The Patriots offense has been ugly for a while now, but initially that didn’t appear to be a product of the quarterback play. If anything, it looked like the struggles would’ve been even mightier, and the result even more grotesque, had a lesser slinger than Tom Brady been standing behind center.
And that may yet be true. The saving grace for the Pats has been the offense’s general ability to protect the ball, and perhaps a different quarterback would’ve complicated things with a few careless mistakes.
But after he uncharacteristically missed a few open throws last week, and played a factor in letting the Bengals linger into the third quarter, it’s time to wonder with Brady. Is he a shell of his former self, as the Globe suggested this week? Is it an injury, maybe to his elbow? Or is it just a result of what’s surrounding him when he enters the huddle?
Ultimately, the answer may be one that dictates how the Patriots handle the pending free agent in the coming months — and while there’s more to the equation, obviously, when those negotiations do happen, the numbers are going to give New England all the power.
Almost across the board, the stats suggest a decline from the greatest of all time, looking at them in the context of his own high standards and compared to his contemporaries. Here’s a look at (TB)12 number-based facts of particular note:
Brady completed just 45.9 percent of his passes the first time the Pats faced the Bills, and what was an outlier early in the season has become a trend. He enters Sunday’s game on a streak of five straight performances in which he’s failed to complete better than 56 percent of his throws. (The league average is 63.8 percent this season, for what it’s worth.)
Before this stretch, Brady had never gone more than three weeks in a row with a completion rate so low. He slumped through a three-week drought in 2015, but that was the only time it had happened since 2006. In fact, from 2009-18, there was only one other instance where it happened in even two consecutive weeks.
Brady began the year having never had more than six games in a season in which he completed 56 percent of his passes or less, but through 14 contests he’s experienced it seven times. Fortunately for the Patriots, they’re 5-2 in those games. Through 2018, they were 30-27 in regular-season games when Brady failed to complete better than 56 percent of his throws.
Counting the playoffs, Brady’s career winning percentage when his completion percentage is 56 or lower was .530 (35-31) before this season. When he was north of 56 percent, it was 83.5 percent (202-40). Further, before being true in half his games this season, it was true for Brady in just 21 percent of his career contests.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the expectation for Brady’s throws is that he should have a 63.9 percent completion rate. That dip of 3.8 percent from expected is third-worst among passers who’ve tried at least 200 passes, slotting him between Gardner Minshew and Baker Mayfield. It should be noted, though, that it’s not just the QB. The Pats’ 21 drops rank third in the league, and he is also among the league leaders in throwaways after a play breaks down.
On average, Brady has had 2.74 seconds to throw this season. That’s 12th-fewest among passers with at least 200 attempts, but according to the NFL it’s the most time he’s had from snap to throw since the league began tracking it in 2016. That’s true, despite the fact Brady’s target is on average 7.5 yards down field, decreased from nine yards in 20
Brady’s passer rating of 86.5 is his lowest for a full season since 2003 — and by the end of the weekend it could be tracking to the lowest of his career. That’s a distinction dubiously held for now by the 85.7 he posted in 2002. And it’s not just subpar per his own Canton standards. It ranks 20th in the league this season among qualifying quarterbacks.
Occupying the three spots ahead of him are Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston, and Kyler Murray. That’s two guys who could lose their starting jobs before next season, plus a rookie, and combined they’ve thrown 52 interceptions (against 68 touchdowns).
In 2008, ESPN introduced its own QBR statistic, which is essentially a modified version of passer rating that tries to factor in more of the in-game circumstances to evaluate a quarterback’s performance and value. Since then, Brady has never finished a season with a QBR worse than 62.1. This year he’s at 50.1, leaving quite a gap between him and the leader, Lamar Jackson, the MVP frontrunner who’s at 80.2.
A defense as good as New England’s hasn’t left the Pats in many positions where they’re scrambling, but with two weeks to go Brady has led zero fourth-quarter comebacks, and zero game-winning fourth-quarter drives. If that holds through Week 17, it’ll be the first season since 2004 that he finishes without at least one of each. That year he put together one game-winning possession, but it didn’t require a comeback.
Is Brady locking in too much on Julian Edelman? Edelman’s 140 targets comprise more than a quarter of the balls the quarterback has thrown this season, and are 53 more than the next-closest Patriot. For comparison’s sake, in Brady’s two MVP seasons, the target leaders were Brandon Cooks (19.5 percent in 2017, nine more targets than Rob Gronkowski) and Randy Moss (27.3 percent in 2007, 15 more than Wes Welker). Those don’t suggest he’s overusing Edelman — at least when Edelman is healthy enough to be a viable option.
Entering Sunday at 3.7 per tote, this is on track to be the ninth time in Brady’s 18 seasons as the Pats’ primary starter that the team averages fewer than four yards per carry. (Interestingly, the team’s most efficient rushing season since 2001 came in 2008, when Brady missed all but half a quarter.)
Historically, though, there hasn’t appeared to be much correlation between the Pats’ running problems and the team’s success. Four of the seven previous seasons in which they’ve picked up fewer than four yards per rush, they’ve won the Super Bowl. Also included in the mix are a season in which Brady led the league in passing yardage (2005), another when he led the league in touchdown passes (2015), and five in which he’s been voted to the Pro Bowl.
Perhaps related to the lack of a running game, Brady is second across the NFL in passing attempts, with his 551 trailing Winston by three for the lead. Despite this, he’s just seventh in completions, ninth in first downs, and tied for 12th in touchdown passes. Only 3.8 percent of his passes have resulted in touchdowns, tied with Kyle Allen and Mitchell Trubisky for 23rd in the league.
Brady does rank ninth in the league in passing yards, and there’s a surprising list of guys he’s ahead of with 3,565 — Kirk Cousins (3,481), Jimmy Garoppolo (3,445), Carson Wentz (3,431), Lamar Jackson (2,889) — among those who’ve also played 14 games.
As it relates specifically to these final two regular-season tilts, much is made of Brady’s relative struggles against the Dolphins — but his career numbers against Miami are strikingly similar to what he’s produced against Buffalo. Per football-reference he’s faced each 34 times, and Brady’s average game against the Dolphins is 20-of-32 for 234 yards, 1.9 touchdowns, and 0.8 interceptions; against the Bills, it’s 21-of-33 for 247 yards, two touchdowns, and 0.7 interceptions.