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Opponent preview: Tom Brady vs. Father Time

Are there signs of decay? We take a look

The name “Tom Brady” is akin to a curse word ‘round these parts. This is primarily a result of the fact that he’s beaten our beloved Buffalo Bills at least twice. There’s one foe he can’t beat though, and that’s Father Time. With fan confidence soaring and deepening murmurs of the fall of The Empire, let’s check in to see how Brady’s been doing the last few weeks.

Some stats

The eye test is great, and we’ll get to it, but when you’re second in the league in passing attempts with 551 you’ve arrived at a statistically valid sample size. If you’re a stats person you’re about to like what you see. This is despite Tom Brady being ninth in the league with 3,565 yards. Remember he’s second in attempts though, which makes his volume a bit out of w*hack. How is he doing in efficiency metrics?

Brady sits at 26th in the league with 6.5 yards per attempt. In yards per completion he’s slightly better. His 10.8 yards per completion is good for 24th in the NFL. The large discrepancy between his ninth-place-position in volume (total yards) and mid-twenties for rate stats (yards/per) is because of his 29th-place-position in completion percentage. Before any visiting Pats fans feel inclined to mention it, Josh Allen is worse in this measure and total yards. To counter, Allen is better in yards per attempt and completion.

If we’re looking for a “why” to go with all of this, we can turn to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats passing page. Tom Brady’s average completed pass travels 5.5 yards in the air (called “Completed Air Yard” or “CAY”). That’s good for 24th in the league. They also measure “Intended Air Yards” or “IAY” which adds in incomplete passes to give an estimate of how far a quarterback likes to throw it. Brady fares worse here, with a scant 7.5 IAY which is 28th in the league.

Both of those stats have also shown decline in the four years of data available. The current season marks the lowest of the available years and a marked decrease from 2017. In that season, Brady’s CAY was 6.6 and his IAY was 9.0 yards. For comparison purposes, Allen’s current year has 6.2 CAY and and 9.2 IAY. With a wide range of stats screaming decline, let’s get to the eye test.

Play 1

To be fair to Brady, a 25-yard pass to the sideline is a long pass. This one is off the mark. One bad pass does not prove a decline, however. This isn’t a pass we’d expect Brady to miss, but it happens, right?

Play 2

This play is a bit curious. Bills fans have seen these plays bite us in the rear end plenty of times. Brady finds another second to locate a receiver and sees a man one-on-one underneath the defender. On target, this should at worst be an incompletion. At best, the defender tries to play through the back of the receiver and we get a defensive pass interference flag. Instead, we have an incredibly overthrown ball. It’s also possible Brady was expecting a second move by the receiver to drive upfield. But in that scenario the timing is way off. Without the play call it’s hard to know what went wrong, but it’s clear that something did. Very wrong.

Play 3

This doesn't require a lot of explanation. The New England Patriots are still winning games because, while I didn’t exactly struggle to find errant passes, there’s also not a lot of difficulty finding good ones. Add in a good play design and Tom Brady shows plenty of signs of life.

Play 4

I selected this play because I think it highlights one of Brady’s two creeping issues. The IAY measurement and CAY above aren’t a fluke. Brady seems to need to put a lot of effort into deeper throws and a decline in arm strength leads to an underthrown ball that floats a bit. Julian Edelman adjusts, but an easy touchdown is made to look difficult.

Play 5

The Patriots’ fans have made sure to mention the lack of talent surrounding Brady and here’s one of a fair few examples I ran across. It’s not the entirety of the changes to the Patriots, but a declining roster on offense is certainly one of the changes. It’s not just drops either—miscommunication and timing problems crept up as well.

Play 6

Buffalo has been burned by this type of play more times than I’d care to count with Julian Edelman finding a soft spot in the coverage. Everything looks normal on this play and it’s certain that the Cincinnati Bengals will allow a small chunk. Except Tom Brady’s second issue is shown here. He’s gone a little more blunderbuss, and a little less laser.


Other factors like the talent around him have hurt Tom Brady to some extent this year. But be careful not to use that to eliminate the idea that Brady is declining. I’ve linked my notes from New England’s game against the Houston Texans below and, assuming you trust my judgment, one thing is clear: Tom Brady is increasingly becoming the reason a play fails for the Patriots.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d make the same argument for Brady as I used to do for Shady. Even a reduced Brady is still dangerous. The Buffalo Bills will need to practice and scheme just as hard as they ever have against New England. If they do, their odds are looking better than ever.

Notes for houston game.pdf