Is Tom Brady Still One of the NFL's Best Quarterbacks?

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Is Tom Brady Still One of the NFL's Best Quarterbacks?
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

A recent interview with Peter King of the Monday Morning Quarterback has sparked discussion about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Brady told King that he intends to play for many years to come:

"I don’t expect to be given anything. I just hope I’m the one most entitled to play that position for a long time here. There’s nothing that can wake me up at five o’clock in the morning on a Thursday in May like getting ready for a day of football. I want to play a long time."

His personal quarterback coach believes that Brady can and will play into his 40s. A more objective view from Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) suggests that Brady's decline has already begun, so it's unlikely that he can be a quality starter for four more seasons.

At 37 years old, which Brady will be in August, with a fully guaranteed contract until the 2017 season, the Patriots long-time starter figures to be the greatest test of Bill Belichick's ruthlessness with aging veterans.

It's abundantly clear that Brady wasn't one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last year. He struggled during the regular season and was arguably even worse during the team's run to the AFC Championship.

Because of his standing among his peers and the career he has enjoyed to this point, it's hard to be so definitive about that analysis without opening yourself up to major retribution. Even approaching 37 years of age, Brady is still one of the most liked players in the NFL.

Two arguments are generally made to support Brady's MVP candidacy from last year. They are labelled differently, but they are essentially the same argument.

The lack of recognizable pieces around Brady on offense last year leads to the argument that his supporting cast wasn't good enough. The argument that he wasn't able to produce because his offensive line couldn't protect him and his receivers couldn't get open.

For similar reasons, the record of the team as a whole and their ability to reach the AFC Championship is used to support the argument that Brady dragged his team that far. The argument that all Brady does is win, regardless of his actual performance on the field.

It's true that Brady's supporting cast was weakened in 2013. It's also true that it likely adversely affected his individual performance.

It's not true that Brady is the only quarterback in the league who had to deal with a diminished offense around him and it's also not true that he had one of the worst supporting casts in the NFL last year. Many other quarterbacks fought through greater adversity and still produced more than him.

For the first time since 2006, Brady threw less than 26 touchdown passes. For the third time since 2006, he threw more than 10 interceptions, and his 60.5 completion percentage was his lowest since 2003 and the second lowest of his career.

Those are the raw numbers that can be used to dig the grave. More context is needed to push his reputation in.

Over the years, Brady has consistently played behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Bill Belichick has always placed an emphasis on winning in the trenches. Since the 2000 draft, the Patriots have spent three of their top picks on offensive linemen. They have drafted 21 offensive linemen in total during that time.

By investing in pieces for reputable offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired after last season, the Patriots were able to consistently give Brady the protection he required to be effective. In particular, the line excelled at creating a pocket for Brady so he could consistently step into his throws.

In 2013, the interior of the offensive line suddenly became very old. Left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly are all veterans, Wendell less so than the other two, but they often looked like rookies in protection last year.

For Brady, that proved to be a major problem—one that overshadowed any issues he might have had with his receivers getting open. However, it was also a problem that many other quarterbacks in the league faced.

Team Quarterback Injured/Replaced Week 1 OL Starters Regular Season Starts Missed Quarterback Rating
Carolina Panthers Cam Newton Left Guard Chris Scott, Right Guard Garry Williams, Right Tackle Byron Bell 25 88.8
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger Left Tackle Mike Adams, Center Maurkice Pouncey 21 92.0
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan Left Tackle Sam Baker, Center Peter Konz, Right Guard Garrett Reynolds, Right Guard Lamar Holmes 20 89.6
Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson Left Tackle Russell Okung, Right Tackle Breno Giacomini, Right Guard JR Sweezy, Center Max Unger 19 101.2
Denver Broncos Peyton Manning Left Tackle Ryan Clady, Right Tackle Orlando Franklin 15 115.1
San Diego Chargers Philip Rivers Left Tackle King Dunlap, Left Guard Chad Rinehart, Right Guard Jeromey Clary, Right Tackle D.J. Fluker 12 105.5
New England Patriots Tom Brady Left Tackle Nate Solder, Right Tackle Sebastien Vollmer 9 87.3
New Orleans Saints Drew Brees Left Tackle Charles Brown, Right Guard Jahri Evans, Right Tackle Zach Strief 5 104.7

NFL.com

Save for maybe Drew Brees, whose offensive line was limited by poor left tackle play, none of the quarterbacks listed above played behind a line that was dramatically better than New England's last season.

Sure, Pro Football Focus' Pass Blocking Efficiency rating (subscription required) will say that the Broncos had the best pass protection in the NFL last year, but that rating is blurred by Peyton Manning's ability to get rid of the ball before the pass rush ever closes in on him.

Brady does get rid of the ball quickly as well—0.1 seconds on average slower than Manning based on PFF's numbers—but not with the same accuracy and execution.

What really hurt Brady last year was his inability to move in the pocket, readjust and throw from awkward angles. Manning is more comfortable throwing in traffic after he has moved than Brady, while every other player on the list is more athletic than him.

Brady is good at manipulating a pocket when he is given a pocket to work in, but once conditions worsened in 2013, he was unable to replicate Cam Newton or Ben Roethlisberger's escapability or Brees' adaptability.

The crux of this argument for Brady isn't about whether his supporting cast limited him or not. It's about how he overcame that in relation to other quarterbacks in the league.

It's generally overlooked that he also played under the best head coach in the NFL, maybe the best in NFL history, last year in an offense that is able to consistently scheme receivers open with a very strong running game.

Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have their flaws, but none of those players struggled to get open last season.

Where Brady does deserve some leeway in terms of criticism is with drops. According to Pro Football Focus, who appear to generally have high expectations for receivers when it comes to catching the football, each of Edelman, Amendola, Thompkins and Dobson dropped at least 11 percent of their passes last season.

Brady's statistics would look much better without those drops, but they wouldn't dramatically alter how his performance was perceived.

Performance is different from production. A player can throw for 20 touchdowns and make worse passes than a player who throws for 10. The degree of difficulty of the throw and the degree of difficulty the quarterback puts on the receiver must be taken into account.

While Brady wasn't aided by his receivers' hands in 2013, his receivers weren't aided by his accuracy.

Being an accurate quarterback isn't simply about giving your receiver a chance to catch the football. It's about making the catch as easy as possible with good ball placement. Even on relatively simple throws last season, Brady's ball placement was erratic at best.

Too often he forced receivers to unnecessarily adjust when they were open and too often he failed to lead receivers to space when they needed extra yardage. Obviously there were still plays when his ball placement was very good, but the consistency wasn't there.

Here is an example of an off-target throw that actually went for a touchdown.

NFL.com

The Texans only rush four, so Brady has plenty of time in the pocket. There isn't initially a receiver open, something you'd expect against a four-man rush. Rob Gronkowski is well covered underneath, but he is about to turn upfield into space.

NFL.com

Brady does almost everything right on this play. He stays comfortable in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and his feet set ready to throw. He reads the defense, recognizing that the linebacker underneath can't keep up with Gronkowski down the seam and the deep safety is moving with the crossing route.

He does everything right, except for one thing.

NFL.com

Throwing the ball away from the middle of the field makes sense on this play, just to protect the ball from any last-second change of direction from the deep safety. However, throwing it so that it is low and behind Gronkowski so that he has to slow down and reach back for the ball isn't understandable.

In fact, if Gronkowski wasn't so talented a receiver and if the linebacker had been even adequate in coverage, then this pass would never have resulted in a touchdown.

Considering the defense had given him such a huge throwing window and the offensive line had given him perfect protection, that kind of throw created too much risk for it to be considered accurate. Yes, Gronkowski could still catch the ball and he still managed to roll into the end zone for the touchdown, but this was a poor throw from Brady.

This is the kind of throw that bad quarterbacks make all the time, average starters make too often and very good quarterbacks rarely make.

Last season, Brady made it too often.

Tom Brady's NFL career was reared on the idea of the quarterback wins statistic. More than any other position, the quarterback is credited for wins and losses in today's NFL coverage in spite of the advancements in statistical analysis and the vast amount of detailed analysis available online.

The number of quarterback wins is a flawed statistic regardless of the player involved.

In 2013, Brady obviously played an important role in his team's success, but it also must be noted that he played in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, in the weaker conference and with a running game that averaged 129.1 yards per game.

The late-season play of LeGarrette Blount allowed Brady to win a playoff game without throwing a touchdown pass or more than 200 yards while completing 52 percent of his passes. When the Patriots needed him to play well against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship, he repeatedly missed open receivers on important plays.

Tom Brady was an average quarterback during the 2013 season. He was limited by a relatively poor supporting cast, but he also failed to elevate his teammates because he was part of the problem.

Being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL is about how you perform relative to the players in the league at that time. Even though Brady has plenty of excuses to point to for his poor play last season, too many more players simply played through those excuses and performed more consistently for him to still be considered one of the best in the NFL.

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