The New England Patriots are at the top of the AFC with a 9-1 record. The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has them as the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Their defense is historically good. The game charters at Pro Football Focus rank New England’s special teams as the second best of 2019.
The offense, however, has been underwhelming. The Patriots are averaging just two points per drive in 2019, the fifth lowest rate for the franchise since coach Bill Belichick took over in 2000. They’re struggling in the red zone (49 percent, ranking 25th) and in goal-to-go situations (65 percent, 21st).
“The strength of our team is our defense and our special teams,” quarterback Tom Brady told “The Greg Hill Show” Monday morning on WEEI. “On offense we just have to take advantage when we get opportunities and understand where our strengths lie and try and play to them — not giving any short fields, not turning the ball over and try and take advantage when we get into the red area to score touchdowns. That is kind of where our offense is. That is kind of where our team is.”
Brady, remarkably, appears to be at the heart of the team’s offensive futility. The future Hall of Famer completed 26 of 47 passes for 216 yards and no touchdowns on Sunday, the first time in Brady’s 20-year career that he played an entire game and didn’t lead the team in touchdown passes, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. Wide receiver Julian Edelman threw New England’s only touchdown pass, a 15-yarder to Phillip Dorsett in the third quarter. Brady also had 14 incompletions in the first half against Philadelphia, a career high.
You could wave this off as a one-game clunker, but Brady, who turned 42 in August, has been trending down for a few seasons. His completion rate is on a three-year decline, from close to a career high in 2016 (67 percent) to one of the lowest marks of his career in 2019 (64 percent). His touchdown rate this season (3.5 percent), if it doesn’t improve, also would be a career low. Those two components, in turn, are fueling a drastic decline in Brady’s passer rating, adjusted net yards per pass and Total Quarterback Rating, three passing metrics that are best correlated with team wins.
It’s easy to attribute Brady’s 2019 performance to the loss of five-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (retired), the failed Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown experiments and an overall lack of quality receiving options. However, New England’s receivers are hauling in an average rate of catchable throws (77 percent), and passes to Edelman, Brady’s most targeted player, are producing 7.2 yards per attempt, the third-highest rate between them since they became teammates in 2009. Passes from Brady to Edelman are also producing 3.5 more points than expected per 100 snaps after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each throw, per data from TruMedia. That’s a far cry from years past but still good enough to exceed expectations. The same can’t be said for Brady’s overall performance.
Since Brady took over as the starter in 2001, he has never produced a below-average passer rating — a streak in serious jeopardy, with his 90.1 passer rating currently below the league average. This doesn’t mean his passer rating will remain underwhelming for the remainder of the season, but it is worth noting that Football Outsiders ranks Brady as the 11th best passer of 2019 in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement and 14th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, two metrics that adjust for opponents faced. So even if Brady boosts his QB rating later in the season, upcoming games against mediocre pass defenses such as the Houston Texans, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins might not reflect much real improvement.
Adjusted net yards per pass is an updated form of a player’s passer rating that gives a bonus for throwing touchdown passes while penalizing for sacks and interceptions, making it very good at telling you the amount of value provided (or not provided) by a passer. Brady is producing 6.4 adjusted net yards per pass this season, the 16th most among qualified passers and his worst mark since 2013.
In addition, Brady was the second-most valuable passer of 2016 per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating only to fall to third in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 15th in 2019. His 56.4 QBR this year suggests his performance is good enough to fuel a team to a 9-7 record during a 16-game regular season. That would be the lowest QBR of his career, below the 62.1 he recorded in 2013.
There are other warning signs. His passes are as shallow as they have been since at least 2006, the first year data is available, traveling just 7.2 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. That’s a yard less than the league average and two yards less than his output from 2017. A career-high 24 percent of his passes have been thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, while just 10 percent of his passes are deep balls (20 or more yards), perhaps more signs Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels don’t have as much faith in Brady’s arm as they used to.
Brady’s completion rate also falls from 75 percent in a clean pocket to 35 percent (the worst among qualified quarterbacks in 2019, per Pro Football Focus) when facing pass pressure, and his passer rating drops from 105.8 to 48.5 in those same situations, one of the worst ratings among qualified quarterbacks. (For comparison, a quarterback will earn a 39.6 passer rating for an incomplete pass.) Brady produced passer ratings under pressure of 71.1 in 2018 and 95.8 in 2017.
Alex Guerrero, Brady’s personal trainer, has speculated that the quarterback might play until he is 46 or 47. But if the current trends continue in these many metrics, it’s clear the 14-time Pro Bowler and three-time NFL MVP will be done much sooner than that.