Tom Brady's decline has begun QB can no longer cover Pats' weaknesses, signaling end to dynasty
January 24, 2013
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Tom Brady doesn't look like the elite quarterback he used to be.
One of the uncomfortable truths about quarterbacks headed into their late 30s is that the cliff of performance decline can seemingly come out of nowhere in a relatively short amount of time.
Dan Fouts led the league in yards per attempt (YPA) at age 34 then only two years later had the second lowest YPA mark of his career. He called it quits after that season.
Dan Marino led the league in net yards per attempt when he was 35 years old. In each of the next three seasons, he failed to top the 7-yard YPA mark, a statistical feat that happened to him only once prior to 1996.
Fran Tarkenton led the league in touchdown passes and passer rating in 1975 at the age of 35. Two years later, his numbers saw a significant decrease and that drop-off culminated in a 1978 schedule that saw Tarkenton throw 32 interceptions and rank 25th in passer rating on his way to graduating into a broadcasting career.
These are but three of a large number of potential examples that illustrate just how unforgiving Father Time can be at that stage of a quarterback's life.
As painful as it is to say this, after a detailed review of the 2012 New England Patriots season, it looks like Tom Brady, who will turn 36 prior to the 2013 season, will very soon serve as another example of this type of dramatic decline.
At first glance, this might not look to be the case. After all, Brady ranked second in the league in Total QBR, fourth in passing yards and touchdown passes and was tied for first in interception percentage.
Good as those figures are, they belie some disturbing trends. Brady's YPA (7.6) and completion percentage (63.0) were his lowest since 2006 and his touchdown percentage (5.3) was his lowest since 2009.
He also showed a significant statistical drop down the stretch, as his December numbers in YPA (7.0), completion percentage (58.5) and touchdown to interception ratio (10-to-5) were the worst monthly totals of his 2012 season.
It isn't just the numbers where Brady started to show some regression.
He looked painfully slow in the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore. This was especially evident on a fourth-and-4 play in the fourth quarter when it looked like Brady had plenty of room to scramble for a first down inside the Ravens' 15-yard line. Instead, he ran sideways, looked behind him to see if anyone was closing in and eventually chucked the ball well short of his receiver in the end zone.
That play was but one of many errors Brady made, and those errors led to the first NFL home loss he has ever suffered after leading at the half.
This wasn't the only game where his weaknesses were brought to the fore.
AP Photo/Tom DiPace
Without Brady to mask the Pats' blemishes, New England will face new challenges.
The book on Brady since the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII is that a strong pass rush can rattle him. Baltimore certainly achieved this in the aforementioned game (it's why Brady was looking behind him as he scrambled and was almost certainly a factor in his raising his leg to protect himself as Ed Reed closed for a possible big hit), and that same flaw showed up in the Patriots' Week 15 game against San Francisco.
The 49ers looked to have adopted the old Al Davis adage of hitting the quarterback hard early in the game, and achieved it when Aldon Smith smashed into Brady early in the first quarter. That blow set a tone as the Niners' pass rush kept Brady on his heels for most of the game. And it is worth noting that the New England offense really did not get on track until Justin Smith suffered an injured triceps, which considerably slowed the San Francisco pass rush.
All of the above issues could be enough to hinder Brady's future, but the biggest of his woes may very well be a significant decline in accuracy. His tremendous attention to detail in practicing the proper passing mechanics has led to Brady being, by far, the most accurate passer I've seen in 10 seasons of breaking down game tapes. But that trend took a big step back this past season, as Brady's accuracy was well below its norm.
This led to a tremendous number of missed completions (46 by my tracking sheets) and additionally caused a large number of completions to potentially fall short of their yards-after-catch upside because the receiver had to adjust to a pass that wasn't thrown to the proper spot.
Brady is still so far ahead of most other quarterbacks that, even with a drop-off in his performance, he will likely be a top-tier passer for the next two to three seasons.
The issue for New England is that any level of decline in his play could reduce his effectiveness in mitigating a multitude of this team's personnel issues.
These roster limitations start on defense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, New England ranked 21st in Total QBR allowed, 25th in yards per game allowed, 24th in yards per play allowed, 29th in pass yards per game allowed, 28th in net yards per attempt allowed, 21st in sack percentage and 25th in first downs allowed per game.
The offense has a pair of 31-year old wide receivers, one of whom was something of a disappointment in 2012 (Brandon Lloyd), and another of whom (Wes Welker) is a free agent whose future with the team is dependent upon New England coming up with a either a long-term contract or ponying up $11.4 million by placing a franchise tag on him.
Compounding these issues is the fact that the Patriots don't have much in the way of draft pick volume in the years ahead.
There is good news in that this year's draft is stocked with very good depth in the defensive line and safety positions, so the Patriots ought to be able to make the most of their relatively few selections.
In addition, it should be noted that New England does have a solid collection of young talent to go along with a projected $18.6 million in cap space, a total that ties the Patriots for eighth-most in that category.
Having noted those factors, it is still unavoidable that the Patriots are in a conference that has probably reached its won-loss nadir. This past season, the AFC had seven teams finish with six or fewer wins. By contrast, the NFC had only three teams end the season with a victory total in that range.
When the development of those bottom-tier AFC teams is combined with the improvements likely to occur among the AFC playoff teams, the Patriots' path to the conference title game in the near future is not going to be as smooth as it has sometimes been in the past.
Add it all up, and it could mean the world saw the end of the New England dynasty (and Brady's championship chances) in that title game loss to the Ravens.