We’ve arrived at a fascinating time and place in Tom Brady’s career, or at least the perception of the brilliant but subtly aging quarterback’s career. I’m more convinced than ever that his greatness is taken for granted on the national scale, and by a certain loud minority of contextually and historically challenged fans and media around here.
In one way — call it degree of difficulty — last season was one of the most impressive of his career. Brady was sixth in the NFL in passing yards last year despite a receiving corps that was constantly in flux and collectively inexperienced in the Patriots’ system.
He helped turn Julian Edelman, a fringe player who was presumed to be on the roster bubble last preseason, into a cornerstone basically out of mutual hard work and necessity. Brady deserves a larger cut from the the four-year, $17 million deal Edelman signed in the offseason than does the receiver’s agent.
I’m not sure there’s another quarterback in the league, Peyton Manning included, who could have done as much with so little, particularly after Rob Gronkowski’s season ended at the crown of T.J. Ward’s helmet.
Brady has been so consistently excellent since seizing the job in September 2001 that his production and performance has almost become boring. Not to me, and not to you, hopefully, but certainly to those who would rather discuss whether RGIII is a leader or Nick Foles is for real and all of that ancillary chatter that fills half-hour upon half-hour on television.
Yet it requires gulping down a deliberate dose of denial to pretend that Brady is the same player at 37 that he was at 27. Simply, he is not, nor should he carry the burden of expectations of agelessness. and we were reminded of that during the Patriots’ 33-20 loss to the Dolphins yesterday in which he was 10 of 27 for 62 yards in the second half.
For whatever reason, his instincts under pass-rush pressure aren’t as sharp as they were before his 2008 knee injury. Or maybe he’s not as blindly courageous, which is understandable too. Brady was sacked four times yesterday — twice by Cameron Wake, who torments the Patriots the same uh-oh, look out! way Jason Taylor used to do — and hit six, which seems a low tally. He was under siege so often that you might swear he had to duck and cover a half-dozen more times.
He has not thrown the deep ball well for several seasons now, and remember this: His accuracy down the field early in his career was one of the reasons he stood out as Drew Bledsoe’s superior, despite not having the same velocity on his fastball. Yesterday, he was 2 for 18 on balls that traveled more than 15 yards in the air. You expect that from the likes of Ryan Mallett, presuming he ever got to play. Not Brady.
I don’t mean to suggest that these semi-flaws, these minute cracks in his game, are particularly troubling. They’re not, because they’re not new. I doubt the deep-ball accuracy ever comes back, but he still feels the pressure better than most. My only concern with Brady’s specific performance — man, I can’t stand that overused sports-radio crutch, but concern is the right word here — is whether this calf injury will continue to affect his accuracy.
It certainly seemed to yesterday. Brady’s completion percentage has dropped for three straight years, and his 60.5 last year was his lowest since 2003 (60.2). But his lack of precision yesterday was so apparent, even at times during the Patriots’ 20-point first half, that you had to figure something was off in the calibration. Given Brady’s meticulousness when it comes to every aspect of his throwing mechanics, it’s easy to conclude that the calf injury that landed him on the injury report late in the week did have an adverse effect on how the whole machine operated.
Of course, Brady wasn’t given a whole hell of a lot of time or assistance Sunday. When things start to go awry for the Patriots offense, Josh McDaniels’s inevitable first reaction is to forget the existence of the running game. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen had just 15 carries for 57 yards between them, and it’s not as if the Patriots trailed by any large margin.
I’d suggest they were abandoned too soon, but they really weren’t part of the plan in the first place apparently. Which became increasingly absurd as the game played on and it became apparent that the Patriots offensive line had become a 1,500-pound, five-man turnstile in pass protection. Sometimes running the ball and letting the line be the aggressor is a way to build success and cohesion.
Instead, they were on their heels much of the day Sunday. I think it’s a stretch to suggest the Patriots missed Logan Mankins — as Dolphins lineman Jared Odrick pointed out, he did give up three sacks the last time the teams met. But until this line gets it together under new coach Dave DeGuglielmo, it is fair to wonder whether Dante Scarnecchia was the most irreplaceable departure of the offseason.
Forget that save for two years with the Colts he had been on the Patriots staff since 1982, Andre Tippett’s rookie season. Remember that he had a knack for turning no-name linemen into dependable contributors time and again.
It must have been strange for Scarnecchia to have a September Sunday off for once. It was strange for the team and quarterback he left behind to have one, too.
The Patriots will be fine so long as Tom Brady’s calf is fine — presuming the offensive line doesn’t cause the elder, but still excellent, quarterback any more injuries before this one can heal.