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!
Good football teams lose their coaching talent as the seasons go on. It’s a part of life. But the New England Patriots are able to hold things together remarkably well despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls. And even when they do lose their assistants to greener pastures of head coaching jobs elsewhere, the infrastructure with Bill Belichick at the top of the football operation must be trusted until further notice.
Before the Super Bowl was even played and regardless of the big game’s outcome Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and even though the hire was not officially announced, everybody knew it. Kyle is Mike Shanahan’s son, he is 39 years old, and he has been one of the rising coaching stars on the offensive side of the ball. In his various stops, he has gotten quarterbacks of varying talent levels to realize their potential. Working under his dad in Washington, Robert Griffin III was the rookie of the year ahead of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, in Cleveland, former Tom Brady backup Brian Hoyer looked like a competent NFL starter before getting hurt, and in Atlanta, Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan won the MVP and did not trail in the Super Bowl until the moment the game ended. Given his reputation, it is fair to assume that San Francisco’s next starting QB whether they stick with Colin Kaepernick, or they trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, or they make a less exciting stopgap signing like Matt Schaub or Brian Hoyer, or start from scratch with a kid from the draft, that QB will enjoy an uptick in production from this past year.
Regardless of the second guessing of Shanahan’s overly aggressive play calling in the second half that gave the Patriots enough clock to work with to make their historic comeback, there is a lot of hope surrounding the downtrodden 49ers and also a lot of uncertainty for the Falcons because of Shanahan. Before Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were a good offense and Matt Ryan was a good quarterback, but with him they were a great offense with an MVP quarterback. When the Patriots experienced a period of significant turnover after their Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick promoted from within, making Eric Mangini the defensive coordinator and assuming the offensive coordinator duties himself, even though he is best known as a defensive mastermind, before eventually handing over the keys to Brady’s offense to Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was ready for the responsibility. Years later, when Dean Pees left the Patriots, Belichick assumed defensive coordinator duties until he felt Matt Patricia was ready for it.
Most coaches are not Bill Belichick, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, did not go this way. Instead the Falcons hired former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian to run their offense in 2017. Sarkisian was most recently the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama for one game, replacing Lane Kiffin for the National Championship Game against Clemson, which Alabama lost. Sark may not be the best college head coach ever, but he does have a good reputation as an offensive play caller. The problem for Atlanta is that they are bringing in a new voice with a new philosophy when they thing they were doing was working perfectly fine. It is hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl. Most teams struggle in the following year, and the 2016 Carolina Panthers are a perfect example, and changing more than you have to certainly cannot help.
The Patriots could have just as easily been the team that lost the Super Bowl instead of the Falcons, and the last two years both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have gotten head coaching interviews. McDaniels, in fact, was in direct competition with Shanahan for the Niners job. McDaniels, who first joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, got fired, worked for the St. Louis Rams for a season before getting his old job back in New England when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to take the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012, has been careful in his pursuit for his second head coaching job to say the least. Many coaches get a second chance if they fail as a head coach once, but if you fail twice, the odds of a third head coaching job are very slim.
Two years ago, Chip Kelly was still believed to be a football genius, but a bad third season in Philadelphia followed by the awful football situation he inherited in San Francisco leaves his future as an NFL head coach very much in doubt. McDaniels wants both a good quarterback situation and a good ownership situation, as those are the two factors the best determine head coaching success. If the Colts job opened up, Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, but Jim Irsay is not a great owner to work for. Bill Belichick even failed on the first try in Cleveland, and when he was given a second chance with the New York Jets, he famously resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after a day when the more appealing offer came from the New England Patriots. McDaniels has the luxury of waiting, as he is still only 40, and being Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and working for Bill Belichick is by no means a bad gig.
The Patriots did lose a key member of the coaching staff, as tight ends coach Brian Daboll was hired by Nick Saban to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator at Alabama, of all things. Daboll, like McDaniels, left New England before, but they were the only two prominent assistants to come back for a second stint, unlike Weis, Crennel, Pees, O’Brien, or Rob Ryan. With McDaniels staying put in New England, Bama was Daboll’s best opportunity to be an offensive coordinator again, and it’s a winning program. The more head coaching jobs McDaniels turns down, the more likely it seems that he sees himself as Belichick’s eventual successor as HC of NE.
When McDaniels first came back to the Patriots, I wanted nothing to do with him as a candidate to be the Pats’ next head coach. His terrible two seasons in Denver that included the (even then) head-scratching decision to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round was still fresh in my memory, and I thought he was just another Belichick assistant who was doomed to be a bad head coach. But as the years go by, and it becomes more and more apparent that the operation Bill Belichick has built is superior to every other in the game of football (I mean, seriously, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of consistency and continuity and have had the same number of head coaches since Watergate as the 49ers had in Barack Obama’s second term, and even they are nothing more than the Generals to New England’s Globetrotters, going 0-3 in AFC Championship Games against Belichick and Brady with none of those games being particularly competitive.), and the list of coaches I would rather have than Josh McDaniels to come in and try to tinker with it dwindles every year. At this point, I would have to think about Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that’s about it. I would rather have McDaniels than just about anyone else.
For now, the Patriots are going about their business, doing their jobs, but Brady will be 40 next season, and Belichick is probably closer to his last game as a head coach than his first, so as effective Belichick and Brady still are, a little continuity on the coaching staff certainly goes a long way.
In 2013, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had their next long tenured coach, ushering in a new run of contention after Andy Reid’s pretty good fourteen year run had come to an end. In 2013, it also looked like the San Francisco 49ers had their franchise quarterback, and franchise head coach, and would be Super Bowl contenders for a long time. Chip Kelly was going to change professional football the way he revolutionized the college game from the Oregon sideline, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the best of the crop of young mobile QBs. It’s amazing how much can change in three years.
Earlier this month, following a disappointing season in which the Eagles overhauled their roster but could not gain any ground in a putrid NFC East Division, Philadelphia fired Chip Kelly. After the season ended, the 49ers followed suit, firing first year head coach Jim Tomsula who led the San Francisco to a 5-11 season in a year when he had the unenviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick had been benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Maybe things were never as good as they appeared three years ago, but I never thought it would get this bad.
This week Will Leitch wrote a column ranking the careers of every quarterback who ever started a Super Bowl, 57 in total through 49 games (spoiler alert: Leitch ranked Joe Montana #1 with the caveat that a couple of weeks from now, someone else might take that spot from him), and Kaepernick was ranked #53. Leitch gave the following explanation:
When they watch highlights of this game in 50 years, they’ll have no idea how he didn’t become an all-timer. I’m not sure what happened myself. Choose your next step carefully, Colin: It may be everything.
It’s a good point. Kaepernick was awesome in that game, and he was so close to knocking off a Baltimore Ravens team that didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. At the time, the narrative during the season was one that drew parallels to the way the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI: the veteran former #1 overall pick gets hurt, the second year head coach gives the starting job to the second year quarterback, and lets him keep it, and they ride the momentum all the way to the big game, which is being played in New Orleans. As uncanny as all of that was, that is where the comparisons between the 2001 Patriots and 2012 49ers stopped, with all due respect to that Niners team. Alex Smith is a lesser quarterback than Drew Bledsoe, Jim Harbaugh is a lesser coach than Bill Belichick, Colin Kaepernick is a lesser quarterback than Tom Brady (but how many coaches and quarterbacks are greater than Belichick and Brady, in fairness?), and most of all THEY DIDN’T WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!
Kaepernick falling off the map this past season is not the only reason that game feels like it was ten years ago while Super Bowl XLVII feels like it was yesterday (and still hurts just as much as a Pats fan). Jim Harbaugh was coaching the Niners against his brother John, who was coaching the Ravens, and Jim wore out his welcome in San Francisco and is now coaching at the University of Michigan. Important players from the Niners/Ravens Super Bowl include Randy Moss, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Ed Reed, all of whom are now out of professional football for one reason or another. In that matchup, it felt at the time like the Ravens were the team that needed it more, since they had more players near the end, while the 49ers seemed like the team just hitting their stride. Kaepernick gave San Francisco’s offense the spark it had lacked with Smith under center. Their defense was loaded, but they had a worthy divisional adversary in the Seattle Seahawks.
A year after breaking through and reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers were back in the NFC Championship Game, but this time Seattle made the stop they needed to make at the end of the game, leading to one of the great remixes in the history of Youtube, and propelling them into their decisive rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That was the last we heard from San Francisco as a contender. I thought a few years ago they would have a chance to be the first true home team for a Super Bowl with Super Bowl 50 being played in Santa Clara, but they declined quicker than anyone could have imagined. 2014 ended up being Harbaugh’s last year in San Francisco, and the 49ers had no real plan to replace him. 2015 was a lost season for a franchise that was once the gold standard for the NFL.
As quickly as things fell apart for the Niners, it happened even faster for Chip Kelly in Philly. In his first two seasons, the Eagles won ten games each year, making the playoffs in 2013, but missing them by a game in 2014. After 2014, Kelly gained more power within the organization, and now had control over personnel decisions. With his new found power, Chip Kelly the GM put Chip Kelly the coach in some tough situations. He traded star running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, which was a bit of a surprise, but defensible because in return, the Eagles got Kiko Alonso, an athletic linebacker who is two years younger than McCoy, and who played for Kelly at Oregon. Running backs have the shortest careers of any skill position in football, so anytime you can trade a running back for a linebacker the same age or younger, you do it. The more baffling move was to replace McCoy by overpaying for former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray is the same age as McCoy, and rushed for 1845 yards behind a really good offensive line in 2014 for Dallas. In Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, Murray only had 702 yards rushing in 2015, by comparison. I’m admittedly not as close a follower of the NFL as I was a few years ago, and I do not have nearly the amount of football knowledge as someone like Chip Kelly, but this was one thing that didn’t smell right to me from the beginning. I’ve been Pro-Chip since he was at Oregon, and as someone who spent seven summers on camp staff in New Hampshire, I really wanted to see this Dover, NH native (fun fact: between Chip and Giants GM and Concord native Brian Sabean, both Bay Area teams with “San Francisco” in their names now have key decision makers who hail from The Granite State) succeed at football’s highest level, and his handling of the Eagles’ roster had me almost as worried last summer as Tom Brady’s predicament with the league.
Kelly lost his job with the Eagles more for the roster moves he made than the coaching decisions, but as long as he had been in the NFL, critics had been skeptical of his fast paced system, that it weakens your own defense if the offense keeps going three and out. Kelly’s system dominated in the college regular season, but struggled in bowl games in every year except his last at Oregon, when he was the sexy, outside the box head coaching candidate for a lot of NFL teams. The only playoff game he coached for Philadelphia, which I recapped on this blog the night it happened, was oddly reminiscent of the BCS National Championship Game he coached for Oregon in 2011. Both games ended with Kelly’s team losing at the mercy of a game winning field goal as time expired, because Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints were able to slow their possessions down the way Cam Newton’s Auburn offense did.
One important thing to realize about football, and about all sports, is that no one system is going to work all the time. If that were the case, there would be no point in playing the game. Just declare Chip Kelly the genius who solved football and go home! What makes Bill Belichick so successful as a head coach is that he is not married to any one style of play, and has been able to constantly adapt and evolve his game plans with changing times and changing opponents. Another thing to realize about Belichick is that he was not great right away, and he is perhaps the best reason to be hopeful about Kelly’s future in the NFL.
Belichick has been working in football operations for NFL teams in various capacities every year since 1975. He never took a year off and never went into the college game. Even Lorne Michaels took five years off from Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. He was first hired as a “special assistant” by the Baltimore Colts, and did not get a head coaching gig until 1991, though he was run out of town along with the rest of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. It took another five years working under his mentor Bill Parcells with the Patriots and New York Jets before he took another crack at being a head coach again. By comparison, Kelly’s rise to the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been meteoric. He was a longtime assistant at the collegiate level, at Columbia, Oregon, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater New Hampshire, eventually rising to offensive coordinator at UNH from 1999 to 2006. In 2007, he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, and was promoted to head coach two years later. He was only the head coach at Oregon for four years before the NFL came calling. His rise from offensive coordinator at a college campus in Durham, NH to head coach of one of the 32 NFL teams happened in the years between the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Most people to not rise that quickly in life, and it is remarkable what Chip was able to accomplish given how easy it would have been to be a complete failure.
As a Patriots fan, I am glad Bill got his growing pains out of the way in Cleveland, and I got to be witness to maybe the most dominant fifteen year run in football history. It would be in their best interest for the 49ers to be patient with both Kelly and Kaepernick, because the line between success and failure in the NFL is a lot closer than people realize. Imagine, for instance, if the Tuck Rule play had been assessed differently after review in the Snow Bowl between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2002. The Pats were able to capitalize on a gift of a non-turnover, and force overtime, and win it in overtime, but it was kind of a weird rule that is no longer on the books. Belichick made a gamble that season by sticking with Brady when Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and we remember that as the right decision because they won the Super Bowl. What if that play goes differently, and the Raiders advance instead of the Patriots? Belichick obviously liked what he saw in Brady, and still may have traded Bledsoe to Buffalo that offseason, much the way the 49ers traded Alex Smith to Kansas City after Kaepernick took them to the Super Bowl eleven years later. For the 49ers, the second guess of Kaepernick over Smith was something that still got talked about in the years that followed, and was cited as one of the ways Harbaugh lost the trust of his players. Two years after Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is out in San Francisco and Kaepernick’s confidence is shot now that the coach who lobbied for him is no longer there. The Patriots went 9-7 in the 2002 season, and let three time All Pro Safety Lawyer Milloy go in training camp in 2003. In the first game of the 2003 season, the Pats were trounced by (you guessed it) the Buffalo Bills, led by Bledsoe and Milloy, by a score of 31-0. In the moment, things looked bleak for the Patriots early on in 2003. Imagine how bad it would have been if they hadn’t beaten the Raiders, let alone the Steelers and Rams, in the 2002 playoffs. Belichick would have been gone in New England before he had a chance to go 14-2 in 2003 and eventually beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick are each other’s second lease on an NFL career. They need each other right now, and I think it has a chance to work. I want it to work, even. The biggest reasons for hope in this situation, is that Kaepernick responsive when he had a good offensive minded coach in Harbaugh, and that Kelly was able to leave Philly with a career winning record despite never having a quarterback anywhere near as good as Kaepernick. Kelly had a 27-21 record with the Eagles when his quarterback options were Old Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley, and Tim Tebow (it’s worth noting that in 2008, Bradford beat Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, and in 2009 Barkley was Sanchez’ successor at USC when Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, but none of them have made it as quarterbacks in the NFL). It’s a quarterback league, but quarterbacks need coached. The other teams that hired new coaches did not do too much to rock the boat. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith with their offensive coordinators, the Eagles reverted back to what worked for them before Chip Kelly by hiring longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but until they prove me wrong I’m just going to assume it’s the wrong move considering Cleveland’s steadily revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs for over a decade, and the Tennessee Titans simply took the “interim” label off Mike Mularkey’s interim head coach title, but San Francisco needed an innovative hire after hiring the defensive minded Tomsula from within their own coaching ranks was a failed experiment.
This is a good situation to get a second chance, but if it does not work, both Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as cautionary tales instead of what they should have become.
There is a great scene in the first season of The Wire where D’Angelo Barksdale explains the game of chess in terms anyone who has grown up in the drug game would understand. The pawns come and go, but the king gets to stay the king. Since 2001, Tom Brady has been the king of the New England Patriots. Brady is the only player remaining from the Patriots teams that won Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII, and Vince Wilfork is the only other guy left from Super Bowl XXXIX. Plenty of pawns have moved on from the Patriots, and my have gone into coaching and broadcasting, but Brady (along with Bill Belichick) remains the constant. It’s been a great run, but how much longer can Tom Brady stay at the top?
Last month, the Pats used a 2nd round draft pick to select a talented young quarterback named Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois University. While Brady remains one of the elite QBs in the NFL, right up there with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers, he’s getting up there in age. Brady, who will turn 37 in August, still plays at a very high level, but it is safe to say he has more years behind him than ahead of him. While I believe Brady is definitely the Pats’ starting QB for this season as long as he’s healthy, Garoppolo is the greatest challenger for the starting job since Drew Bledsoe filled in for the injured Brady in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. How long Brady can keep doing what he’s doing where he’s doing it will be interesting to see in the next few years.
Brady knows better than anyone how hard it is to become a starting quarterback in the NFL, and how hard it is to stay there. He was, after all, the second year QB out of the University of Michigan who filled in for an injured franchise QB and former #1 overall pick in Drew Bledsoe, and never gave the starting job back. Brady saw his childhood hero, Joe Montana, get replaced by talented backup and future Hall of Famer Steve Young when Montana still had something left in the tank, and get traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs as a result. During Brady’s own playing career, a similar situation unfolded with the Green Bay Packers, who traded longtime star quarterback Brett Favre to the New York Jets to clear the way for current franchise superstar Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady is a hard worker, but he will have to work harder than he ever has if he wants to be the Patriots’ starter when he’s 40.
I trust Bill Belichick to make the right football decision when the time comes to make it. Belichick drafted both quarterbacks, so his ego won’t get in the way of that one. If Garoppolo ever gets the start over Brady, it will be because Garopollo is the better quarterback. As much as I would love to see Brady be a Patriot for life, it’s time to acknowledge that a competitor and lover of the game life Brady might want to play until he is 45, and the Patriots will not keep him around just because of the Super Bowls he won before he turned 30. It’s been a great run, and I hope it continues, but nobody stays the king forever. Not in football.