In 2019, Tom Brady threw for 4,057 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. New England, which ranked seventh in scoring (26.3 points per game) and first in scoring defense (14.1), finished the regular season 12-4.
For most quarterbacks and organizations, a season like that would be viewed as a smashing success.
But not in Foxborough.
For Brady, the 2019 season went down as the least efficient of his professional career. He ranked 18th in passer rating (88.0, below the league average) and 27th in yards per attempt (6.6), each figure the worst of his career in those categories.
The Patriots' offense was decent, but it was far below what many are accustomed. New England averaged 1.99 points per offensive drive, above the league average of 1.95, but 17th in the league -- the Patriots' worst ranking since placing 19th in 2003.
New England's season came to a shockingly early conclusion, as it fell to the Titans, 20-13, at home in the wild-card playoff round. It was the Patriots' first playoff exit prior to the AFC Championship since falling to the Jets in the 2010 divisional round. Brady received plenty of vitriol for his ghastly production in the playoff loss, in which he generated a 59.4 passer rating (league average 90.4) and threw for a measly 5.7 yards per attempt (league average 7.2).
Those numbers prompt many questions, most notably: Are the 42-year-old's days as an elite quarterback over?
To assess the future Hall of Famer's 2019 season, I watched All-22 angles of every New England offensive play, grading each one (excluding handoffs) in hopes of getting a gauge on Brady's true overall performance. By taking into account drops, pressure, throw difficulty, ball placement, down/distance, game situation and decision-making (did the quarterback choose the best option available?), we get a better evaluation of a QB's performance than found in a box score.
I scored each one of Brady’s plays on a 0-to-10 scale. An average play (screen passes, throwaways) earned a 5, a brutal play (turnovers or should-be turnovers) a 0, and the perfect play (flawlessly placed throws into tight windows under heavy pressure) warranted a 10. Most plays fall somewhere in the middle, with “plus” efforts scoring above 5 and “minus” efforts below. Each game’s final score was scaled from 0-100, with 50 being average.
Let’s dig into Brady’s 2019 season.
BEST GAME: Week 16 vs. Bills (73.6 grade)
Although Brady was unable to muster any truly dominant performances in his age-42 season, he remained as consistent as ever. That's best showcased by his sharpness against the 10-4 Bills. In New England’s 24-17 win, Brady completed 26 of 33 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown. He generated a 111.0 passer rating, his third-best mark of the season.
Those numbers actually undersold him a bit, as it was a classic Brady outing -- a mental tour de force. The 20th-year vet carved up Buffalo’s sixth-ranked defense (according to DVOA) with a thousand paper cuts, the same way he has frustrated opponents countless times for nearly two decades.
If a dump-off into the flat was the right play, he read it and executed it as quickly as possible. Every time Buffalo botched a coverage and left somebody wide open, Brady made them pay. He owned the mental battle against defenders in coverage, constantly manipulating them with subtle head and shoulder movements to open throwing windows for short first-down conversions.
Most importantly, Brady left almost nothing on the field. There were no more than one or two instances in which Brady failed to see an open target, which is remarkable. New England’s receivers created little separation against Buffalo’s elite secondary, but Brady showed perhaps his best velocity of the season on throws over the middle, launching pinpoint passes into tight windows (see below). I credited Brady with 28 positive plays to just six negative plays, a ratio that was his best of the season.
WORST GAME: Week 11 at Eagles (46.9 grade)
The fact that Brady’s worst game was barely below an adequate performance is yet another example of his continued reliability. Although he has lost some of his physical ability, his brain remains the best in the game. Brady’s mental superiority allows him to avoid catastrophic performances, and even at his worst, he does enough to give his team a good chance to win.
In New England's 17-10 win at Philadelphia, we see the issues that have sometimes hampered Brady since he entered his 40s. Although he finished with zero interceptions, he launched five passes that were nearly picked off. Four of those balls were underthrown, an indication of declining arm strength.
On this first-and-goal play, Brady runs a designed rollout to his right and attempts to hit Mohamed Sanu in the back corner of the end zone. Throwing on the move, he is unable to get enough air under the ball to either lead Sanu outside or drop it in his breadbasket near the pylon. Brady is lucky Eagles safety Rodney McLeod drops the ball.
Accuracy in the short game was a huge problem for Brady throughout the game. He especially struggled on out-breaking routes, often placing the ball too far outside.
Brady has a tendency to overcompensate for his declining arm strength. He sometimes will put far too much of his body into a throw, which ramps the velocity back up to a desired level but sacrifices precision.
He finished this game with poor numbers: 26 for 47, 216 yards and no touchdowns. His 4.6 yards per attempt was the third-worst figure of the season, and his 67.3 passer rating the fourth worst. Although Brady did his usual good job of keeping the offense marching, his accuracy was awry, and he broke character with a couple of poor missed reads.
Brady made up for his struggles underneath with some excellently placed throws in the intermediate range. But his receivers did not do much to help him, a recurring theme throughout the season.
MOST UNDERRATED GAME BY BOX SCORE: Week 12 vs. Cowboys
On the stat sheet, it looked like Brady had a rough day in a 13-9 win over Dallas. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 190 yards (5.1 per attempt), one touchdown, no interceptions, and 5.1 yards per attempt. His 45.9 percent completion rate was the sixth worst of his 324-game career.
But Brady was plagued by the poor play of his supporting cast in this game. He was forced to throw the ball away three times, and his receivers dropped six passes. His combined total of nine throwaways and drops led the NFL in Week 12.
I scored Brady with a grade of 70.8 against the Cowboys, his fourth-best game of the season. He threw the ball beautifully on out-breaking routes, proving that he can still make those throws better than anybody when he is able to set himself properly.
This throw sums up Brady’s outing. He launches a perfect throw to the sideline from the opposite hash that travels roughly 27 yards, but the ball bounces off the chest of rookie N’Keal Harry.
Brady’s ability to throw outside of the numbers was a big X-factor for him in 2019. Few quarterbacks have the confidence to make those throws frequently, but Brady always has. In some games, Brady would struggle to hit those throws as precisely as he typically has over the years, limiting the damage he could deal. In others, such as against Dallas, he threaded the needle on outside throws, coupling his arm with his brain to perform just like "Peak Brady."
MOST OVERRATED GAME BY BOX SCORE: Week 8 vs. Browns
In a 27-13 win at home against Cleveland, Brady posted decent numbers (20-for-36, 259 yards, 0 interceptions and a 96.9 passer rating). He wasn't “bad,” but he got off to a rough start that could have put the Patriots in an early hole.
On his first attempt, Brady misfired wide to an open Sanu on a short hitch, nearly throwing an interception to linebacker Mack Wilson. The next play, Brady rolled out despite no pressure, an uncharacteristic move, costing him an opportunity to hit a wide-open Sanu on and out-and-up for a potential touchdown.
The next drive, Brady flubbed another throw to Sanu, tossing an easy swing route into the dirt that robbed Sanu of the chance to convert a third-and-7 on the edge of field goal range. After converting the fourth down on the following play, New England drove to the Browns’ 2. On third and goal, Brady threw a pass off his back foot that should have been intercepted by cornerback Denzel Ward.
That's a ball Brady usually would happily throw away, but in this situation, he curiously tries to fit it into an air-tight window under heavy pressure.
The key factor to keep in mind for the “overrated” category in regards to Brady is that his supporting cast rarely manufactured any production for him. Brady seldom had games that oversold his true performance level, simply because his teammates proved incapable of carrying the load.
When Brady produced at a high level in 2019, it was properly reflective of his performance. In each of his five games with a 100-plus passer rating, I graded him at a score of 63.1 or higher. On the other hand, when he posted measly numbers, he was often better than the stats indicated.
While his age may be starting to put a dent in his straight-line accuracy and velocity, Brady can still put touch on the deep ball as well as any NFL quarterback. His anticipation when throwing deep is extraordinary. Brady has an uncanny sense of where the ball needs to be placed before the receiver even breaks open, and he hits that target with top-notch frequency. Because of his ability to anticipate, he does not need as much time from his offensive line to get off a high-upside deep shot, as most other quarterbacks do.
This 50-yard bomb to Phillip Dorsett in Week 17 against Miami is an excellent display of his elite anticipation and touch. Look where Dorsett is when Brady begins to throw –- he has not even cleared the outside cornerback yet. With pressure coming up the middle, Brady lands the ball in a split-second window directly between the trailing corner and oncoming safety. Perfect throw.
My pick for Brady’s worst play came just a few snaps before the spectacular throw seen above. Brady's pick-six in the second quarter (below), a rookie mistake, set the tone for Miami’s 27-24 win, costing New England a bye.
Safety Eric Rowe is in zone coverage to the inside of Julian Edelman’s flat route. With inside leverage and his eyes on Brady, he has an easy lane to pick off any throw that is not perfectly placed to the outside. If Brady is going to complete this pass, he must set himself and drive the ball toward the sideline. He has more than enough protection to do that. Instead, he rushes the pass immediately after turning to Edelman’s route, throwing off of a flat base as he tosses a weak ball to the inside. Rowe easily snags the pass.
Brady could have hit Sanu on the quick slant over the middle, dumped it off to Sony Michel, or stepped up in the pocket to extend the play.
It is a rare case of poor decision-making and execution by Brady -– he only commits a handful of these a season. What makes this particular mistake so atypical for Brady is that he arguably has the best footwork of any quarterback in the league. His ability to maintain a good base while sliding around in the pocket is special. Brady loves to subtly maneuver his way throughout the confines of the pocket, and while doing so, he keeps his feet in a favorable throwing position at all times. On the above play, he failed to keep his feet ready while pivoting from one target to the next, and it leads to the interception.
Q&A: How much was Brady hurt by his receivers?
Drops, lack of separation, miscommunication, poor deep-ball tracking, low win rates on 50-50 balls, penalties –- if there is something a pass-catcher can struggle with, Patriots receivers did in 2019.
New England's skill-position group took huge hits in talent level before and during the season. The retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski, a future Hall of Famer, was a major blow. Wideout Josh Gordon only played six games. Antonio Brown, a former All-Pro, probably would have boosted the passing game significantly, but he only lasted one game before he was released. First-round pick N’Keal Harry was clearly not ready to make an impact in his rookie season.
Eighteen players, a high number, were targeted for passes by the Patriots. Most of those players performed poorly. Mid-season trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu was nowhere near the same player he was in Atlanta, as he struggled to track well-placed deep balls, dropped easy chances, and frequently ran routes that Brady was not expecting. Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers were mediocre options who rarely got open against physical coverage. Tight ends Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse were well below average.
Nobody besides Julian Edelman could create separation consistently, and even Edelman had a down year by his standards. His 72.4 receiving grade from Pro Football Focus was his worst over the six seasons he has been a featured weapon for New England. He was drop-prone (11), failed to create yards after the catch (3.2 yards after catch per reception, his worst as a starter) and struggled in contested situations.
Was Brady’s offensive line an issue?
New England’s offensive line was good but not great. Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason were elite, center Ted Karras filled in for injured David Andrews admirably, and right tackle Marcus Cannon played decently. Left tackle, however, was a problem area. Marshall Newhouse struggled over nine games in place of Isaiah Wynn, ranking 48th of 57 qualified tackles in pass-blocking efficiency (per-snap pressure rate with greater weight to sacks). Wynn was more effective, ranking 28th of 84 qualifiers.
Overall, New England’s offensive line ranked ninth in pass-blocking efficiency. Brady took pressure on 29.9 percent of his dropbacks, the eighth-lowest mark among 30 qualified quarterbacks. Pass protection was not a major issue, although other recent Patriots teams have played better in this area.
The run game is where the offensive line failed to give Brady as much support as it has in the past. New England ranked 16th in rush offense DVOA, its worst ranking since 2005 (17th). Losing Gronkowski was a big hit. Gronk’s blocking was a key driving force behind the Patriots’ rushing success over his tenure there, and his replacements could not come close to carving out as much running room on the edge.
Is Brady declining?
Brady, who will be 43 at the start of the 2020 season, certainly is not the quarterback he once was. He's not as accurate, although he's still above average, but he clearly has plenty left in the tank.
In 2019, Brady threw to a makeshift group of pass-catchers, but the offense still produced decently. He never had a performance in which he sunk the team. No other quarterback in the league would have made all the correct passing choices Brady did in 2019.
Brady’s mental game remains at a zenith. As long as he has that going for him, he will be at least a solid NFL quarterback, and the absolute perfect one for a Patriots team that has thrived because of his cerebral approach.
Where should Brady play in 2020?
Brady should absolutely hang tight in New England if the Patriots will have him back (I see no reason why they would not). But New England must add to his offensive supporting cast -- especially at the skill positions.
Edelman can no longer be the top option -- the Patriots need a true X receiver for Brady to rely on when throwing vertically and outside the numbers. Getting a legitimate receiving tight end would be a boon as well.
Bringing back impending free-agent left guard Joe Thuney, who has developed into an elite player, must be a priority, too. His supreme ability to hold up in one-on-one in pass protection perfectly complements Brady’s patient, pocket-based approach.
Bottom line: If the Patriots improve Brady's supporting cast, he'll have New England back in the Super Bowl hunt in 2020.
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