Speculation is rife about where Tom Brady will play in 2020. He's not going to retire. He's not guaranteed to return to the Patriots. For the first time this century, there's uncertainty surrounding the future Hall of Famer.
It was 2001 when Tom Brady became the New England Patriots starting quarterback. He won a Super Bowl that year. The Patriots have gone on to win five more since. Brady has been an MVP three times, a Pro Bowler 14 times and an All-Pro selection five times. There's no argument against him as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.
Brady built his career on boring throws.
By being able to decode the defence's alignment before the snap then diagnose coverages instantly at the snap, Brady has been able to rely on routine throws more than any other great quarterback. When the defence can't put you in bad spots, they can't stop you from finding the soft spots in their play call. They can't force you to throw into tight windows downfield.
That's how Brady has played at a high level for 20 years. It's not complicated. He never played like Brett Favre so his body never took the same punishment. But eventually, age impacts everyone. This season hasn't been a good one. Last season wasn't either, despite that Super Bowl win. The Patriots made their run through the playoffs in 2018 by relying on the running game and their defence. Brady threw two touchdowns and three interceptions during that playoff run.
At 41 years of age, that season was still massively impressive. But there was no argument that he was declining. A soft schedule and the freshness coming off a long offseason allowed Brady to play relatively well over the first half of this season. From Week 9 onwards, Brady's performances began to suffer dramatic decline. Week 9 was when the Ravens blew the Patriots out. Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown had come and gone, leaving Brady with limited talent in his supporting cast.
Blaming the receivers is more convenient than pragmatic. Brady's performances over the second half of the season were bad even in the context of his supporting cast.
For the season, Brady's depth-adjusted accuracy was 57.3 percent. That would have tied Andy Dalton for 13th-best in the league in 2018. In his first eight games of the year, Brady was at 65.4 percent. That would have ranked fourth in the league in 2018. His accuracy plummetted to 49.6 percent over the second half of the season, which would have been 33rd in the league in 2018. These numbers measure ball placement, not completions, so drops don't hurt his scores.
Similarly, Brady threw six interceptable passes on his first 309 passes of the regular season. This means 1.9 percent of his passes should have been caught by a defender. 1.9 percent would have ranked third in the league in 2018, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. From Week 9 to Week 17, Brady threw 16 interceptable passes on 303 attempts. That 5.3 percent would have ranked 28th in 2018, behind Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
The really concerning thing is that these numbers flatter Brady's overall quality of play. These numbers only measure the placement of his passes when he targets a specific receiver. He also misread more coverages this season than in any prior and threw the ball away an incredible 40 times. It's a reflection on how Brady's mind and body have both aged to the point that he has no ability to extend plays if he doesn't have an option open immediately at the snap.
Brady has been consistently late on throws this season. It's a complete turnaround from what he's always been throughout the rest of his career. This play comes from the third quarter of the Week 9 game against the Ravens, it's the second play of its kind from that quarter. Earl Thomas shows that he's moving to the middle of the field with tight end Ben Watson, but he's baiting Brady to undercut Julian Edelman's slanted curl route.
The ball is released late. It should arrive at Edelman the moment he comes out of his break. Instead, Brady pats the ball then hits Edelman's hands.
Curl routes are routes where the receiver runs vertically upfield then turns around at a specific spot. Good quarterbacks release the ball just before the receiver turns around, that is so the ball hits the receiver when the defensive back is still reacting to the sudden stop in the route. Jakobi Meyers is running a deep curl route at the top of the screen. He's wide open at the top of his route. The gif pauses when the ball should be coming out of Brady's hand.
Brady's ball is late so the defensive back can recover and contest the catch point. His pass is also too high so it goes over Meyers' head.
Blaming the unproven Meyers would be easy, but this was a problem that extended to every receiver on the Patriots roster. If a quarterback is constantly on a different page to one of his receivers, chances are it's that receiver's fault. If a quarterback is constantly on a different page to all of his receivers, it's the quarterback.
The above play shows us Brady making exactly the same mistakes, but this time it's to Julian Edelman on an out route against the Texans. This is a wide-open throw.
In Week 14, the Patriots lost a home game to the Kansas City Chiefs when they scored just 16 points. The Patriots faced a Fourth-and-3 at the Chiefs five-yard line with 1:11 left in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs send an all-out blitz, giving one-on-one coverage to the Patriots receivers. Edelman runs a corner route from the inside slot, while Meyers runs inside from the outer slot. The Chiefs defensive back covering Meyers drops back at the snap, giving Meyers a free release.
Meyers is wide open for the touchdown. Even if he doesn't reach the endzone, he gets the first down to extend the drive. Brady's pass is underthrown so the defensive back covering him can knock it away.
Brady misreading coverages to throw the ball to the wrong receiver has contributed to the perception that his receivers can't get open. Take the above play against the Cincinnati Bengals. Brady throws the ball into a double-teamed receiver underneath despite having a clean pocket at the top of his drop.
There is an in-breaking route at the intermediate level hitting space that Brady should see. He should be throwing the ball with anticipation to the green square, hitting his receiver in the soft spot of the defence. His failure to diagnose coverages consistently contributed to the impression that the Patriots passing game was suffocated by its receivers.
Whatever fair criticisms there were that could have been laid at Brady's feet during his prime, reading coverages was never amongst them. It was always his greatest strength. Teams feared blitzing Brady because of how good he was at getting the ball out. Now he's missing blitzes and showing inconsistent timing attacking coverages.
Even when the Patriots went out of their way to scheme an easy read for him, Brady still wasn't effective at an elite level. On this play against the Eagles in the redzone, the Patriots roll the pocket. Rolling the pocket kills the pass rush and halves the field for the offence. This means Brady has two receivers to choose between, both in the same area of the field. He's slow to get the ball out then underthrows his pass so badly that the safety should intercept it.
Paying top-end money to a quarterback who doesn't play to a top-end standard is the worst thing you can do in the NFL. Kirk Cousins just killed the Minnesota Vikings last weekend.
Brady obviously isn't Cousins. But he missed routine throws often enough that value for money is hard to see moving forward.
This is a flat route to James White. He's not under any pressure and White is wide open. There's no excuse for missing this throw.
Edelman and Brady have elevated each other over the years by beating defences over and over again on routes such as this one. Brady overthrows his favourite target on this occasion.
Philip Dorsett is wide open in the back of the endzone for a touchdown. Brady is anxious in the pocket against a three-man rush, so hurries himself to badly miss through the back of the endzone.
Missing a screen to the point that it's almost intercepted should be by far your worst throw in a given game.
But that wasn't the case for Brady against the Eagles.
That missed screen wasn't even his second-worst throw of the game.
Brady will turn 43 years of age before the start of next season. There's an understandable reluctance to accept that he's no longer one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He's proven at earlier points of his career that he can turn his form around, but this decline has been consistent for a few years now. Age is inevitable. Brady has staved it off longer than anyone in history.
None of this means that Brady will be one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL next year. He's just not going to provide value to anyone. He's also very unlikely to be a net positive by the time the playoffs come around. As Drew Brees and Philip Rivers have showcased consistently over recent years, older quarterbacks lose velocity on their passes as the season wears on. That renders them less effective by December and January.
The Patriots haven't had reason to force Brady out at any point. They don't have reason to do everything possible to keep him this offseason. If he comes back, that won't guarantee that they contend again. If he leaves, it doesn't guarantee that they'll become one of the worse teams in the league. Belichick is the architect in New England. It wouldn't be a surprise if he upgraded through the draft or by signing a veteran such as Marcus Mariota in free agency.
Mariota may sound like a crazy idea right now, but the idea of Ryan Tannehill beating Brady in the playoffs would have sounded crazy 12 months ago.