Tom Brady’s quarterback rating is sparkling. His completion percentage is terrific. His stats, as always, paint the picture of a field general at the top of his game.
Has it been deserved? In many ways, yes. Few quarterbacks have shown there’s more behind the numbers than Brady has this season.
The New England Patriots offense has spent much of 2012 saddled with inconsistency and a lack of poise—shortcomings made even more baffling and frustrating considering the talent on the field. The Patriots seem to spend the early parts of games alternating between schemes while clumsily looking for a rhythm, and the final quarters going three-and-out when their defense needs the offense the most.
As the starting quarterback, Brady draws heat for this. And he should. Week after week, Brady’s done a better job moving the offense while the game’s been developing than he has when the situation has settled, and one concise drive or couple of first downs are all that's separating the team from a win. It was an anomaly; it’s becoming a trend.
Brady iced those concerns for the time being with a bravura performance during a stunning, come-from-behind win over the Jets, but the narrative hasn’t changed much. Eight weeks in, it’s hard to gauge in which direction Brady and this offense are trending.
The best way to break Brady down might be by looking at a few of his assets separately.
Physically speaking, throwing accuracy is Brady’s greatest ability. So far, Brady’s shown he still has plenty of that to spare.
Sure, his deep throw accuracy has seemed to dip long term and has been spotty this season, but stretching the field has never been Brady’s strength as a passer. He lives off of the intermediate routes—and he’s been thriving in the middle of the field this year.
When the passing game has been clicking, the formula for the Patriots has been the same. Wes Welker’s been busy out of the slot, Rob Gronkowski’s worked up the seam and Brandon Lloyd has been used more for his proficiency along the sidelines than forced into a role as a deep threat.
That mode of attack puts the onus on Brady to make the tight throws at the sticks, and so far, he’s been acing the challenge, posting ratings of 100 or higher four times and 95 or higher five times, with a 65.3 completion percentage.
They haven't all been easy throws, either. Brady has always had a knack for getting the ball to where only his receiver can catch it, and he's had a few of those passes on display this season.
His touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski against the Jets (0:58 of this video) was a perfect example. Gronkowski was covered closely by LaRon Landry, but Brady's throw was right on the money, finding the fine line between being long enough to elude Landry's reach and short enough for Gronkowski to have the chance at the catch.
Brady may not have the gunslinger's touch deep, but he's never relied on it. His game has been on moving the chains, and those throws are still on target.
While Brady's late-game struggles have drawn criticism, his poise in the pocket has been questioned as well.
It's been a common take on Brady, ever since the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, that frequent hits in the pocket rattle him and take him out of his rhythm. Those detractors have had new fuel this year, as Brady has sometimes ducked from rushers that weren't there, even during plays that ended up going for positive gains.
Brady does seem to have lost some of that fearlessness from earlier in his career, when he was oblivious to the pass rush and would step into a throw even with a linebacker closing in with a full head of steam.
Now, Brady has a more cautious approach. He takes more sacks, and is quicker to move away from the rush, even if it's not at him yet.
Brady still has a great internal clock and a good sense for the rush, and he's never been better at protecting the ball. He's also showed good resilience, bouncing back from a bad fourth quarter against the Jets to stand tall in the pocket and lead the Patriots.
And these developments for Brady aren't necessarily bad. He remains one of the best pocket quarterbacks in the league, and at 35 years old, anything he can do to buy himself extra health could pay off in the long run.
For much of the 2012 season, Brady's looked as good as he ever has. But letdown after letdown with the game on the line late for him and the offense have qualified his success.
In two of the Patriots' three losses, to Baltimore and Seattle, New England had the ball and the lead late in the fourth, needing only a few first downs to ice the game. Instead, the high-powered offense sputtered, with Brady—who's had some questionable decisions, such as going to a covered Deion Branch on a pivotal 3rd-and-8 against Seattle—being one of the reasons why.
The reason for the offense's struggles isn't clear, especially since the unit has often moved effortlessly through the first three quarters. New England's porous pass defense likely has a role, as the Patriots' offense often gets the ball late with heavy pressure to avoid giving it back to the defense.
With clock and field position questions thrust into the situation, the offense—from Josh McDaniels's playcalling to Brady and Co.'s execution—instead looks indecisive and, ultimately, ineffective.
The same situation came to light against the Jets, as the offense again failed to salt away the game, but this time, it came with a breakthrough. The Patriots got the ball with less than two minutes left but also with a deficit, making the situation more urgent, but simpler as well. New England didn't have to manage the game. It just had to score.
In this situation, Brady was classic Brady again. He went in the shotgun, brought out the no-huddle and picked the Jets apart. It was his first time in that situation since playing Dallas last year, and once again, it was a complete success.
How this offense handles those late-game possessions from now on remains to be seen, but some trends have become evident. When the Patriots have tried to finesse their way through the endgame, they've come up short. When they've gone back to basics, with the ball in Brady's hands, it's been a different story.
For Brady and the Patriots, 2012's been a mixed bag. With half a season left, the time has come for them to sort themselves out.