Last month, a football analytics article took the Boston Sports Media by storm… in July. I was personally caught off guard, as I was still focused on NBA and NHL free agency, and immersed in the heart of baseball season, but the NFL has a way of dominating the local and national sports culture at will.
The article, by Cian Fahey of presnapreads.com, was about the challenges aging quarterbacks face, highlighted by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, and provided detailed breakdowns of their performances in 2016.
The parts about Brady were the highlight of the discussion on Boston radio, of course. Over the course of a week, I heard at least three different pronunciations of Fahey’s first name as hosts and callers reacted to Fahey’s analysis. Brady has won five Super Bowls and played in seven, and just came off the best age 39 season by a quarterback in NFL history. The article was presented as a hot take, that Brady might already be in decline, and Patriots fans have heard people in the national media proclaiming Brady’s decline for nearly a decade now. It still has not happened.
Tom Brady turns 40 today (and I encourage everyone to read the stories Mike Reiss of ESPN compiled to celebrate the milestone), but, without sounding like too much of a homer, I need to see Brady decline before I believe he is actually declining at this point. I have counted him out personally too many times, and I have scoffed at too many pundits and analysts who counted him out even if deep down I had my doubts–with Super Bowl LI being the most obvious and recent example–to go down that road before Bill Belichick starts Jimmy Garoppolo over a healthy Brady in a meaningful game.
The point about arm strength is a fair concern, and missing the first four games of the season had to help him hold up, as outraged about the Deflategate nightmare as Patriots fans were. But arm strength is less of a concern for Brady than a lot of other quarterbacks because of the way he plays and the way Josh McDaniels orchestrates the New England offense to play to Brady’s strengths. He doesn’t rely on the deep ball. He’s not the Justin Verlander of QBs. That’s Aaron Rodgers. Brady is Dallas Keuchel. If arm strength were everything, Jay Cutler (who I guess would be Aroldis Chapman if we’re going to keep comparing quarterbacks to pitchers) would still be in the NFL and not in the Fox broadcast booth.
Even if his skills have declined, there are only a handful of teams that could take advantage of this 40 year old superstar. Houston’s defense gave the Patriots fits in the playoffs for sure, but their quarterback was Brock Osweiler. This year, Osweiler is out of the picture and the effectiveness of Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson remains to be seen. Derek Carr and the Exiting Oakland Raiders could make a formidable foe, but their defense was nowhere near Houston’s last year and has a lot of room for improvement. The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos have historically given Brady trouble, but Denver’s quarterback situation is unproven at best, and the injury to Joe Flacco could leave the Baltimore with more uncertainty than a team that has only made the playoffs once since winning the Super Bowl in 2013 would like.
The Falcons are clearly a team that can hang with the Patriots on both sides of the ball, but they are in the NFC, where the road to the Super Bowl is much tougher year in and year out. Also, given the way they imploded in a game they were so sure they had won that owner Arthur Blank was standing on the sideline preparing to celebrate as he instead watched his team lose, they might be damaged for 2017. The Pats had their share of struggles in the years that followed their 18-1 2008 campaign, and the decision to throw instead of hand off to Marshawn Lynch still haunts the Seattle Seahawks two and a half years later.
The best thing Brady has going for him late in his prime is a league that mostly does not have an answer for him, much like LeBron James in basketball. The only difference is there is no juggernaut on par with the Warriors that are definitively better than Brady’s team. Not only is Brady the greatest QB, but Bill Belichick is the greatest coach, and Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end. It’s like if LeBron was on the Warriors. Okay, maybe I am a homer.
My belief in Brady at 40 is as much about the results on the field as the stories Reiss highlighted about his insane level of competitiveness at every stage in his adult life. From pickup basketball games when he was at Michigan to chugging beer at a bar in Rochester to refusing to give an inch to any backup, even if he knew he wasn’t going to start the September games in 2016, Brady is as dialed in now as he was when he was taken 199th by a team that already had a franchise QB. If Jimmy Garoppolo’s entire career as an NFL starter is just those six magnificent quarters last fall, he will go down as one of the greatest draft picks in the Belichick Era because of the level his presence made Brady reach late in his career. Then again, that narrative might not be entirely fair to Brady.
Tom Brady’s career has been a joy to watch. It wasn’t all great, but the struggles in 2009 and 2010 only made what he accomplished these last few seasons even more impressive. At 40 one would think he is nearing the end, but Brady keeps moving the figurative goal posts for himself as efficiently as he moves the literal chains on the field. Take that for data!
My readers may have noticed over the years that even though the NFL is a juggernaut of a league, and even though my favorite team in said league is the most consistently competitive, I write about the Patriots less than I do the Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics. This is partly due to my disillusionment with the NFL. Since Roger Goodell took over a decade ago, football, which was my favorite sport as a kid and the mechanism with which I impressed a bunch of strangers in my college dorm suite as a freshman at UMass Dartmouth with my knowledge of every NFL roster in 2008, has fallen out of favor with me due to their disregard for player safety and livelihood, and bad priorities when it comes to real world issues like domestic violence.
It is also partly due to my inherent superstition. As an aspiring sports writer, I want to be objective. I want to be able to be critical, to see the bigger picture, with regard to the team and the rest of the league. It’s much easier to be critical of the Bruins or the Celtics because in the years I have been following them, they have never had the best player in the league, let alone all time, nor the best coach in the league, let alone of all time. Ever since this run began for the New England Patriots in 2002–with the Tuck Rule, and the Steelers booking their flight to New Orleans for the Super Bowl before they played the AFC Championship Game, and Ty Law’s momentum-swinging pick-six, and Tom Brady’s drive down the field to set up one more game-winning kick for Adam Vinatieri (seriously, I watch the America’s Game documentary on the Super Bowl XXXVI team at least once a year and it never gets old)–the Patriots have been the standard bearers of the NFL, and Brady and Bill Belichick have been consistently making their case for greatest QB and greatest coach of all time, and as someone with a rooting interest in that happening, I do not want that to end.
Now it’s 2017, and before the start of next season, Brady will turn 40, and Belichick will turn 65. Any rational, reasonable Patriots fan has to think there are fewer of these days ahead of them than behind them, or if this run does continue, it would eventually be with someone like Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and someone like Matt Patricia as head coach. If this year is then end, it’s been an incredible run.
The numbers are staggering. With their upcoming game next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady and Belichick have been to 11 AFC Championship Games in 16 seasons, including each of the last six. Brady and Belichick have more 10 win seasons together than the Detroit Lions have in their 80 plus year history. Bill Belichick has not had a losing season since Bill Clinton was president.
The Pats’ divisional round game against the Houston Texans was not pretty, but they still won by a larger margin than the historically high spread Vegas set for this playoff game. In some respects, the game was only tight, and only had Patriots fans worried because of the standard of excellence we have set for the team. This Houston team is littered with ex-Patriots from Bill O’Brien to Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel to Larry Izzo to Vince Wilfork, but with a quarterback as not-ready-for-primetime as Brock Osweiler, none of that institutional knowledge could make a difference. Sure, they fared better than they did in the regular season, when they were shut out 27-0 without even having to deal with New England’s first or second choice QB, but even with Brady throwing as many interceptions in that game as he did the whole season, and Dion Lewis putting the ball on the ground twice (Houston recovered one, New England kept the other), it was still a two-score game at the end. Even when they are bad, they are better than most, and that is special.
Next week, the Patriots will have their hands full with a better Steelers team, but the Steelers seem to find new and creative ways to generate bulletin board material for Belichick. In 2002, it was the confidence and the audacity to book a flight to New Orleans before even playing the game, but now they’re broadcasting their true feelings about the NFL’s scheduling policy, albeit inadvertently, on Facebook Live, complete with Mike Tomlin simultaneously warning the players to not do anything stupid on social media. The Steelers, like the Patriots, are one of the NFL’s model franchises, and have been since the 1970s. When the San Francisco 49ers hire their next coach, they will have had more head coaches in four years than the Steelers have had since Watergate. But things like this, broadcasting their own trivial locker room talk to the world through Antonio Brown’s phone, is what keeps them a notch below the Patriots in the Belichick Era.
My biggest takeaway from the Divisional Round Weekend is just how scary good Aaron Rodgers is right now. I already knew that, but the end of yesterday’s game in Dallas reinforced that. This is a quarterback who has not been afforded the luxury of playing for a coach of Bill Belichick’s caliber. Mike McCarthy is a solid NFL coach, but had the Green Bay Packers not run the table, as Rodgers declared they would after starting the season 4-6, the Packers may very well be waiting for the Patriots’ season to end to introduce Josh McDaniels as their new head coach. Rodgers is the most talented person to play the QB position ever, and has not had the kind of running game Elway, Aikman, or Peyton Manning had in their best years, nor the superstar receivers of any other superstar QB. He is doing it all himself and making the players and coaches around him better in a way I have never seen, and oh, by the way, he regularly completes Hail Mary passes.
All of that I knew going into the Packers’ Divisional Round match up against the Dallas Cowboys, but then after rookie QB Dak Prescott rallied back to tie the game for Dallas, Rodgers had just enough time to get Green Bay into field goal range, with an incredible throw downfield to Jared Cook, who made a great dance move to keep his toes in bounds. Just like that, the Packers were kicking a field goal and getting ready to face the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome next week in the NFC Championship Game.
Some may say Brady has nothing left to prove to anyone. He won more games than Peyton Manning in 30 fewer games, he played in more Super Bowls than any other QB and won as many as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. But the NFL dragged his name through the mud over air pressure in a football and suspended him for as many games as they suspended Greg Hardy for something that should have put him in prison. And already, despite only playing in one Super Bowl, talk of Aaron Rodgers being the greatest ever is picking up steam. The thing that makes Tom Brady great is that at age 39, when he should not have to prove anything to anyone in the game of football, he is burning to prove the haters wrong just as intensely as he was when he was picked 199th overall. Brady is at his best when he is overlooked, and that is what makes him the best.
The Denver Broncos are not going back to the playoffs this January after they kicked off 2016 by winning Super Bowl 50. Looking back on the Golden Anniversary Super Bowl not even a full year later, the Big Game of 2016, much like everything about that year, already feels really weird and out of character with the rest of reality. That Super Bowl was the Super Weird Bowl. The Carolina Panthers got there after going 15-1 in the regular season, and Cam Newton was the league’s MVP, and they lost. I would say Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self, but that would be unfair to other shells of former selves. In an era when offense reigns supreme and scoring records are broken they way every meaningful baseball was getting broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a stifling defense that ruled the day, in spite of Manning’s poor play. Perhaps the weirdest about this Super Bowl is the fact that neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Denver Broncos made the playoffs the following year.
Carolina’s struggles can be explained a little more easily. The defense took some steps backward with Jared Allen retiring, Josh Norman signing with Washington, and Luke Kuechly missing time due to injury. Also, Cam Newton gets hit like no other quarterback does. People seem to think that since he is so big and so strong that he can get wrecked like QBs did before the NFL cared about player safety. Repeating the kind of results the Panthers got in 2015 was never going to be easy, but I am not ready to write them off for the rest of the decade.
The Broncos’ struggles in 2016 can also be easily identified, but are harder to justify when you realize that they could have been avoided. Denver was lucky to get as far as they did–not just lucky to win the Super Bowl, but lucky to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and lucky to beat the Steelers in the Divisional Round–with a so-far-past-his-prime-he-should-have-changed-his-name-to-not-confuse-people-Peyton Manning under center and shouting “Omaha,” but incapable of throwing the ball downfield at all. Attempting to do the same thing a second straight year, not measurably upgrading a quarterback position that could not get much worse, and expecting to get the same kind of game in and game out dominating defensive performance in an offense-driven modern NFL is playing with some serious fire. But that’s exactly what the Broncos did.
Broncos president John Elway has earned a significant amount of trust with Broncos fans, having led the team to seven Super Bowls (five as a quarterback, two as an executive), and winning a championship can buy you goodwill for at least a year or two, no matter how badly the year that follow go (the only time I know of when a fan base turned on a team’s management less than a year after winning a title was the Red Sox in 2014, and some of my posts on this blog are reflective of that), but he is pushing it with the way the Broncos went into the 2016 season. By replacing the retired Manning not with Brock Osweiler (who signed a free agent contract with the Houston Texans), but with Trevor Siemian, a 2015 7th round draft pick out of Northwestern, Elway placed lofty expectations on a Denver defense. The 2016 NFL Draft produced multiple quarterbacks that won games as rookies despite being picked outside the top two. I cannot help but wonder what Denver’s record would have been had Elway taken a chance on Dak Prescott or Jacoby Brissett, who appear poised to be the replacements to Tony Romo in Dallas and Tom Brady in New England, respectively.
While able to throw out incredible talent in pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as well as with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in the defensive backfield, that defense deserves a better offense. The Broncos have been irresponsible in the way they built their offense, particularly the quarterback position, the same way the New Orleans Saints have squandered Drew Brees’ offensive brilliance for most of his prime by not building a good defense for him. That said, if for some stupid reason, the NFL decided to cut down to 31 franchises and merge two existing teams for the 2017 season, if the Saints’ offense merged with the Broncos’ defense, they would be the prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
The Broncos need to do something about the QB position, but right now, that is not even their most pressing matter. This week, head coach Gary Kubiak resigned due to health concerns after just two years on the job. Kubiak played his entire NFL career for the Broncos, as Elway’s backup, and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Denver when they won those two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. In his first year back in Denver, he led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, and less than a year later he is retiring. Denver should, in theory, have no trouble finding a replacement, given how good their defense is and the fact that there should be more NFL quarterbacks available this offseason than most years, from Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo to Tyrod Taylor to Sam Bradford to Kirk Cousins.
The issue with Denver as a coaching spot may very well be John Elway’s ego. He is a top five or top ten quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and has enjoyed a good deal of success as an executive, but he is also the guy who ran Tim Tebow out of Denver when after getting the Broncos to the playoffs, and clashed with John Fox, who like Kubiak, left the Broncos a year after getting them to the Super Bowl, but not for health reasons. Sure, he brought in Peyton Manning, one of the handful of quarterbacks higher up than him on the all time list, but when Manning was at a point of desperation in his career, coming off a potentially career ending neck injury, and the coach he brought in to replace Fox was literally his former backup. I would not be surprised if Elway went with either defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was previously Denver’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, or one of the Shanahans, whom Elway has a working relationship with from his playing days, but I do not know how many coaching prospects from outside Elway’s past work history would want to take this job. One person who will not be considered is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this year’s most sought after offensive-minded coach, whose only head coaching job was in Denver, and who was run out of town in his second season.
Regardless of what happens with the coaching vacancy, the Broncos need a quarterback, and if they do not get one, John Elway could be torn down as a fool just as quickly as he was built up as a genius.