Deconstructing the mythology of quarterback Tom Brady

Tom Brady is asked to do the least of almost all quarterbacks in the league and the least of all in the playoffs. Is it possible that he is overrated?

One of my favorite movies is the 1992 Tom Cruise and Kevin Bacon vehicle, “A Few Good Men.” There is a scene in that movie where the trial is beginning and Bacon is laying out the facts of the case for the jury and when he’s done he says, “These are the facts of the case and they are undisputed.”

I love that line because in this world there are simply things where opinion, feelings, and fandom are irrelevant. In this world, there are times where facts matter. Something we all must always remember is when we are in the presence of facts, they are absolute. It is either a fact, or it isn’t.

I use this guiding principle to ask a question that is at the center of sports debates all around the country – is Tom Brady overrated?

Is Tom Brady Overrated?

Before you get all excited and hyped up, please allow me to outline the facts of the case.

Only a fool would argue that five-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady is a “bad” quarterback. But at some point, we have to apply logic to how we view him because numbers suggest the myth of Brady has significantly outgrown the real Brady.

This year’s AFC Championship Game was one in which we saw amazing quarterback play from one team, and a punishing run game and Chinese water torture short passing game from the other.

The team with the stellar quarterback play was not the New England Patriots. On Sunday, Tom Brady more closely resembled Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson than the mythical Brady being discussed in the media all across the nation.

It was evident early in this game that Patriots offensive coordinator (who is running the same system he learned from mentor Charlie Weis, and that Brady has played in his whole career, which is unheard of in today’s NFL) Josh McDaniels did not think Brady was the answer to beating the Chiefs. Patriots running backs carried the ball a whopping 48 times. Four of the five touchdowns were rushing touchdowns.

Even in the times Brady was asked to pass the ball, it was shaky. All in all, he should have had five interceptions (he only (only?) had two charged to his record). Here they are in order:

  • With a chance to put his team up 14-0 early, from the 3-yard line, he threw the ball right to Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland. That was his first interception.
  • In the second quarter with 11:17 remaining, Brady drastically overthrew Rob Gronkowski running a crossing pattern towards the left sideline and Eric Berry was there to clean it up for the pick. Except, Berry dropped it and Brady escaped unscathed.
  • Then, as the half was coming to a close, from the 29-yard line, he threw a ball down the left sideline that was significantly underthrown. Chiefs defender Brock Nelson was in the perfect position to make the interception. However, he never once turned around for the football and a falling Phillip Dorsett made the catch for the touchdown, Brady’s only one on the day.
  • Two plays after it seemed the Chiefs recovered an Edelman muffed punt (this was overturned on replay review somehow), with 8:06 remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady overthrows an extending Edelman and the ball bounces off his fingertips to a waiting Sorensen.
  • On the Patriots final drive in regulation, with 1:01 remaining, Tom Brady inexplicably threw a ball to Gronkowski on 3rd and 10 that sailed over his outstretched arms (he’s tall, but he isn’t Shaq). The ball was tipped and landed in the arms of a Chiefs defender, all but ending the game and sending the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. Yes, Tom Brady cost his team the game. Only, he didn’t. You see, there was a flag on the play because Dee Ford was lined up several inches in the neutral zone. The Patriots would go on to score on a Sony Michel rushing touchdown.

Breaking It Down More

The Patriots had 78 plays where the offensive players touched the football (30 completions, 48 rushes). Running backs touched the ball on 57 of them! That’s 73% of all offensive touches. Another six went to Rob Gronkowski, two of them being 50/50 jump balls that the tight end made incredible plays on. So of 78 offensive touches, 63 went to either a tight end or running back. That is a whopping 80%!

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, when Brady did throw to a wide receiver, they were wide open. In fact, New England’s two leading wideouts in the game, Edelman and Chris Hogan, led all pass catchers in the game in terms of separation on all targets among players targeted five or more times. Edelman was 2.57 yards of separation and Hogan was 2.65.

That means, that at the time of their targets, they had 2.61 yards of separation from the defender covering them. That is wide open in the NFL, or college…or high school. That is a direct credit to Josh McDaniels and their system as they work to get the receivers that open. Brady targeted one of those two 17 times. 17 times, he threw the ball to a wide receiver who had an average of 2.61 yards of separation.

On the broadcast, Tony Romo pointed out several instances of this by highlighting the pick plays and rub routes New England has come to be known for. It is the design of those plays that leads to openness, significantly reducing the risk on the throws.

Brady also has an “Average Completed Air Yards” (CAY) ranking of 10th out of 12 playoff quarterbacks over the regular season. This means that his average completion travels fewer yards than all but two playoff quarterback – Dak Prescott and Nick Foles.

Tom Brady’s Playoff Career

He also ranks 9th out of the 12 playoff quarterbacks in terms of aggressiveness, or his percentage of throws into tight windows (defender is within one yard at the time of target).

In the divisional round of the playoffs, he ranked dead last of all quarterbacks in both “Average Completed Air Yards” and “Average Intended Air Yards.” He also ranked 6th out of 8 quarterbacks in aggressiveness. He ranked last in “Average Yards to the Sticks,” a stat that measures how often he threw the ball beyond the line to gain, or if he instead relied on his playmakers to get the necessary yardage after the catch.

He was ranked second in “Expected Completion Percentage,” which determines, based on completion probability, what his completion percentage should be. The higher the expected percentage, the easier the throws that were attempted.

Between all four quarterbacks in the conference championship games, he had the second-fewest “Average Completed Air Yards,” had the lowest passer rating and the second-highest expected completion percentage. At no point in both regular season and the postseason was he the best in any of these categories.

In the AFC Championship Game, of his 46 attempts, 28 were attempted 10 yards or less. On those throws, he was 20 of 28 for a 71% completion rate. On passes that traveled between 10 and 20 yards, he was 9 of 13 for a 69% completion rate. On passes that traveled 20 yards or more, he was 1 of 5 for a 20% completion rate. Four of the five potential interceptions highlighted earlier occurred 10 or more yards down the field, including the one interception by Sorensen.

Of his 46 attempts, 61% were thrown within 10 yards. Only 28% were attempted between 10 and 20 yards and 11% were attempted 20 yards or more. This was done against the 31st ranked regular-season defense.

For comparison, the likely league MVP, Patrick Mahomes going against the 21st ranked defense, attempted only 16 passes within 10 yards or less, going 10 for 16, a 62.5% completion rate. Between 10 and 20 yards, he attempted 9 passes going 3 for 9, for a 33% completion rate. On passes beyond 20 yards, he attempted 6 passes, completing 3 for a 50% completion rate.

Of Mahomes’ 31 attempts, only ~51% were attempted within 10 yards to Brady’s 61%. Between 10 and 20 yards is where he attempted ~29% of his passes to Brady’s 37%. Beyond 20 yards, he attempted ~19% of his passes, to Brady’s 11%.

In the AFC Divisional Round, Brady attempted 44 passes. A whopping 36 (82%!) were attempted within 10 yards or less. He attempted only 2 (4%) beyond 20 yards, and the lone completion was a ball that traveled only 15 yards and had YAC attached to it.

Take into account the Patriots offense is designed to get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly as the receivers are either behind the line of scrimmage or open right off the line. In both rounds of the playoffs, Brady has led all quarterbacks in time between the snap of the football and when it leaves his hand.

So, when looking beyond the box score, Tom Brady is asked to do the least of almost all quarterbacks in the league and the least of all in the playoffs when looking at the totality of the Next Gen Stats. And yet, Brady is discussed as some type of folk hero and legend. In reality, he ranks as one of the players least responsible for his team’s success.

I have an expression I like to say, and that I use a lot – numbers never lie, but people do.
The numbers here are clear. He is not a bad quarterback and he executes what he is asked to do very efficiently. But he is not asked to do all that much.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

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