As the New England Patriots were building the closest thing to a dynasty the current generation has seen, quarterback Tom Brady rightfully cemented himself as the game's most clutch player.
From 2001-2007, Brady engineered 20 fourth-quarter comebacks and 29 game-winning drives. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years, with each championship requiring a game-winning drive from the young quarterback. Brady also won his first 10 playoff starts, which gave him a sense of invincibility no matter what the situation or pressure involved.
In fact, Brady should still be referred to as nothing less than the quarterbacking reincarnation of Joe Montana, a player in which the the term "clutch" has become all but synonymous.
But for all the early successes, accomplishments and triumphs, there's no avoiding a simple reality invading Brady's clutch factor over the last handful of seasons: the magic in New England has begun to dwindle. And Brady is partly to blame.
To be even more blunt, a wide range of statistics show that the Brady of today is probably no more than average in clutch situations. Once a god in the face of incalculable pressure, Brady is now a mere mortal when facing the same clutch scenarios.
Again, this discussion is not to take away anything Brady has already accomplished; his early run all but redefined clutch. But good things don't last forever, and that's clearly been the case with Brady's mastery of the pressure situations.
Tom Brady is no longer the clutch quarterback he once was.
Below, we'll diagram Brady's descension in the clutch.
If we're looking for a jumping-off point on Brady's decline in the clutch, the end of Super Bowl XLII might be it.
While Brady threw a touchdown pass to Randy Moss that put New England up late in the fourth quarter, Eli Manning and the New York Giants eventually staged their own comeback and upset the Patriots, 17-14. Brady threw for just 266 yards on 48 attempts, while the Giants used a never-ending flow of pressure (five sacks) to rattle the leader of the highest scoring offense in NFL history.
Keep in mind, the 2007 Patriots averaged almost 37 points a game during the regular season. Their previous scoring low that year was a 20-point output against the New York Jets. But all they could manage was 14 on the biggest stage, with football immortality (the first 18-0 season) well within reach.
Brady's ability in the clutch has slowly eroded since.
Of course, he would blow out his knee in the first game of the next season, which cost him the rest of 2008. Brady returned in 2009, but the magic was already starting to fade.
But before we dive into his ensuing struggles in clutch moments, let's take a look at how good Brady was in the same situations previously.
In 2002, or his first full season as the starting quarterback, Brady posted a 91.0 split passer rating (13 touchdowns, five interceptions) in close games (within one score), and a 122.9 rating in late and close game situations.
From that point until the end of 2007, Brady threw nearly three times as many touchdowns as interceptions in close games and posted a passer rating above 100.0. He was the definition of clutch in late games, and so were the Patriots; their record was a shiny 39-10 in games decided by a touchdown or less in Brady's first seven seasons.
Something changed drastically starting in 2009.
That season, Brady threw seven interceptions in games decided by a touchdown or less. He also threw three (against just one touchdown) in the fourth quarter of one-score games.
The Patriots won 10 games and qualified for the postseason, but the Baltimore Ravens roughed up Brady's bunch. Despite the game being played in New England, Baltimore jumped out to a 24-0 first quarter lead and intercepted Brady three times. The 33-14 shellacking marked the worst loss in Brady's playoff history and the first time he'd been beat in the postseason at home.
In the three years since (2010-12), Brady has tossed 17 interceptions in games decided by one score or less—including four in one-possession games in the fourth quarter.
In comparison, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown 27 touchdowns against just four interceptions in games decided by a touchdown since 2010. He also has zero interceptions in the fourth quarter of close games.
The Patriots' win-loss record in close games has reflected Brady's decline.
Since 2009, New England is just 16-13 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That mark includes a 1-5 record of games decided by a field goal or less. Overall, the Patriots fell from winning nearly 80 percent (39 of 49) of their one-score games from 2001-07 to just 55 percent since.
The start of the 2012 season only magnified Brady's struggles in the clutch.
The Patriots started 3-3, with losses to the Arizona Cardinals (20-18), Ravens (31-30) and Seattle Seahawks (24-23) in the first six weeks.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Brady was just 6-for-17 for 65 yards in the fourth quarter of the three losses. He was given a chance to win each game with a fourth quarter drive but failed in each scenario.
By the end of 2012, Brady had thrown eight more interceptions in games decided by a touchdown or less (he had eight total in all situations). His three-year passer rating in close games dipped below 86.0.
Again, let's compare those numbers to the game's best quarterbacks. Rodgers' three-year passer rating in close-game situations is 111.8. Drew Brees clocks in at 106.1.
The previously linked ESPN Stats and Information article also points out that Brady's QBR (ESPN's fancy new way to interpret passer rating) in the fourth quarter of one-score games from 2009 to Week 6 of 2012 was just 15.0. Only four quarterbacks were worse in that time span.
The Patriots have also lost seven games from 2009-2012 in which the team led with under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, according to this Numbers Never Lie video from ESPN. Only two teams have more, and you can bet Brady's struggles during these game situations have contributed to New England's recent knack of throwing games away.
This isn't a singular argument that lacks depth; in fact, it's quite the opposite. A wide range of statistics and records show that Brady's clutch factor has decreased significantly since the start of the 2009 season.
And with those struggles have come New England's inability to win another Super Bowl.
After starting 10-0 in the playoffs, Brady has just a 7-7 postseason record since.
Two of the losses came to the Giants in the Super Bowl, in which Brady combined to throw just three touchdowns and post a passer rating under 90.0.
Another two losses came via the Ravens, who beat up Brady in 2009 and then stomped him again in the AFC Championship game last January. Had it not been for Lee Evans dropping a sure touchdown the previous January, Brady would have three-straight losses to Baltimore. But even in that win, Brady threw two interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 57.4.
Are there reasons for Brady's decline in the clutch? Sure.
For starters, the Patriots defense hasn't been anywhere near as good recently as it was during the Super Bowl run.
From 2001-07, New England had five different defenses finish in the top 10 of points allowed and four defenses ranked in the top 10 of yards allowed. While the scoring defense has remained (three-straight top 15 finishes), the yardage has come in droves. The Patriots have finished 25th or worse in yards allowed in each of the last three seasons.
More and more, Brady has been expected to lead less balanced Patriots teams to glory.
One could also make the argument that Brady's receiving corps has been more limited, but it's hard to feel sorry for a guy who has spent the last three or so seasons throwing to the likes of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, among others. He also had a future Hall of Famer in Randy Moss for a stretch.
There might be more tangible reasons for Brady's decline.
Steelers safety Ryan Clark helped outline a growing reality for Brady: he doesn't deal well with pressure.
Speaking on ESPN's NFL Live (via CSNNE.com), Clark made a strong statement about how to deal with Brady and the Patriots offense.
"When Tom Brady gets pressure and when you’re man-to-man and bumping those guys and making it hard for him to throw, he sees ghosts. Even when guys aren’t around him, even when he’s not about to be sacked, when his clock goes off in his head that the ball should be out, we’ll see him duck, we’ll see him flinch. When you get Tom Brady doing that, the whole New England Patriots mystique goes away.”
While certainly brash, Clark's comments aren't based in some fantasy land. They are rooted in truth.
In both Super Bowls, the Giants beat and battered Brady with pressure. The Ravens have now successfully figured out ways to create chaos in the pocket and disrupt Brady. Even the forgotten-about New York Jets have put together defensive game plans to beat Brady with pressure.
Is Tom Brady still the most clutch quarterback in the NFL?
And when the pressure has come, the clutch factor has gone out the window for Brady.
More advanced metrics point to the success pressure can have on Brady's effectiveness.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady completed just 55-of-136 attempts in 2012 while under their definition of pressure. That figure ranked Brady 25th among NFL quarterbacks, behind the likes of even Mark Sanchez. By any measure, Brady was very poor against pressure in 2012.
In comparison, Ben Roethlisberger completed nearly 15 percent more of his passes under pressure last season than Brady.
It wouldn't be at all unfair to label a portion of Brady's eroding effectiveness in clutch situations to good defenses figuring out the blueprint to beating the Patriots offense.
That said, Brady remains among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
Over just the last three years, he has thrown for 109 touchdowns against just 24 interceptions. The Patriots have won 39 regular-season games. Nothing about this argument is attempting to take away Brady's rightfully-earned position at or very near the top of the quarterbacking hierarchy.
However, there's just as little of doubt surrounding his decline in the clutch department.
The numbers are very clear: After an unimaginable start to his career, in which his legacy was all but cemented by the age of 27, Brady has come back down to earth in the pressure situations.
Teams have begun to figure out how to play him in the biggest moments, and the result has been zero championships since 2004.
Brady remains among the game's best. He's just no longer the same immortal quarterback in the clutch that he was earlier in his career.