His passing numbers are astounding. His accuracy is unquestioned. Few have looked better in crunch time, and no one else can claim to have quarterbacked a 16-win regular season.
Even after 10 years in the league, Brady looks better in his 11th. Already on pace to shatter Dan Marino's single-season passing record (along with a few other QBs), the six-time Pro Bowler has thrown for a league-high 1,874 yards and 14 touchdowns. If they can overcome the upstart Buffalo Bills, the Pats are virtual locks for another playoff berth.
Brady's success is self-evident, but how much of it does he owe to the system surrounding him? To what extent was Brady shaped professionally by those around him in New England? Is Brady merely the product of a system?
Let's take a closer look.
Since the installation of Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000, the Patriots have run their own version of the traditional Erhardt-Perkins offense that originally called for hard, power runs to set up the pass.
Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins were both assistants in New England during the '70s and needed a way to consistently win in cold conditions where the passing game wasn't as reliable.
Their answer was a system designed to take the lead quickly and keep it. The Patriots (and later the Giants) of old would frequently throw the ball early in order to get out to an early lead and then would systematically shorten the game through the run. It enjoyed moderate success in its early days as most teams were able to answer offensively, limiting the usefulness of running out the clock.
As the NFL developed into a more pass-oriented league, the traditional Erhardt-Perkins was changed slightly to add more play-action fakes. Four- or even five-receiver sets became common as the run was used more to set up the pass rather than to run down the clock.
Bill Parcells enjoyed the first success with the new Erhardt-Perkins between 1984 and 1990, winning two championships in five playoff appearances as head coach of the New York Giants.
It surprised no one then when Belichick and then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, both assistants under Parcells, instituted their own take on Erhardt-Perkins with the Pats in 2000. Their interpretation opened the passing game further, frequently going with five wide to create one-on-one matchups for their receivers. The running game, once the focal point, was reduced to keeping the opposing defense honest.
For this system to find success, the Pats would need exceptional wideouts to take advantage of one-on-one coverages. It would also need a tailback comfortable with often running out of passing sets.
Perhaps most importantly, it would require an accurate quarterback with the ability to read defenses to find those favorable matchups in the secondary.
Arriving in New England around the same time as Bill Belichick was the Patriots' newly minted sixth-round pick, a quarterback out of Michigan named Tom Brady.
Despite the bright future that we all know now lay ahead of him, Brady's entrance to the NFL could not have been quieter. After throwing for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Alabama in the 1999 Orange Bowl, Brady was drafted seventh out of 12 quarterbacks, behind the likes of Giovanni Carmazzi and Tee Martin.
He became New England's fourth-string QB and saw action in only one game his rookie year.
While it is unclear exactly why Brady's stock fell so far after a respectable career at Michigan, most attribute it to his lack of mobility and average arm strength. Coming out of college he was 6'4'', 211 pounds and ran a forgettable 5.26 40. While no one doubted his ability to lead a team, scouts wondered if he had all the physical tools to do it.
To a certain extent, they were right to have doubts. Brady's excellence in college had been inside Lloyd Carr's West Coast offense, a scheme that relied on runs and short passes to methodically move the ball up the field. A strong arm wasn't as much a requirement as was a clear, intelligent head. Brady had the latter, but of course mental attributes are harder to quantify than the physical.
The Michigan man would get his shot in the league in 2001 after starter Drew Bledsoe went down in the second game of the season. Brady, who had ascended in the offseason to No. 2 on the depth chart, stepped in and finished the game (a 10-3 loss to the New York Jets). He was named the starter in the next game, and then the game after that until finally he cemented his place as New England's No. 1.
The rest, as they say, is history.
With Brady behind center the Patriots would go on to beat St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, their first of three championships in a four-year span. In 2007, New England would complete a historic 16-0 regular season before losing to New York in the title game.
However, the question we asked earlier is still unanswered. To what extent did the Patriots' system influence Tom Brady's success? How much is his greatness merely the product of a great system?
As fans we got a glimpse of the Patriot system working without Tom Brady in 2008. After the 2007 MVP suffered a season-ending knee injury, the starting job fell to unheralded Matt Cassel.
Cassel's entrance into the NFL mirrored Brady's in many ways. After a career backing up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, Cassel was picked up by the Pats in the seventh round of the 2005 draft.
While slightly more gifted physically than Brady (he sometimes played tight end, wide receiver or even running back for SC), Cassel made it on to a few teams' radars after a successful combine but wasn't considered starting material. He was placed third on the Patriots' depth chart in 2005.
Backing up arguably the NFL's finest quarterback naturally gave Cassel few chances to showcase his abilities, but when the call came in 2008 he was ready. After seven years as a backup, Cassel started in the Patriot's remaining 15 games, putting up eerily Brady-like numbers in the process.
In the first four years as the Patriots starter (2001-2004 when the Pats won three Super Bowls), Brady averaged 3,480 yards passing, a 61.8 completion rate, an 87.7 passer rating and 24 touchdowns.
In his what was to be his only season as starter in New England, Cassel threw for 3,693 yards, a 63.4 completion rate, an 89.4 passer rating and 21 touchdowns.
Since then, Cassel's success as the starter for Kansas City has been sporadic. While he echoed the success with New England in leading the Chiefs to a division title, his 2009 season finished a lackluster 4-12. 2011 started slowly, but after two consecutive wins Kansas City is 2-3. Cassel is currently 27th among quarterbacks with only 945 passing yards.
In the New England system he was great, but outside of it Cassel has been mortal. Maybe this is proof enough for some that Brady is merely the product of Belichick's system, but I say we go further.
It's clear that quarterbacks who might have been average outside the system excelled in it, but would it be the same for Tom Brady? Would he have had the same career outside of New England?
It is difficult to imagine Tom Brady in anything other than a Patriots kit, but let's engage in a hypothetical. What if Brady had ended up somewhere else in the NFL, under a different system?
Since we can't rewind the clock and play this thought experiment out, let's look for players who were similar to Brady coming out of college. In fact, let's stay with Brady's own alma mater, Michigan, which has produced several NFL QB prospects since he graduated.
Consider John Navarre, another Michigan quarterback taken in the later rounds of the 2004 draft by Arizona. In school he set Michigan records for passing yards, completions and touchdowns in a game, which still stand today.
In some ways Navarre was a better college passer than Brady, but he never transitioned well into the professional game. In his brief three-year career he only saw action in five games, starting only one, in which he threw four picks.
Navarre currently manages a steel company in Wisconsin.
After Navarre left Michigan for the NFL, the Wolverines signed a freshman QB who would go on to break many of Navarre's old school records. The true freshman spent four years in Ann Arbor, throwing for 9,715 yards and 87 touchdowns. In 2008, he was taken in the second round by Miami.
His name was Chad Henne, and while he outperformed Brady in college, the former 57th overall pick has not come close to his success in the NFL. After a promising start to the 2011 season in which he threw for more than 400 yards in a loss to Brady's Patriots, the Dolphins are 0-4 and Henne is done for the year with a season-ending shoulder injury.
It's hard to believe Brady could have ended up like either of these men, yet they all began in similar places with similar skills coming out of college. Brady just happened to be drafted by New England. So, do we have an answer now?
Let me be clear: This is not to say that Tom Brady isn't a great NFL QB. He is, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. The man is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer with numbers and rings that speak for themselves.
What I am saying is that the New England system Brady has played in for his entire 11-year career has been a greater factor in his success than his innate talent as a quarterback. Belichick took an above-average college player and put him in a system that any semi-accurate QB could have excelled. We saw it with Matt Cassel in 2008 and might see it again with Ryan Mallett in the future.
What has stayed constant year after year with New England has been its skill at wide receiver—Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, the list goes on. Talented wideouts have always been key to the Erhardt-Perkins system's success, and the Pats have always had them.
The system has even benefited unknowns like Welker going forward, molding him from an average target in Miami to one of the best receivers in the league.
The Patriot system does that. It takes unknowns and makes them known. It re-casts castoffs (Corey Dillon, Chad Ochocinco, Moss, Donté Stallworth) in critical roles. And for Tom Brady it made him great when he could have been anything but.