New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady turned 37 this past week, and celebrated it like he has probably for the last twenty-plus years: out on the practice fields working with his team.
With much discussion about his decline this offseason, all eyes will be on Brady, as he takes the field in 2014 to see if he can win that elusive fourth Super Bowl championship.
Brady is the elder statesman on the Patriots’ roster, and unlike Peyton Manning, who is only in his third season in Denver, Brady has been wearing Patriots red, white, and blue since he entered the league as a sixth-round draft pick in 2000.
The names of players on that team are distant memories, as Drew Bledsoe, Kevin Faulk, J.R. Redmond, Troy Brown, Terry Glenn, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Ted Johnson, and Willie McGinest have long since retired. Only kicker Adam Vinatieri (now in Indianapolis) remains in the NFL from that squad.
Despite the analysts and media members ready to drop Brady from the list of elite quarterbacks in the NFL, he is far from finished.
When Brady runs the Patriots’ offense, he’s still in complete command of his teammates, and dictating positive matchups against the opposing defenses. His best attribute is not his arm, but his brain. Like Manning, Brady functions at an intellectual level on the field with his understanding of the offense, and its concepts and goals allows him to win the battle before the ball is even snapped. Even at his current age, Brady’s arm strength is more than adequate, and he fires short and intermediate passes with as much force as ever.
The basis of the Patriots’ offense run by Brady is the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins system initially brought in by head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis from the New York Giants. Belichick and Brady, over the years, have refined and adapted the offense under superb offensive coordinators Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels.
One of the difficult aspects for the receivers and quarterbacks is that the offense has multiple formations and option routes for the wideouts to adapt to after the ball is snapped based upon what defense is presented to them. Brady and his receivers have to recognize what the defense is giving them, and adjust their read without communicating to each other.
Despite the multiple receiver groupings – multi-receiver, tight end, running backs split wide, etc. – there are basically a set number of core plays that is then differentiated and masked in alternate formations.
With Brady leading the offense alongside intelligent playmakers, the offense can still be dynamic.
Brady needs his receivers to understand the concept of the offense on each play, and it will result in big plays. The Patriots do not win with trick plays, but rather running the same plays with different formations, players, alignments and routes. Where the offense is at its best is when the receivers and quarterback both read the defense identically, and the wideouts haul in the pigskin with time and space.
Last year, there was no doubt that Brady struggled.
His touchdowns dropped from 34 in 2012 to 25, interceptions rose from eight to 11, passing yards decreased from 5,237 in 2011, to 4,827 in ’12, and then down to 4,343 last season, and his quarterback rating dropped the last four years from 111.0 in ’10, to 87.3 last year – per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
However, the challenges last year were easy to see in looking at the big picture. In the first game of the season against Buffalo, already without his top target in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was still recovering from multiple off-season surgeries, Brady lost his number one receiver Danny Amendola to a groin injury, and running back Shane Vereen to a wrist injury.
All of a sudden, Brady was going into Week 2 of the season missing his top-three targets, who were all on the sidelines. Instead, he had Julien Edelman, a seventh-round draft pick and converted small school college quarterback as his top receiving threat, two rookies at the wide receiver spots outside in Aaron Dobson and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, and no production in the passing game from the running backs and tight ends.
By the time Gronkowski returned at midseason, along with Amendola and Vereen, the Pats’ offense kicked into gear.
Brady threw for 432 yards with 4 touchdowns, and completed 69.7-percent of his passes in Week 9 against Pittsburgh. He then threw for 296 yards, a touchdown, and a 72.5-percent completion rate in Carolina in Week 10. Then, Brady completed 68-percent of his passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns in a come-from-behind win over Denver in Week 11. Then, he added 371 yards, 2 touchdowns and a 70.7-percent completion rate in Houston in Week 13. And finally, 418 yards, two touchdowns and a 61-percent completion rate against Cleveland – when Gronkowski was lost for the year – in Week 13.
After Gronkowski went down – along with Brady’s trio of rookie wide receivers Thompkins, Dobson, and Josh Boyce – New England’s offense struggled again, as they leaned more on the running game. However, regardless, when he has a bare minimum of support around him, Brady is still among the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL.
Last year the Patriots’ front office failed to provide sufficient depth and quality around Brady, and the team still was able to reach the AFC Championship again. Yet, like Peyton Manning, the final chapter has yet to be written in Tom Brady’s career.
In fact, the two seem poised to continue their battles for AFC supremacy for many years to come before age slows them down.
So, tell me again: why’s Brady not elite?