By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Only eight teams remain alive in this year’s quest to win Super Bowl LIII, which means each and every team left standing is certain to come under intense focus. And as you might expect, that includes the guy who lines up under center for the New England Patriots, a guy who’s always under intense focus.
Yes, after completing the best season in NFL history by a 41-year-old quarterback, Tom Brady is now embarking on a much more important mission: Winning his sixth Super Bowl. Doing so won’t be easy; the AFC is loaded with talent.
Plus, Brady is almost a full year older than he was last year, if you can believe that. And the results of that monumental physical change? We’re startin’ to see ’em, folks!
That’s at least the takeaway of Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier, who wrote a story Tuesday titled “His Passing Numbers Don’t Lie: Tom Brady Really Is Getting Old.”
The headline tells an undeniable truth: Tom Brady is getting older. Every day, in fact, brings Brady one day closer to death, which comes for us all — even the richest and healthiest of those among us.
He’s older now than he was when you started reading this story, if you can believe that.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. One second closer to the end.
Pretty dark stuff.
As the kids might say, the story’s lighting up the internet (or at least Patriots Twitter), because any time anyone says that Brady is old, it becomes a story and a talking point and all of that. Max Kellerman truly awakens. Rex Ryan starts to feel a rumbly in his tumbly. Those who’ve grown tired of watching the Patriots every January get excited to DIG IN.
That’s because any time anything involving Brady becomes a matter of public discourse, the country just can’t get enough.
Here’s an excerpt from Tanier’s story:
“Next Gen Stats also include a trove of data about the lengths of throws, the time a quarterback spends in the pocket and so forth. The data has barely been explored, because analytics types like me have no clue what to do with most of it.”
Fear not, dear reader, for Tanier figured out exactly what to do with that data — he went ahead and came to some grand conclusions based on the Next Gen Stats. Yes, the very same Next Gen Stats that he said he had “no clue what to do with” just a few paragraphs prior.
Using some of that data, the conclusion is made that Brady’s not throwing the ball down the field as much because he’s old and thus apparently not capable.
Brady’s taking 2.6 seconds to throw the football after the snap. Tanier said Brady ranked seventh in this category; that was cheating. Brady only ranks seventh if you include Jeff Driskel (176 pass attempts) and C.J. Beathard (169 attempts) in the mix. Really, Brady ranked fifth … and this was a category led by Derek Carr … who got rid of the ball by an average of 0.06 seconds quicker than Brady.
Must be the age difference.
But Tanier just included the “raw data,” which could lead you to believe that Brady’s not as good as Jeff Driskel or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton or C.J. Beathard at anything involving quarterbacking. That’s disingenuous at the very best. At the very best.
Tanier then used Brady’s ranking 21st in “Air Yards To The Sticks” as a demerit. That’s a stat that measures the average distance to the first-down marker that a quarterback throws a pass. Brady was at -1.1. Here’s the shining trio that led the NFL in that department:
1. Jameis Winston
2. Josh Allen
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Again, this is a very important stat. (Patrick Mahomes, the presumed MVP, was fourth … but he was a full yard behind Fitzpatrick. Drew Brees, the presumed MVP runner-up, was at -1.6. What an old bum! Bad season for him. Stats are fun.)
The next stat used to diminish Brady was intended air yards. Brady wasn’t great here, as he ranked 24th. Know who was great in this department? Josh Allen. He ranked No. 1. (Jameis Winston was No.2, followed by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Sam Darnold.)
Brady was likewise bad in average air yards per completion, as he ranked 23rd there. Only Hall of Famers like Ryan Fitzpatrick (No. 1), Jameis Winston (No. 2) and downfield passing threat LAMAR JACKSON (No. 8) are capable of succeeding in that category. Brady’s not in that class.
While ranking 24th in this category may not have been particularly awesome, Brady ranked 12 spots ahead of Ben Roethlisberger … who led the league in passing yards. Roethlisberger ranked fifth-worst in this category, so what does this stat tell you, exactly? I sure don’t know.
Tanier then went to Aggressiveness, where Brady ranked 27th. According to Tanier, this was bad.
In the same category, Mahomes ranked 36th.
Patrick Mahomes, while technically getting older every day too, is not old. So why does he rank so low?
For that matter, why do Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins all rank behind Brady in this category?
Plus, why on EARTH are we spending even one second ascribing value to a stat where JOSH ROSEN is the leader? Is 2018 Josh Rosen the quarterback whom other quarterbacks should aspire to be?
I’m not a Next Gen Stats guy. In fact I have no idea what to do with any of this. But I can say this with certainty: no.
The answer is no.
In that same category which Rosen led, Driskel ranked second, Fitzpatrick was third, Winston was fourth, Sam Darnold was fifth, and Eli Manning was sixth. Those six quarterbacks also happened to throw interceptions on 3.1 percent of their pass attempts. But boy were they were AGGRESSIVE!!!
It’s almost like a lot of these stats are … meaningless.
Not included in the story was this: For the first time ever, Brady’s most targeted receiver was not a wide receiver and was not a tight end. Brady’s most targeted receiver was … a running back. By a huge margin.
James White was targeted on 123 of Brady’s 570 passes this season. “Wow!” you may say in astonishment. “That’s quite a high number!”
You’d be correct.
The only other Patriot with more than 100 targets this year was Julian Edelman, who was surprisingly excellent in coming off a torn ACL/PED suspension double whammy, but nevertheless only played 12 games this year. Edelman was targeted 107 times by Brady.
After that? It’s Rob Gronkowski, who was targeted just 72 times. Then it’s Josh Gordon, who’s no longer on the team but was nevertheless targeted 68 times over his 11-game Patriots career. Chris Hogan (55), Phillip Dorsett (42) and Cordarrelle Patterson (28) round out the top six.
And, lo and behold, what happens when the lack of quality weapons elsewhere forces you to throw to your running back more often? Why, basically all of your yardage numbers drop.
White caught 87 passes, which led the team. Behind him was Edelman, with 74 catches.
After that? Gronkowski. With just 47 receptions.
White is not a downfield threat because, again, he’s a running back. Edelman’s also not a downfield threat; he’ll get you to the sticks and keep your drive moving, but he’s not beating anyone on a go route or a deep post. And anyone who watched Gronkowski could see that — whether it was due to injury or Next Gen Stats that say he’s now too old — the Hall of Fame tight end was not ever his usual self this season.
Unsurprisingly, when your best three receivers all lack the ability to A) quickly get down the field and B) quickly get open down the field, what happens is that you end up throwing passes that don’t travel down the field. After all, throwing deep to nobody would be an odd decision for a quarterback to make, regardless of age.
(White did get a brief mention late in the story, for what that’s worth. Gotta cover all your bases.)
And, shockingly, when Brady did have a deep threat type of receiver at his disposal, he used him — quite well, in fact. Gordon averaged 18 yards per reception during his brief tenure as a top receiver for the Patriots. Wouldn’t ya know it — that was the second-best such mark in the entire NFL.
It’s almost as if personnel has more to do with a quarterback throwing fewer deep passes than he used to throw.
This isn’t to say that Tanier’s premise doesn’t have any basis in reality. The fact is, passing numbers exploded this year, with the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff and Matthew Ice going off like the Fourth of July throughout the season. It was crazy. Brady largely stayed out of the party, though, throwing four touchdowns in a game just once and topping 300 passing yards just five times. He threw zero or one touchdown in a game eight times this season, which is distinctly un-Brady-like and not at all comparable to the otherworldly three-year stretch which Brady just completed.
Is something up? Is Brady lacking something physically that he’s always had in his arsenal? Have the resistance bands and the overdoses on electrolytes failed him? Maybe!
It may be true. But those Next Gen Stats aren’t the way of reaching that conclusion — not when they’re used by someone who said he doesn’t know how to use them. And certainly not by someone who assessed in November that “Tom Brady’s arm looks like overcooked fettuccine right now.” That was an assessment that either willfully ignored or just couldn’t see that when it came to physically delivering a football … Brady’s arm was fine.
When it came to shifting in the pocket, stepping up and out of pressure, Brady was fine.
When you watch a quarterback throwing like that, and you invoke the name of 2015 Peyton Manning, and you say the arm is “toast” and throw in the flaccid fettuccine? You do lose some credibility on the matter. That’s the cost of doing business in the midseason take industry.
The numbers were down, of course, but was that due to age? Actually looking at the player on the field, that would’ve been a difficult conclusion to draw. Rewatch that final GIF; boy howdy does that pass have some smoke. (Though one must fully admit that the “overcooked fettuccine” line is a decent one, and you can really only keep that puppy in a cage for so long before it needs to see the light of day. No harm, no foul on that one.)
Likewise, relying on some Next Gen Stats to say that Brady is now suddenly too old? Roughly 11 months after he set a Super Bowl record with 505 passing yards? Just 12 months after posting a 108.4 passer rating against the NFL’s best passing defense in an outdoor AFC Championship Game in the Northeast? Just a year after turning in the single best three-game postseason run of the Hall of Fame career that he created by being an all-time postseason performer? Just one season after winning the MVP, leading the NFL in passing yards and ranking in the top five of every important passing category?
Saying that this is all about age seems like a flimsy argument. Time comes for us all … but generally not that rapidly.
It’s also worth noting that, with a steady rushing attack, the Patriots as a team ranked fifth in total offense and fourth in scoring. Running an efficient offense ultimately is what Brady’s on the field to do, even if his personal stats take a hit in the process.
Tanier shared his story Tuesday morning and announced that he was prepared for a day of arguing. He’s then followed through on his promise. You can certainly join that fray if you’d like, but really, you’d be better off leaving the man alone. He’s got his thing, and with the Patriots finding themselves slightly less talented than the Chiefs and Chargers this January, he’s got a decent chance of getting to play the “told ya so” game in the coming weeks.
Yes, Brady and the Patriots may lose Sunday, and they may lose the following Sunday, and they may once again lose in the Super Bowl. Brady may play spectacularly in those games, or he may play poorly. The factors contributing to that play are innumerable. Age may be somewhere on the list, but anyone who’s watched him deliver passes this year would rightfully say that it’s nowhere near the top.
You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.