Hugh Millen’s quarterback rating in 20 games as Patriots quarterback during the desolate early ‘90s was 71.8. If you want to get technical, I suppose you could say Brady had Hugh Millen numbers Sunday.
But we know better. We saw the game and witnessed the circumstances. That was the most encouraging 17 for 37 you’ll ever see.
Start with the weather conditions, which weren’t quite monsoon-level but were nonetheless miserable. Sunday was one of those lousy New England weather days when the rain is coming down sideways, the winds slaps you in the face, and the only comfort is that at least it’s not snow.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott came into the game as the NFL’s leader in passing yardage with 3,221, helming the NFL’s No. 1 offense. He ended it with a season-low 212 more passing yards tacked onto his total, didn’t throw a touchdown pass or lead his team to the end zone, and he couldn’t complete a single pass to top receiver Amari Cooper. That weather ruins even the most prolific quarterbacks.
The Patriots were also shorthanded in their huddle. While left tackle Isaiah Wynn returned and, perhaps not coincidentally, Sony Michel (86 yards) suddenly looked like a productive ball carrier again, Brady did not exactly have the ‘80s Chargers “Air Coryell’’ receiving corps at his disposal.
Beyond ol’ reliable Julian Edelman, injuries to Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett left Brady relying on a couple of untested (and based on Brady’s lukewarm comments on them as the season has progressed, perhaps untrusted) rookies in the passing game.
N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers entered the game with 18 career receptions between them. Harry, the first-round pick who made his debut just last week against the Eagles after suffering a hamstring injury in training camp, had just three career catches coming into the game. Meyers, a rookie free agent who stuck after an impressive camp beating up on a lot of buried-on-the-depth-chart guys who are probably ex-football players at the moment, had 15 previous catches, some even of the impressive variety.
But our lasting recent image of him was watching him head east when Brady expected him to cut west on a route against the Eagles, which brought on the stink-eye from the perfectionist quarterback when he returned to the huddle from his wayward route.
Yet due to attrition and circumstance, Brady had no choice but to give them the passkey to the circle of trust on Sunday. And for the most part, they proved worthy. Harry scored the game’s only touchdown on a hard-fought catch and nifty toe-tap in the end zone in the first quarter, while Meyers came through with four catches for 74 yards.
That’s not to suggest either was the second coming of Deion Branch when it came to reliability. Brady’s numbers would have looked much more in line with his actual performance had Patriots receivers (Edelman is guilty here too) not dropped at least a half-dozen passes.
Meyers, who was targeted nine times, had an egregious drop on third down in the third quarter that should have prolonged a drive, while Harry (the touchdown was his lone catch on four targets) had an end-zone drop just before halftime. But they were good enough, especially graded on a curve due to the conditions. As Harry, the Arizona State product, could tell you, it doesn’t rain like this in Tempe. And they’re only going to get better playing against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore – who has praised Harry’s competitiveness, we should note – in practice.
But the most encouraging development is that Brady looked like Brady, even if the stat sheet doesn’t confirm it. When he showed up as questionable on Friday’s injury report with an elbow ailment, it was of course alarming, and more so Sunday morning when the NFL Network reported he couldn’t make it through practice Friday. We wondered if this was something sudden, or whether the elbow issue has been plaguing him for a while, contributing to his relatively grim mood after the win over the Eagles.
He threw the ball well Sunday, and while we still don’t know the nature of the injury and whether it’s something that will linger or already has been for a few weeks, his performance offered reason enough to exhale.
It’s been a relatively tough age-42 season for Brady, as much as a season can be tough for the quarterback of a 10-1 team. The line has struggled to keep him upright, he’s seen attrition and self-inflicted departures among his promising collection of weapons at the start of the season, and his perspective is such that he can tell when the talent around him may not be enough to achieve all he wants to achieve. Perhaps he’s slipped some, but it’s tough to tell just how much because the talent level around him has slipped to a much greater degree.
It’s been strange to see him wear his frustrations publicly at times, but that doesn’t mean they are not justified.
So it was reassuring to see him in a better mood after this Sunday’s win than he was after last Sunday’s. No, he did not go over the top in praising his eager but hardly efficient young receivers, and he’d be right in believing there were some potential big plays left on the field.
But he also knows that Wynn’s return kept his blindside protected, Michel ran well, the defense remains a menace, and it all adds up to a 10-1 record. It might not be perfect, but it’s so much better than any help Hugh Millen ever got.