Tom Brady Still not Top 5?

2015-02-10_16-21-05With a sixth Super Bowl appearance and a fourth victory Tom Brady capped off a strange season in the best way possible.

Last summer I wrote a piece for ESPN Insider that made the case that Brady was in decline. The headline of the piece was ‘Tom Brady is no longer a top-5 QB’ and while that isn’t the headline I would have run with (I knew it would piss people off, and it wasn’t the point I wanted to lean on), I did know that’s the point they wanted to make and felt I could defend it.

People accused the article of being nothing but clickbait, and while there is certainly an element of that (isn’t every article put up done so with the aim of getting people to read it?), I felt that the numbers, and more importantly the tape, showed a player on the decline. At Brady’s age that is inevitable at some point, and getting out in front of it could only make for a good piece.

Needless to say it blew up. It consumed the NFL world for a while, appearing all over ESPN and anywhere else that covered the league. Anybody who talks football likely had to address it at some point during that week. For that I apologise! It was not met with much agreement. “Idiotic ESPN report claims Tom Brady…” began one of my favorite response pieces.

The start of the season looked like it was vindicating the article and the logic behind it. The offensive line – a perennial strength on New England – was performing terribly in the wake of the departure of longtime OL coach Dante Scarnecchia. Brady looked uncomfortable, was struggling under the constant waves of pressure, and was beginning to miss routine passes even when he was kept clean. Clearly it wasn’t all his fault, but the Tom Brady of September was not a Top 5 QB. The Tom Brady of September was playing like crap.

After the Chiefs game I broke down his struggles further in my Analysis Notebook feature on PFF.

Little did I know that Chiefs game was about to make the turnaround in the Patriots season. From that moment on the entire team picked itself up, dusted itself off, and set about what it needed to do to become a force this season and win a Super Bowl. Brady had become visibly irked dealing with the questions about his play and there were even people talking about benching him before long for Jimmy Garoppolo after he hadn’t played late in the game against Kansas City.

I actually referenced that in the article:

“I also believe that he has more than enough talent and ability left to succeed this season and is quite clearly the Patriots’ best chance to win games. Those people mentioning a quarterback controversy are crazy”.

What I never saw coming was the totality of his turnaround following this game. I had left the door open for an uptick in form but if I’m honest I didn’t see him playing back at a truly elite level during the 2014 season. He might not continue to struggle as badly as he had been, but he wouldn’t return to the vintage Brady of old. But that’s exactly what he did over the next month.

A month, and about a thousand tweets on my timeline dragging up the old ESPN article, later I was forced to address the whole thing again with this Analysis Notebook.

The opening line pretty much summed up the turnaround:

“Tom Brady is not a Top 5 QB in the NFL. Right now he is No. 1.”

This interactive chart (which I can’t seem to get working – click on the image) showed the kind of turnaround we were talking about from the first month of the season to the second.

2015-02-10_16-59-51

Even that piece though threw a lot of the credit on a healthy Rob Gronkowski and probably did Brady a disservice for how complete his reversal in fortunes had been. Having a healthy Gronkowski on the field will help anybody out, but Brady was playing a lot, lot better. He still wasn’t perfect, and there were still missed throws, poor reads etc, but we were clearly looking at a guy who was back on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks after slipping off it earlier in the season.

What about the next few months though? Brady’s play remained elite for another month but quietly began to slip a little in the final month of the season and even into the playoffs.

2015-02-10_15-51-09

Then we come to the Super Bowl, and perhaps the most interesting game of his season. The Patriots came into that game with the perfect game plan to defeat the Seahawks. Seattle is so good at what they do on defense, and so perfectly tailored to shutting down a regular NFL offense that the only way to attack them is in excruciatingly small increments – death by a thousand papercuts. I thought the Broncos had a chance to do that the year before, but the way that game began put them on the back foot immediately and they never got into the swing of it.

The Patriots on the other hand immediately came to play using exactly that method. They had to be patient and happy with a four yard pass every down. Drives were going to take a long time to generate any points, and there may be no better quarterback in football at remaining patient and taking those ‘nothing’ plays every single snap. The way the game ended and Brady’s performance in the fourth quarter though conveniently allows people to forget entirely about his ugly interceptions earlier in the game. Those weren’t Brady losing patience, but simply awful decisions. He has not done well under pressure for some time now, which was one of the key points in the original ESPN article, and the Patriots were fantastic at ensuring he didn’t have to deal with much of it during the Super Bowl and for much of the season. Brady had the ball out of his hands on average in 2.39 seconds this season, quicker than everybody except Peyton Manning. In the Super Bowl that figure was even quicker – averaging 2.24 seconds, 1.45 seconds per play faster than Russell Wilson on the other side.

When he did get pressure though Brady made some big mistakes. All too often we define a player’s performance by the result at the end. This game essentially came down to a huge play by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback on the Patriots defense. One play that had nothing to do with Brady will be used by people who want to argue his greatest of all time legacy whichever way it went. If Butler got beat on the play Brady would have lost his last three Super Bowl appearances and would be more than a decade from his last touch of the Lombardi Trophy. Butler makes the play and people want to claim there isn’t even a discussion about who is the greatest ever – it has to be Brady. The greatness we define players by can be contorted by such arbitrary things.

In fact if you look at the knife edge that Brady’s entire career has navigated in terms of success and failure you can swing the results massively by altering just a few plays that he didn’t have anything to do with. A missed kick here or there and he loses rings and a freak catch here or there and he finds more in his collection.

We have to look at the player by what he did, not by the outcome of the game. Brady’s performance in this game was a mixed bag, but still showed his greatness. He made some huge mistakes, but he was executing one of the toughest game plans to succeed with against one of the league’s most imposing defenses. Brady was asked to make the right decision and not screw things up 51 times with the ball in his hands, and while he didn’t quite hit that perfection, he did make the right call most of the time, and was money in the fourth quarter when the game was in danger of slipping away.

Photograph: David J. Phillip/AFP

Photograph: David J. Phillip/AFP

The bottom line here is that performance, form and legacy are all fluid concepts. Every word written about Tom Brady or any other quarterback is just a snapshot in time until he has hung up his cleats for good. A year ago his play looked like it was on the way down. His performance was slipping and he entered the season playing poorly. After week four he played for two months of the season as the best quarterback in the game before ending it with another two months of good if not mind-blowing play. Even in the Super Bowl we saw the very best of him along with the very worst at different points, but we also got to witness the culmination of one of the greatest comeback stories in sports.

Tom Brady came back from a point of being written off by many all the way to winning another Super Bowl, one which cements his legacy as the greatest to ever play in the eyes of many.

I for one certainly did not think he had that kind of play left in him. I though we might see him improve, and we could see the Patriots in the playoffs and contending yet again, but I didn’t think they or he had what it took for that final push to the summit.

It’s been a while since I addressed the whole Brady saga, and given the twitter messages that still appear on my timeline, it’s probably about time I addressed once more, hopefully for good.

Was Brady a top 5 QB entering the 2014 season? I’m not so sure. Was he by the end of the season? Absolutely, and that was enough to hoist another Lombardi Trophy, which is all that really matters.

21 thoughts on “Tom Brady Still not Top 5?

  1. Your stats are all over the place and you miss many, many more important aspects. Of course Brady is going to have faster releases–his receivers are not running that far down the field. Who cares?

    The QB who wins the Super Bowl is by definition a top 5 quarterback. Nobody wins without a top 5 offense and the offense is only as good as its chief.

    • Huh?

      This is the DUMBEST argument I have ever seen. “The QB who wins the SB is by definition top 5.” Is this 4th grade? So you believe Joe Flacco was a top 5 QB when he won the SB, not someone who just got hot for a few games?

      I think you should contact Trent Dilfer because I don’t think he was aware of how amazing he was at QB when he won the SB with the Ravens.

      This is the kind of ignorance that makes arguing QBs dumb. If RW won the superbowl this year, he would still not have been a top 5 QB. Top 6-10? Probably, but just anointing them top 5 because the TEAM won a game is lazy and just wrong.

      This is the exact type of blanket analysis the author was trying to avoid when he stated Brady’s legacy shouldn’t be determined by whether or not Malcolm Butler made a big play.

  2. I remember listening to mike and mike after that Kansas city game and Golic mentioned how belichick had always been good at finding talent in unknown players. Golic then asked if belichick’s kick had finally run out in that regard. I find it funny that butler who made the play of a lifetime happened to be an undrafted free agent. In fact the pats are the only team to call him. Not to mention the luck the pats had in getting Blount.

  3. Yeah, opinions are like………….everybody has one. This dude doesn’t have to apologize for his opinion…..his opinion was just not a very good one. The problem with the media today is opinions
    get formed on what you just saw. An astute opinion should be given based on data from a good
    sample, or length of time. I don’t think this dude did that. I don’t know who he is. I don’t care for
    his opinion, cuz its not a real good one, obviously. But he’s certainly entitled to it, regardless of
    whether or not anyone pays attention to it.

  4. Sam, the issue isn’t that you’re an idiot–obviously you aren’t. But you do have a flawed theoretical understanding of football, and so you end up with the wrong unit of analysis. You’re trying to measure individual performance when the data you are looking at is actually an emergent property of unit performance. So you end up engaging in an invalid kind of reductionism–like a confused scientist trying to reduce causality an emergent property of a whole person (e.g. agency, linguistic behavior) to a part of the whole person (genes, neurology). Every play you try to chart is an emergent outcome from the unit’s performance, and generally you’re not equipped to make judgements about how individuals have contributed to that performance (this particularly try about offensive unit performance).

    • Doctoral candidate in rhetoric, eh? You can tell. 🙂

      I disagree about your final assertion, and I think the grades can do a pretty good job of that.

      The issue with the initial conclusion was that it assumed that a downward pointing arrow in a couple of key areas spelled a downward trend that would not be arrested. The second issue with it is it assumed that the Patriots and Brady would not find ways around the problem, which they have done, consciously or not, better than I would ever have predicted.

      Brady still struggled with pressure far more than he did earlier in his career, but the offensive line improved its play, and the Patriots set about ensuring he faces far less of it with how long the ball is in his hands on average. The Super Bowl was that taken to extremes. With little to no pressure Brady still makes smart decisions better than almost all QBs.

      Any data point in football is group-based rather than individual, that doesn’t mean it can’t be applied as long as you think through the various implications. There is no ‘pure’ point of individual data to work from. Doesn’t mean you don’t try and analyze from what there is.

  5. Sorry. Your article is still as poorly constructed and reasoned as your first article. You point out that Brady made some egregious mistakes with his interceptions and that if it were not for Butler, a play Brady had nothing to do with him intercepting the ball and sealing the win, then he would not have his legacy cemented. First of all the interception by Lane was a mistake by Brady, no doubt about that. However, the Wagner interception was not a ‘mistake’ but rather a great play by Wagner. On your second point you place the Butler play in a vacuum. You make absolutely no mention about how great Brady played in the fourth quarter: down by 10 points he lead two long TD-producing drives, going 13 out of 15, with a passer rating of 151 against the best secondary of the NFL. To not mention this is poor analysis on your part. You are simply glossing over how great Brady played and giving all the credit to Butler. You do know no team in the history of the NFL no team had ever come back from a 10 point deficit in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Teams were 0 for 29 before Super Bowl 49. Face it. You still do not give Brady credit and his dues even in an apology piece.

    • If you don’t think that second pick is a mistake then I can’t help you. It’s a great play by Wagner but it’s a forced throw by Brady and it’s poor ball location.

      I make no mention of Brady’s play in Q4?

      “…he did make the right call most of the time, and was money in the fourth quarter when the game was in danger of slipping away.”

      • Sorry. Don’t see it.
        You mention one blurb about the greatest comeback ever in the super bowl and said you mention it? Against one of the best defenses of modern times?
        Your bias shows.
        Again, an astute observer would say the Lane interception was a terrible decisionand thrown. Wagner’s pick was a great pick. Not a bad throw. Same with Butler’s interception of Wilson: a great INT

      • You act as if Brady made some kind of mistake that made Butler have to save the day. Brady had nothing to do with the Seahawks getting to the 1 yard line at the end of the game. Also, while Butler made a huge play, the game was not over. The Patriots could not take a knee, they had to make a play – they were at big risk for a safety with time left in the clock. But Brady did one of the things he does best and drew Seattle offsides. And that ended the game. Credit to the whole team, of course, but Brady was still needed to seal the deal.

  6. If you can’t even mention the fact that in the last three trips to the SB the Pats either lost or nearly lost on a ridiculous, unbelievable, incredibly lucky, stupid ( you pick the adjective) catch, it shows your dislike of the Pats.. So while the haters talk about Butler’s play, wilson’s throw, Pete’s play call, none of those matter if not for a catch that was tipped 3 times then caught by a receiver laying on the ground. In this game like the other SB losses these catches came after Brady had led his team to the lead in the game. Brady’s early season play had much more to do with line play and Gronk’s return, then any slippage on his part.

    • If you can’t even mention the fact that in the last three trips to the SB the Pats either lost or nearly lost on a ridiculous, unbelievable, incredibly lucky, stupid ( you pick the adjective) catch, it shows your dislike of the Pats..

      *sigh*

      “A missed kick here or there and he loses rings and a freak catch here or there and he finds more in his collection.”

      • “A missed kick here or there.”

        Right? Did you watch the Super Bowl against the Rams? The same game where the esteemed John Madden said the Patriots should sit on the ball starting at their own 17 yard line with no timeouts and he said they should play for overtime? The same John Madden (who probably knows more about football than you ever will) said what Tom Brady did on that drive gave him “goosebumps”
        The Vianterri kick in the Super Bowl was not a lucky play; David Tyree’s catch by any analysis was probably the luckiest catch in Super Bowl history.

        Here’s food for thought since you are a Brady basher: in all four Super Bowl victories Brady led his team to a game winning drive in the fourth quarter. In the other two Super Bowls he left the field with the lead each time with the defense not being able to secure the win.

  7. It is funny how people want to give Brady a full reprieve for his early-season stumbles but won’t do the same for a reporter. Obviously–and this is coming from a stout Patriots fan–Brady was not a top 5 QB at the beginning of the season. As his play developed, so did Monson’s coverage of it. As it should. There’s a difference between rating a quarterback historically & rating one as a current player. Moreover, the whole idea of “ranking” QBs is a murky one at best, and should never be met with an eye towards proving some abstract “truth” of the matter. As is aptly noted in the article, Brady could easily have 6 SB wins or just 1, without a scintilla of difference in his actual play during the games. The point is to have multiple, constantly evolving perspectives on a QB that interact both with his history and with his current performance, and not to reject (or cling to) statements or opinions that situate a given moment in that QB’s narrative. After all, you can’t move “on to” anywhere if you’re not moving “on from” a low point.

  8. I feel like all the credit that is given to Brady should be given to the pats coaching staff. I don’t think there are many starting QBs in the NFL can’t perform as well as Brady has with this team. I thought that Matt Cassel proved that back in 2008. Are there really that many QBs in the NFL that can’t complete those 4 yard passes? It’s a great game plan by the Pats. But i don’t see how that makes Brady great. When trailing by 10 in the SB, he missed every deep throw. The Pats changed the game plan back to 4 yard passes and started to move the ball again. From what I see, Brady to succeed needs to have confidence in a clean pocket or get rid on the ball on his first read (usually within 5 yards of the LOS). That doesn’t sound like a great QB to me. Your original article pretty much exposed this with solid illustrations. This article seems very subjective to me. I don’t think guys like Welker, Moss, Gronkowski, Vareen… get enough credit for the catches that they make and what they do after the catch. Even if they do (like in the case of Gronkowski), that credit isn’t subtracted from Brady. Seems to me that people who like Brady don’t take that into account.

    • You know nothing about football. You think many QBs can be as good as Brady with this team? You mean the same Brady last year who carried his team when he had lost his top five receivers from the year before? And you say he missed all his deep throws when they were down by ten in the Super Bowl? Which game were you watching? He went 13 out of 15 during those drives. So which deep throws did he miss? The one to Edelman at the goal line for an attempted three yard TD? By the way how did the “great’ Mr October Manning ( I guess you consider him to be one of the other QBs who could play as well as Brady) do against the same team in the Super Bowl a year earlier?

      And don’t show your lack of football acumen bringing up the 2008 Pats team that went 11-5 with Matt Cassell. First of all he took the Chiefs to the playoffs. So he’s a decent QB. Secondarily that year was the only year since 2001 the Patriots did not make the playoffs. And finally in 2007 the Pats were 18-1 and had gone 16-0 in the regular season with Brady. So, the Patriots, with basically the same team (only lacking Brady) were at least 52% worse without him (including 16 games) or at worst 70% without him (19 games). So please stop with the gibberish that Brady is like all the other QBs.

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