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Tom Brady’s game is finally declining (for now)

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Brady’s play has slipped in his age 42 season, but there’s room for a comeback.

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Patriots’ offense had a major opportunity to thrive against the Eagles’ diminished cornerback corps in Week 11. Philadelphia had allowed 300+ passing yards in four of its first six games, a stretch that only ended thanks to a midseason QB lineup that included non-stars like Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky.

That matchup shined with the promise of a throwback Tom Brady performance, especially with 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry making his NFL debut. Instead, the six-time Super Bowl winner sputtered. He needed 47 passes to throw for just 216 yards and threw one fewer touchdown pass than wide receiver Julian Edelman. Any toss more than 15 yards downfield was a lost cause:

This wasn’t particularly surprising. Through 10 weeks of his age 42 season, Brady is on pace to throw the fewest touchdowns he ever has in a full 16-game campaign (22) while averaging his lowest yards-per-pass (6.8) number since George W. Bush was president. It’s possible Sunday’s low-impact performance was a sign the Eagles’ secondary has tightened up after a rough start, but it may be time to consider Brady is headed for a statistical downturn as he nears his mid-40s.

Brady is throwing shorter passes (and not especially well)

Brady was clearly unhappy with that performance. After he was asked if his team’s sudden lack of offensive firepower was fixable with more reps, the two-time MVP was dejected, but optimistic.

“Yeah. I think that’s right, practice and execution,” he told reporters after the game.

“[The Patriots’ offense is] up and down, what it looks like to me. Probably do everything better.”

For Brady, that means shedding the long list of checkdowns and dump-off passes on which he’s grown dependent and replacing them with longer throws. His past Patriots offenses have thrived behind an intermediate-range passing game that’s flustered linebackers and safeties downfield.

Those throws haven’t been as devastating this fall. The 42-year-old has been forced to throw the ball more often in 2019 thanks to an ineffective running game that’s averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. These extra passes aren’t going very far.

Brady’s averaged 37.5 attempts per game when you separate out clock stopping spikes and throw-aways. That’s up from 34.0 last year, but the number of passes he’s thrown 11+ yards downfield has remained roughly the same — 10.8 passes in 2018 vs. 10.9 this fall.

Of Brady’s 37.5 attempts per game, nearly seven of those, on average, are caught behind the line of scrimmage. Another 20(ish) travel only 1 to 10 yards downfield. After averaging 8.8 air yards per throw in his 2017 MVP campaign, that number is down two full yards to 6.8 in 2019.

He’s completed 74.4 percent of his short-range passes. When you look at the roughly 11 attempts per game that fly 11+ yards in the air, that efficiency drops to 52.3 percent.

Tom Brady’s completion rate by pass distance

Tom Brady Behind LOS 1-10 yards downfield 11-20 yards 20+ yards
Tom Brady Behind LOS 1-10 yards downfield 11-20 yards 20+ yards
2015 81.1% 68.4% 64.4% 33.8%
2016 82.2% 74.4% 66.7% 40.8%
2017 82.4% 73.1% 62.9% 39.2%
2018 91.8% 72.0% 62.4% 32.1%
2019 83.6% 71.4% 58.2% 45.2%

While his deep ball rate has spiked on 4.5 attempts per game (more than he threw in 2018 but fewer than in 2017’s MVP campaign), his intermediate passing game — the 11-20 yard routes once dominated by Rob Gronkowski — has dropped significantly. As a result, Brady’s thrown more screen passes than ever. Sometimes he hasn’t even done that well:

There’s also been a nagging feeling Brady hasn’t been completely in sync with his wideouts, especially when it comes to long routes. Sunday’s performance in Philadelphia saw him either hang passes just long enough for the Eagles’ embattled corners to catch up and make a play or overthrow targets he may have thought were a step faster than they actually were. The most common victims of the latter were Mohamed Sanu, who’d tweaked his ankle earlier in the game, and a soon-to-be 39-year-old Ben Watson.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Brady’s on-target pass rate has fallen from 72.3 to 66.7 in a season where he’s throwing more short passes than ever. The Patriot offense has suffered as a result.

After averaging 5.9, 6.0, and 5.9 yards per play the previous three seasons, this year’s squad clocks in at 5.1 — 24th best in the NFL. Second-year tailback Sony Michel has slumped badly, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry (down from 4.5 as a rookie) and necessitating some of the additional short-range throws Brady’s had to dial up.

There can be some debate as to whether Brady’s sudden decline has affected his runners or if their inability to counterpunch against opposing defenses has limited the New England passing game. The most likely explanation is that neither side is playing up to expectations. And there are some plausible reasons behind that.

This can all get better before the end of the season (and probably will, because it’s the Patriots)

Brady’s been forced to deal with plenty of turnover in his lineup. The offensive line was thrown into patch mode when David Andrews (blood clots) and Isaiah Wynn (toe injury) both landed on injured reserve early. Wynn was activated Tuesday and will be eligible to play in Week 12 against the Cowboys. That’s a boon for a team that’s been forced to protect Brady’s blindside with September free agent signee Marshall Newhouse.

His receiving corps has also gone through flux. Josh Gordon was released, Antonio Brown failed to work out, and 2019 first-round pick Harry didn’t make his debut until Week 11 thanks to injury.

That’s forced Brady to spread the ball up and down the roster. He’s completed passes to 17 different Patriots, which is already a personal best for the veteran QB. Getting his top rookie Harry in the lineup is found money, and Brady’s budding relationship with Sanu — acquired before the trade deadline for a second-round pick — should boost the team’s intermediate and long-range passing game.

The tight end rotation is still a mess. Watson leads that group with 124 yards, which is a number Gronk eclipsed in 11 different games in his career with the Pats. He’s got seven catches in his last two games, however, so he might be building a stable connection with the quarterback who welcomed him to the league in 2004.

Brady’s start to 2019 left room for improvement, and the team’s November additions should give him the tools to get there. While he’s been off target more often than in most years, he’s still shown the tools to dial up a throwback GOAT performance when needed.

And even if he can’t, he’s still got the league’s top defense — in both yards and points allowed this fall — at the ready. That group gave up 10 points and 147 yards to the Eagles in their first three drives in Week 11, then clamped shut to limit Philadelphia to zero points and 108 yards over its final 10 drives.

So yeah, Brady is worse in 2019 than he’s been in a long time. But he’s still Tom Brady. He’s still playing with Bill Belichick. Buy into his demise at your own risk.