New England

Is Brady Approaching or Falling Off the Cliff This Season?

Tom Brady hasn’t been at his best for the New England Patriots in 2018.

He hasn’t been bad, not by a long shot, but he’s been very...average, especially compared to the rest of the NFL.

Brady doesn’t rank in the top 10 in any significant statistical categories at the moment, whether it’s passing yards, completion percentage, touchdown passes, or passer rating. This all comes less than a year after winning NFL MVP honors in 2017 and being named First Team All-Pro at quarterback, each honor going his way for the third time in his career. He finished in the top five in all categories last year, including a league-best 4,577 yards through the air.

Pundits have been clamoring for the decline of Brady, 41, for years now. The “cliff,” as immortalized by ESPN’s Max Kellerman, was near. He’d be a bum in short order, Kellerman said prior to the 2016 season.

Yes, Brady currently has a lower passer rating (94.7) than Eli Manning (96.6), a figure which is 17th-best among qualified passers. But is Brady truly, finally, once and for all in decline?

Not exactly.

Asking any quarterback, even Brady, to play at a high level without a four-time All-Pro tight end, an All-Pro caliber interior lineman, uncertainty at each tackle position and a non-existent running game is a tall order. It was all true the last time we saw Brady on the field vs. the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 11, as the Patriots were dealt their worst loss in four years, 34-10, without the services of Rob Gronkowski or Shaq Mason. Starting tackles Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown each missed time over the course of the game, and Sony Michel played only 18 of 66 offensive snaps as he works his way back from a knee injury.

That’s only one game, you say. Even though New England was riding a six-game winning streak before the debacle in Nashville, the entire offense has looked out of sync for the better part of a month now; at least since dropping 43 points on the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 14.

The challenges posed to the offensive side of the ball for the Patriots this year have been unique. The team has gone above and beyond to get Josh Gordon acclimated with the system after acquiring him on Sept. 18, with mixed results to date that could shape up to have a positive impact down the stretch. There’s been no running game for weeks at a time, to the point that Cordarrelle Patterson -- a natural wide receiver -- spent two weeks as New England’s de facto featured back.

Danny Amendola, a longtime favorite of Brady’s, signed with the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots have been without Gronkowski and/or Julian Edelman plenty of times through the years, but never in a situation where their absences signaled doom. Brady broke a Super Bowl record for passing yards without Gronk against the Atlanta Falcons, and broke it again the very next year without Edelman against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brady is still on pace for 4,397 passing yards while completing 65.2 percent of his passes. Each figure would be better than his career average for a 16-game season. On the other hand, the 27-11 touchdown-interception ratio he’s trending towards would be his worst since 2013, the season which prompted Bill Belichick to draft Jimmy Garoppolo.

In the past, Brady’s greatness has masked up just about every other deficiency on the roster and carried the Patriots to -- at least -- the AFC Championship Game. Which is still entirely possible, given that New England is still 7-3 and two games clear of any other team in the pathetic-as-usual AFC East.

The Patriots own head-to-head the head-to-head tiebreaker with both the Chiefs and Houston Texans, with a chance to grab it against the Pittsburgh Steelers should it come to that. Though far from likely, the path to Super Bowl LIII could still run through Gillette Stadium.

Brady will need to be better than he’s been to ensure that happens. But he hasn’t sunken to the depths of Peyton Manning at the end, whose debilitating neck injury finally caught up with him. He’s not Brett Favre, whose infamy for throwing interceptions ballooned to its highest rate in his final season.

What’s also notable is that neither Manning nor Favre faced any drastic personnel blows in their finals seasons from previous years. Manning’s supporting cast in 2015 wasn’t all that different from his record-setting 2013 campaign with the Denver Broncos, while Favre had virtually the same weaponry to work with in 2010 as he did in 2009 with the Minnesota Vikings.

The degree of difficulty has only gone up for Brady, who just might have reached the point of his career where he can’t answer for every problem thrown his way. This was also the line of thinking in 2014, of course, and we saw what happened then.

Declaring the end is upon Brady is a foolish exercise. That said, he’s the only one who can help squash the narrative over the course of New England’s final six regular season games and the postseason. And it’ll be as difficult as it’s ever been.

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