By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- What a difference a year makes.
Last year, in an important Week 15 matchup in Pittsburgh, there was Tom Brady, firing darts all the way up the field, leading New England on a go-ahead drive in the closing minutes of the game, completing three of four passes for 69 yards before completing a two-point conversion pass to put his Patriots up by a field goal.
This year, in an important Week 15 matchup in Pittsburgh, there was Tom Brady, heaving up a fourth-quarter interception in the red zone, taking points off the board for his team for the second consecutive week. There was Brady, with a chance to tie the game in the final minute, firing two incompletions out of the end zone before throwing up a prayer that went unanswered on fourth down, leading to a disappointing road loss that alters the outlook for the entire season.
And as you might imagine, all of the folks who've been salivating for the chance to declare with certainty that Tom Brady is finally on the decline will be trumpeting the dreaded D-word as much as possible in the coming hours, days, weeks and months. To them, the decline for the 41-year-old has arrived -- albeit a few years late.
But ... has it really?
Physically, you'd be hard-pressed to point out many throws from the quarterback that point to a physical decline. He admitted he misjudged his throwaway on the pick in Pittsburgh, but overall, the football was coming out of his hand the exact way he wanted to all afternoon long. As the X's and O's guys like to say on the television, he can still make all of the throws.
One of those went for a 63-yard touchdown, the bullet to Cordarrelle Patterson was good enough to move the chains on a third-and-5, one went for a gain of 19 to Josh Gordon, and two went for drops by Julian Edelman. A mixed bag of sorts in terms of results, but in terms of the physical throws? Brady is still delivering the football where it needs to go much more often than not.
He can still slide away from pressure to deliver passes downfield:
He can still wait patiently before dropping passes to open receivers in front of the safeties -- passes that cut the field in half on potential game-tying drives in the final minutes of the fourth quarter:
And all of this came one week after Brady fired a 37-yard missile with pinpoint accuracy for a touchdown in Miami:
Physically, it's all still there for Brady. This is not a repeat of 2015 Peyton Manning, when the greatest passer of all time suddenly lacked the ability to throw a forward pass. And this is clearly not a repeat of 2010 Brett Favre, when the strategy for the QB appeared to one entirely reliant on hope and good fortune.
This is a quarterback who, physically, can still do everything he needs to do in order to perform his job.
The obvious question follows: Why, then, are the numbers down across the board? And why have the Patriots lost a fifth regular-season game for the first time in nearly a decade? Surely, the Brady of yesteryear would never allow that to happen.
On that, the answer remains a bit more difficult to deduce.
For two straight weeks, we've all witnessed moments from the Patriots' quarterback that felt distinctly un-Brady-like. Before halftime in Miami, Brady took a sack in a situation where the last thing he could have done was take a sack. That cost the Patriots three points. This week in Pittsburgh, Brady launched a pass to the sideline off his back foot that just didn't get as far as he would have liked, leading to an interception that took either three or seven points off the board for New England.
Limiting mistakes has been a hallmark of Brady's Hall of Fame career, so seeing such glaring errors in back-to-back losses surely has many antennae raised around the football world that something is amiss.
If there were to be a physical complaint to be had, it would be in Brady's seeming reluctance to take hits, which leads to him throwing some passes off his back foot. That was most evident last weekend in Miami, when Brady bailed out early on a pass and sailed one high over Chris Hogan's head in the end zone, just prior to the sack that ended the half. And it showed up again on the final failed fourth down of Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.
While Brady clearly does have a tendency to fade away from certain pass rushers in certain situations, this is not necessarily something new. This is not something that has recently arisen out of nowhere. And frankly, this is something that only gets discussed after losses. If Brady shies away from a blitzing 250-pound linebacker in the midst of a victory, it almost always gets ignored. That's because most people understand it for what it is -- a quarterback living to see another day. Brady's certainly capable of standing in and absorbing significant punishment from time to time, but the fact that he missed zero games due to injury from 2001-07 and missed zero games due to injury from 2009 to the present is not a coincidence. Limiting physical damage has likewise been a staple of Brady's Hall of Fame career, so it would be disingenuous to spotlight such activity as a sign of something larger taking place -- especially on a day when the quarterback navigated the pocket as well as he always does.
Really, what often goes unspoken in these discussions is the element of play-calling and play design. Admittedly, it's not an overly juicy topic for the hot take artists on TV to use as a springboard for shouting at each other, but it is nevertheless a significant aspect at play -- especially on Sunday.
With a second-and-15 from the Steelers' 21-yard line, the Patriots sent three receivers into the end zone, where four defenders awaited.
Josh Gordon held up near the 5-yard line, but he was covered tightly. This was a play that had almost no chance of success from the very start. Brady had to throw the ball through the back of the end zone.
Yet, inexplicably, the Patriots dialed up a nearly identical play on the next snap. Brady, flushed from the pocket, once again had to throw the ball through the end zone.
That led to a gotta-have-it fourth-and-15. After the complete lack of success on second and third down, one might have foreseen something a bit more creative come from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Alas, the Patriots ... sent four receivers to the end zone, three of whom ran to essentially the same spot on the field. The defense converged and easily broke up the pass.
Here's a look at the play in video form:
This was a bad play, with very low chances of success. The Patriots ran it, essentially, three straight times.
In a related story, the Patriots lost the game.
This is the type of thing that doesn't often happen to the Patriots. This is typically the type of thing that happens to opponents of the Patriots. And yet, it's the type of thing that has much more influence over the outcome of games than any and all debate or discussion about a decline in the quarterback's abilities.
Those were the most high-profile questionable play calls and play designs from the Patriots on Sunday, but they weren't the only ones. On a third-and-4 at the Steelers' 13-yard line, the Patriots opted to bypass gaining the yardage the old-fashioned way and instead went with a screen pass to Edelman; he was stopped short of the line to gain by a swarm of black jerseys:
Of course, with Brady and McDaniels working hand in hand with so much of their offense, the quarterback is not removed from this process of play-calling. Generally, he and McDaniels are on the same page. And considering Pittsburgh called a timeout prior to that fourth-and-15 play, Brady had ample opportunity to offer up a suggestion or two to McDaniels during the stoppage in play.
In that department, Brady and McDaniels both need to be better. We can't in one breath praise Brady for driving a highly functioning offense, only to pin the blame on McDaniels when things don't go so smoothly.
But overall, as the talking heads shout and scream about age and decline and GOATs and everything else, it should not get lost that Brady is still physically capable of making every pass he needs to make. What's going on with the Patriots this season may lack a clear explanation at this point, but there should be no doubt that it involves something much greater than any supposed decline from the quarterback.
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