Wednesday, November 9, 2011
A man named Brady
By Chris Forsberg
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Something is not quite right with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
That might sound like a ludicrous statement to some, considering the league's reigning Most Valuable Player is on pace to shatter Dan Marino's record for single-season passing yards (though Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers might make Brady a bridesmaid in that quest this season), yet it's impossible to ignore Brady's struggles over the past three games.
Just start with the numbers:
So what gives? Theory No. 1 questions whether Brady is truly healthy.
"We list [ailments] on the injury report every day in practice and every week based on what his current status is, so that's what we'll continue to do," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when asked about Brady's health on Wednesday.
Brady has not been on the injury report this season, though you can't help but wonder if he's ailing. He does have a history of toughing out injuries, regardless of the severity, including three cracked ribs and a broken right ring finger that he reportedly played through during the 2009 season.
During the Fox broadcast of the Patriots-Cowboys game in Week 6, Brady was shown with a wrap around his right forearm and elbow while talking with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien on the sideline (this after a drive in which Brady took a pretty good shot to that region when linebacker Anthony Spencer landed on him after a quarterback scramble). Brady led the Patriots to victory that day in the final minutes, but did throw two interceptions and finished with his lowest single-game quarterback rating of the season (82.3) to that point.
In the two games since, even with a bye to rest up after the Dallas game, he has sported a tennis elbow brace on his right arm. Brady threw two more picks in each of those two contests and his deep passing has suffered. Not only did Brady appear to miss open downfield targets by hanging passes to Taylor Price (versus the Steelers) and Chad Ochocinco (versus the Giants), he didn't generate a completion of more than 28 yards in either game.
According to deep passing stats logged by analytical site ProFootballFocus.com, Brady has been among the worst at downfield throws this season. On 34 attempts of 20 yards or more, Brady has completed a mere nine, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Give him credit for three drops and his accuracy percentage would still be a mere 35.3 percent, ranking him 23rd among the 35 quarterbacks eligible. By comparison, Philadelphia's Michael Vick (14-of-29, 4 drops, TD, INT) is first at 62.1 percent accuracy, while Rodgers (15-of-29, 2 drops, 8 TD, INT) is fourth at 58.6 percent. Heck, Matt Cassel (11-of-33, 2 drops, 2 TD, 2 INT, 39.4 percent) currently ranks higher than Brady.
Theory No. 2 considers whether Brady is just enduring a string of bad bounces, most notably a number of tipped passes that have led to interceptions. It's a theory his coaches and teammates can get behind.
One season after throwing a mere four interceptions, Brady has already thrown 10 picks at midseason. He's on pace to easily top his previous career high for interceptions (14).
"A few of those picks have been a lot of batted balls up in the air by defensive linemen, things like that, coming off guys' helmets," suggested Deion Branch.
Said Belichick: "I think you can look at each play and, obviously, there's something that went wrong. A couple balls have been tipped, a couple balls I'm sure he'd like to have back. I'd say for the most part, I think he's throwing to the right guy."
But even Brady sounded somewhat hesitant about Theory No. 2, putting the blame on himself for ill-advised throws in general.
"Just decision-making," Brady said. "I've just got to make better decisions."
Which leads to theory No. 3: Brady is being hindered by leaning too heavily on top targets Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
In Sunday's loss to the Giants, Brady targeted Welker (10) and Gronkowski (15) a whopping 25 times -- more than half his total throws (49). No one else on the team had more than six targets. Yes, the duo combined for 17 catches for 237 yards, accounting for much of Brady's total production, but how much can Brady get by relying on two players?
There's a scene in the NFL Network's "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" in which Belichick is at a coaches meeting during the 2009 season and laments how the Patriots have no other offensive weapons when teams take away both Welker and Randy Moss.
The Patriots certainly appear to have more individual talent on this year's team, but the production from Branch and tight end Aaron Hernandez has been inconsistent and nobody else has really stepped up, particularly among the wide receivers.
In desperate need of a touchdown late in Sunday's loss to the Giants, Brady threw three straight passes at Gronkowski, connecting on a 14-yard score on a do-or-die fourth-down attempt (only to be spoiled when the Giants answered with a touchdown drive). At times it seemed like Brady had predetermined where he was going.
"If they're open, they get it," Brady said. "If they're covered, you throw to someone else. If you put other guys in position and they're open first, they get the ball. Really, the guys that are going to get the ball are guys who are open. You're never trying to just force the ball. I don't think I've ever -- "
Then Brady caught himself.
"Well, I shouldn't say that. I have done that, where you pick [your target] before the play and usually it doesn't go very well," he said. "A lot of times you try to just read it out. You know the route, you know the coverage, you know the matchup, you read it, you make a throw using good technique and try to throw the ball with accuracy. We could bring one of you guys out there to play quarterback if we told you who to throw to before the ball was snapped. It wouldn't be very good."
Regardless of the reason he's been off, Brady has still been very good. But the easiest way for the Patriots to get their offense back on track is for Brady to get himself right.
|Whatever the reason, it seems like Tom Brady is missing more opportunities than usual this year.|
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.