Let’s leave the MVP discussion for Skippy and Goatface and All Takes Matter and that Sunday morning show featuring Mike Lupica that nobody watches anymore. The conversation worth having right now is the one about Tom Brady. Because Tom Brady is incredible.
Brady had to miss four games because of Ballghazi, and he’s largely been without his best offensive weapon in Rob Gronkowski. Yet none of it has mattered. Brady still went 11-1 as a starter—and was within one yard of forcing overtime in the game he did lose—while posting some of the best numbers of his storied career. And by the time next season starts, he’ll be 40 years old. Like, huh?
It’s true that the Patriots operate with the persistent precision of the Antikythera mechanism, 16 years (and counting) as a league powerhouse. But there’s also the way they battened things down to withstand Brady’s absence and won three of four games with a pair of completely inexperienced quarterbacks. If Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett proved the superiority of the Patriots’ system—as Matt Cassel once did during an entire season in which Brady was injured—then Brady’s performance since his return has only reinforced his status as a transcendent talent. At an age when most great quarterbacks are exerting themselves to make pizza commercials or tee times, Tom Brady seems to be getting better. How is that possible?
By all accounts, Brady has the discipline and devotion of a Benedictine monk. His workout regimen and general abnegation has been well-chronicled. During his suspension, he told Dayna Evans of New York magazine he’s never consumed coffee or eaten a strawberry. “Sometimes we’ll go over to Tom and Gisele’s house for dinner,” Brady’s father told Mark Leibovitch of the New York Times Magazine two years ago.* “And then I’ll say afterward, ‘Where are we going for dinner?’” Brady has said he wants to play for another 10 years; I was among those on a conference call who laughed when he said that. But how has he given anyone any reason to doubt him?
Which isn’t to say that Brady is the same quarterback he’s always been. Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels—who’s now a hot head-coaching candidate again—had adapted the passing game in recent years to rely heavily on short, quick throws out of sets that frequently include three or more receivers, which has since become an NFL norm. It’s a strategy that takes advantage of the entire width of the field, creates mismatches, and neutralizes blitzes, thus allowing Brady to endure fewer hits that might otherwise shorten his career. Brady could always throw it deep with the best of them—back in 2007, when the Pats ripped through the regular season without a loss and Brady led the league in just about every statistical category, he threw 84 passes that traveled 20 yards or more, according to Pro Football Focus. This year, he attempted just 49. But his passer rating on those deep balls in 2016 was 118.2, which was better than the deep-ball rating of 100.7 he had during that sensational ’07 run.
In 2007, however, Brady could launch the ball to Randy Moss; he has no Moss-like deep threat this year. He also only got to play six games with Gronk, and Gronk wound up leaving two of those games early. Yet you wouldn’t know it. Brady still completed touchdown passes to nine different pass catchers. Per PFF, his passer rating on third down (127.7) and on play-action passes (128.1) was the best in the league. PFF also tracks something called turnover-worthy throws; Brady had the lowest percentage of them (0.81 percent) of any quarterback in the NFL. And according to another PFF metric, adjusted completion percentage ([completions + drops] / [attempts - throwaways - spikes - batted passes - hit as thrown]), Brady ranked third (79.5 percent). He’s been so dominant that his 28:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio set an NFL record.
The Patriots threw just two interceptions all year as a team, which demolished the previous NFL record. As Pro Football Talk noted, no NFL team—in any era, even when they played 12 games a season—has thrown fewer than five picks. The Vikings threw five this year, all by Sam Bradford. But Brady’s, Garoppolo’s, and Brissett’s combined interception rate was a miniscule 0.36 percent, compared to Bradford’s 0.91 percent. And the Patriots’ trio did this even as they averaged 12.1 yards per completion, which tied for fifth in the NFL, compared to Bradford’s and Shaun Hill’s 9.9 yards per completion, which tied for last. This is not a team that avoided mistakes by going conservative.
OK, so even without Gronk, Brady’s targets aren’t going to be confused for, say, the Eagles’. Julian Edelman, James White, and Martellus Bennett all rank in the Top 20 in yards after catch, and only 1.85 percent of Brady’s passes were dropped (compared to 5.21 percent of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s). Brady also has the advantage of a varied running back group (LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, White, fullback James Develin) that makes his use of play-action that much more effective. But Brady elevates everything and everyone with his ability to make reads at the line of scrimmage and to run through his progressions.
This play against the Bills in Week 8 was called back because an ineligible lineman had (barely) moved too far downfield, but watch Brady do a little Aaron Rodgers-like improvisation and take a big hit as he delivers a long TD to Edelman:
Watch Brady recognize before the snap that safety Jonathan Meeks is positioned deep to assist cornerback Stephon Gilmore against wideout Chris Hogan. Brady uses his eyes to lure Meeks toward the middle of the field; Meeks barely takes two steps to his left before Brady launches the ball toward Hogan, turning Meeks around and rendering him useless:
Here’s a better view of Brady looking Meeks off. As soon as Meeks (No. 36, bottom right at start of play) takes two steps to his left, Gilmore is toast. And after the play, Gilmore’s reaction makes it obvious he was expecting help:
In that same Bills game, the Patriots lined up with a five-wide spread and an empty backfield. The Bills showed what appeared to be a blitz look up the middle, with two linebackers shaded toward the line of scrimmage. Brady understood a blitz would mean single coverage, but he also understood that if those linebackers rolled into coverage, they’d have to contain something short or in the flat. So what does Brady do? He looks at Julian Edelman, who ran a short curl right near the Bills’ logo. Two Bills defenders bit, leaving Gronkowski in single coverage deep. And because Gronk beat his man, it was a touchdown:
Against the Niners in Week 11, Brady steps up in the pocket and sees Malcolm Mitchell break off his route and head deep. Even with Danny Amendola out there—along with Niners cornerback Tramaine Brock (No. 26), who’s probably still confused as to how this play ended—Brady drops a in perfect touch throw for a TD.
Then there was the way Brady and Hogan salted away the Ravens in Week 14. With the Pats up three in the fourth quarter, both Brady and Hogan saw safety Eric Weddle bite on the play-action, which left Hogan in single coverage up the seam. Touchdown. Game over:
Sunday at the Dolphins, Michael Floyd’s downfield block on Brady’s 77-yard touchdown pass to Edelman caught everyone’s attention. But the Pats had lined up with three receivers, two backs, and no tight ends. Both backs stayed in to block, and Brady and Edelman both recognized the cushion Edelman was given at the line of scrimmage. A quick throw to the sticks turned into a TD:
Which brings us back to what PFF’s Zac Robinson wrote a few weeks ago about the Patriots’ schematic approach in light of Gronk’s injury:
The flexibility the Patriots have with personnel groupings within the offense have been on display in recent weeks, however. Without Gronkowski, snaps have been going to a sixth lineman at times to help in the running game and for added protection, as well as two-back sets or 20-personnel (two RBs, zero TEs, three WRs).
The Patriots field a week-to-week, game-plan-specific offense, both with their formations and added wrinkles in their passing schemes. One formation the Patriots have always utilized at a high rate—and very efficiently—is empty, no-back sets. … An empty set has been called upon at some critical moments of games this season, and is a good formation to get the matchups New England would like to expose.
It’s become impossible to isolate Tom Brady from the system in which he works—neither would be nearly as effective without the other—and it’s futile to even try. And there appears to be no reason the Patriots should have to separate the two anytime in the near future.