“Tom Brady is fine”. “Tom Brady is just off to a slow start, don't worry”. “Just wait until Brady gets Rob Gronkowski back, then we'll see the Brady we're used to”.
That's all that Patriots diehards have been saying over the first seven weeks of the season, as Brady as gotten off to the slowest start of his career. As the greatest quarterback in recent memory, it seems impossible to imagine Brady as a player that is beginning the inevitable decline at the tail end of his career. He hasn't been playing like himself, but surely he'll snap out of it, right?
That's a much more difficult point to argue after week seven's loss to the Jets. Could it be that Brady is just an average quarterback at this point in his career?
A slow start was expected in New England this year. With the loss of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, and the absence of Rob Gronkowski,it was almost inevitable that Brady would need time to get the offense on track. With a heavy reliance on rookies and inexperienced players, an uptick in drops and bad timing on routes should have been anticipated.
And those certainly have been there. While Brady completed only 22 of 46 passes on Sunday, six of those were either drops or plays his receivers should have made. Brady also threw the ball away twice, due to play breaking down in front of him. Even with those plays taken into account, that still would give Brady an adjusted 61% completion rate – far from the accuracy and efficiency we're used to seeing from him against a lesser team like the Jets.
It's true that Brady's supporting cast has been less than stellar, but this isn't the first time he's been in such a situation. In 2006 Brady was forced to work with the likes of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel, and he didn't have near the struggles he's had this season. He led that team to the AFC Championship game, which at this point in 2013 seems to be a long shot.
It'd be unfair to judge Brady on just one game with his best weapon, Gronkowski, back on the field, but early returns certainly weren't encouraging. The dominate tight end finished the day his typical stat line – eight catches for 117 yards – but that didn't translate to a better day for Brady and the offense as a whole. Sunday marked the third time this season that Brady competed 50% of his passes, and Pro Football Focus actually graded this game as a career low for Brady. Brady was able to lead the offense a third down conversion only once out of twelve opportunities against the Jets, and he only averaged five yards per pass attempt. Not exactly what Patriot fans were hoping to see.
There are really only two scenarios that would explain the sudden decline in Brady's level of play. Either Brady is finally losing his physical ability at age 36, or he's been made uncomfortable by the many changes in the offense for the first time in his career. While the former isn't impossible, one would have expected to see some hint of that last season. Rarely do players lose their physical ability all at once, and 2012 was as good of a season as ever for Brady.
It's much more likely that Brady simply is no longer comfortable with the tools surrounding him. While Brady has seemed like a player that would be impossible to rattle. But it's pretty obvious that he's not been able to establish chemistry with the new weapons brought in. That was made painfully obvious with Gronkowski back on the field. Brady forced the ball to his tight end repeatedly, ending the game with seventeen targets. Gronkowski did end the game with catches on eight of those, but many of those passes were when he was far too well covered to be thrown to. One of those plays ended in an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Brady was locked in on Gronkowski, but that's not the only evidence of his mental struggles this season. The signal caller has been under pressure a lot this season – Brady was sacked four times and hurried ten times against the Jets alone – and that's caused Brady's mechanics to noticeably break down.
In remarkably un-Brady like fashion, he's imaging pressure when it isn't there and rushing his throws, which is causing him to lean into throws at some points and throw off his back foot on others. That was no more evident than early in the third quarter when Brady's pass intended for Gronkowski was intercepted. On the previous play Brady had been sacked, and from the snap Brady was feeling pressure again. Even though he had enough time to set up and deliver the ball properly, he rushed the throw to a well covered Gronkowski.
Because he was forcing the play, Brady didn't set his feet and it resulted in an under thrown pass that was easily picked off.
Making the move to part with all of Tom Brady's weapons was a calculated risk, and the Patriots pulled the trigger because they had such faith in his ability to make plays regardless of who was lined up alongside him. But Brady is only human, and for almost the first time in his career he's looking like it. There's still just over half a season for Brady to regain the comfort he's lost in the Patriots offense, but right now that looks like that could be a long shot. Unless he settles down soon, New England may see their season end far sooner than they expected.