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!
The first piece of writing I published in 2016 was about the San Francisco 49ers, their decision to hire Chip Kelly, and Colin Kaepernick’s future. One day into 2017, Chip Kelly is out in San Francisco, the Niners rank high among the most incompetent franchises in all of sports, and Kaepernick is better known for leading a polarizing peaceful protest than he is for his play on the field. Looking back, it’s amazing how far Chip Kelly and the Niners fell together, but also amazing that I did not see it coming.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported early this morning that the 49ers have relieved head coach Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke of their duties. For Baalke, who has worked in San Francisco’s front office in various capacities since 2005 and has been their GM since 2011, much more of what has gone wrong with the Niners, while Kelly’s firing is more a part of the hard reset the team is poised to hit, and the next GM will want to bring in his own coach. Baalke was an instrumental part of making the 49ers respectable for the first time since the Jeff Garcia Era, helped draft and develop a very good defense, and was GM of a team that was a play away from winning the Super Bowl. Baalke was also the one who clashed with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games in his first three years, and who has reinvigorated his alma mater Michigan’s football program since leaving San Francisco. Baalke was the one who hired Jim Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, and when that one season experiment failed, hired Chip Kelly. All while San Francisco’s record was getting steadily worse, while the 49ers opened a new stadium in Santa Clara, while San Francisco/San Jose/Santa Clara was the host city for Super Bowl 50, and a franchise that won five Super Bowls was becoming a laughingstock. Things definitely needed to change.
This may very well be the end of Chip Kelly as an NFL head coach, with his demise almost as meteoric as his rise. Two years into the Chip Kelly experience, when he was still the offensive mastermind from the University of Oregon, it looked like Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles were the future of professional football. There were regular discussions on sports talk radio in Boston, both when Chip was at Oregon and in Philly, debating whether the Patriots should have Josh McDaniels be the head coach of the future when Bill Belichick eventually retires, or they should go after Kelly to be the coach in waiting. Kelly’s teams were exciting to watch, and Kelly himself was a fascinating figure to me. He was the guy from New Hampshire who developed this super-hurry-up offense and brought it to Oregon, putting up insane offensive numbers and employing a game-changing system of calling plays by flashing signs from the sideline to cut back on the time between offensive snaps, took the Ducks to a National Championship Game, appeared to be taking that system to the NFL by storm, all with Nick Foles as his quarterback.
After the 2014 season, when the Eagles had a winning record but missed the playoffs, Kelly gained more power over personnel decisions within the organization, and made a series of moves that I covered in more detail this time last year, but overall, while each move was individually defensible, it was too much change and too much turnover, and the 2015 Eagles fell on their collective face. The biggest impact move of the offseason was Kelly’s attempt to move up in the draft to acquire Marcus Mariota, and when he could not, trading Foles to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford, while also bringing in Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as QB options, and none of them being measurably better than Foles by all that much. Philadelphia fired Kelly, hired former Eagles QB and longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, and then drafted Carson Wentz with the #2 overall pick, and even though they missed the playoffs in 2016, have to feel good about the way they bounced back from Kelly’s final year.
Kelly, on the other hand, landed not in Tennessee, where he could have coached his former Oregon standout Marcus Mariota, but in San Francisco with a highly flawed roster and two flawed quarterbacks. I got the sense Kelly did not want want Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert, but that was the hand he was dealt. Kelly and Kaepernick, to me, seemed like a good match, an athletic, mobile quarterback paired with an innovative, up-tempo offensive coach, but the pairing came a couple years too late, when Kaepernick maybe had been hit too many times and Kelly may have failed too many times to make it work, as neither was operating with the kind of confidence they had in 2012 and 2013.
One angle to Chip Kelly getting fired for a second time in as many seasons is the fact that New England Patriots and former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount had a career year, and is running the ball as well as he ever has. One of my first football posts on this blog, back in 2013, was about Kelly and Blount, as Kelly was acclimating to the NFL and Blount was in his first training camp with the Patriots, and their shared history, when Blount ruined Kelly’s first game as head coach of Oregon by sucker punching an opposing player on the road in the Ducks’ season opener at Boise State. Given how short running back careers are, and how head coaches can last decades in the NFL, it’s amazing that Blount’s NFL career is now very likely to outlast Chip Kelly’s. The NFL is weird that way.
I have no idea what comes next for Kelly. As I alluded to in my Rex Ryan column last week (spoiler alert: the Bills fired Ryan after I wrote it, but before he had the opportunity to coach the Week 17 finale against the Jets), Kelly put himself in a no-win situation in San Francisco, and while the Oregon football program he was instrumental in building crumbled this season, culminating with the firing of Kelly’s former assistant Mark Helfrich just two years removed from their National Championship Game loss to Ohio State, the university did not wait for Chip Kelly to get fired by San Francisco to try and bring him back, hiring Willie Taggart away from South Florida instead. Kelly’s head coaching future appears to be at the collegiate level, unless he decides to bide his time and be an offensive coordinator for an NFL team for a few years, but the college and NFL hiring and firing cycles are different enough that he is getting onto the market at a time when the major desirable power conference jobs, Oregon, LSU, and Texas chief among them, have been filled already. Kelly bet on himself and his system, and I was rooting for it to work, but it did not, and now it may be a while before he is ever in such an important role again on the national stage, if it happens at all.
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.