Tom Brady didn’t have much to hold his head high about in the second half of the season.
It wasn’t just the fact that the New England Patriots fell on their home turf to the rival Baltimore Ravens, but the manner in which they fell apart in the second half that had many fans disturbed long after the final whistle. A return to the porous pass defense that had plagued them the first half of the season, a lack of pass rush from the front seven; while aggravating given the urgency of the game at hand, the fact that these issues came to the forefront against the Ravens wasn’t a huge surprise. After all, did we really expect the defense to hold up when star corner Aqib Talib left the game early with a hamstring injury? Still, what didn’t make sense was the fact that an offense that had averaged nearly 35 points per game in the regular season was virtually kept off the board in the first half and shut out completely in the second, putting up a grand total of 13 points in the contest. More importantly, how did a Baltimore defense that had been on a downward trend to close out the regular season manage to befuddle future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady in a championship game in Gillette, where he’s virtually unbeatable? Besides the motivation of Ray Lewis’s planned retirement, along with the roughing up of Pats receivers by Baltimore’s secondary, the 2013 AFC Championship was simply an off-game for Brady. And unfortunately for New England, prior to that game the quarterback made a trend of poor performances as the regular season drew to a close.
Against the Ravens, Brady completed 29-of-54 passes (54 percent) for 320 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. According to Providence Journal sports writer Paul Kenyon, in four games in December, his completion percentage wasn’t much better at 58.5. While completing better than fifty percent of your passes is decent for most middle-of-the-line quarterbacks, it is paltry for a QB of Brady’s upper-echelon stature; his career completion percentage is just a tick below 65. On the season, Tom Terrific compiled a completion percentage of 63, his lowest percentage since 2006 (61.8). Even more glaring in the month of December, though, was his two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio, as Brady threw 10 touchdowns and five interceptions; the five picks were more than half of his season’s total of eight. His TD-to-INT margin at the end of the season was eye-opening as usual, with 34 touchdowns thrown to counter the eight picks (a 17-to-4 ratio), but the fact that his numbers seemed to tail off in the second half of the season which, according to Brady, is when the “real football” is played, is certainly a cause for concern.
Is the 35-year-old starting to feel the subtle effects of age creep on with each new season? While his legs have clearly seen better days (refer to replays of Tom attempting to outrun the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata on fourth-and-short), looking at his numbers, it’d be hard to argue that Brady’s game has declined simply with age. Just three seasons ago, in 2010, he unanimously captured the NFL MVP award by throwing for 3,900 yards, 36 touchdowns, and just four interceptions. Since that season, the Patriots have entrusted Tom with even more control of the offense than he originally had after his record-breaking 2007 campaign, and it seems that it’s had at least a slight effect on his play, especially in the second half of the season. His work ethic, his drive, and his undying desire to win have kept him among the NFL’s elite class of QB, but even arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time has had his struggles when dropping back to throw the ball over 600 times, something he’s done each of the past two seasons (611 in 2011 and 637 in 2012, compared to just 494 in 2010). In 2011, Brady had an ongoing soreness in his throwing shoulder that week-in and week-out had him listed as either questionable or probable. While no such injury plagued him this season, his second-half numbers suggest that something might’ve been going on behind-the-scenes.
So how do the Pats properly preserve the few remaining years Brady has left in the league? Given the stats, the answer seems simple: reduce his workload. Get back to the offensive balance that kept Brady under center just as often as it had him dropping back. Such symmetry starts with the running back core, currently comprised of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Jeff Demps (who was on IR in 2012). Each guy presents their own unique mismatch on the football field, Ridley and Vereen with their explosiveness getting outside as well as to the next level, Woodhead with the deceptiveness of his height and quickness, and Demps with his speed in general. While New England began the season using these mismatches to their advantage, they shied away from the running game as the second half drew closer. Sure, Woodhead was integrated more frequently into the offense, but the weekly 150-plus yard performances from the rushing attack that were so common early on became an anomaly. This not only put more pressure on Brady to perform, but also gave more of a workload to the offensive line to protect him. Next season, if the Pats want to make a deeper run in the postseason, they must look to maintain offensive equilibrium.
Of course, the running game certainly took a hit when one of its best lead blockers, tight end Rob Gronkowski, went out with a broken left forearm more than halfway through the season. The team’s scoring didn’t seem to miss a beat, leading the league with 36 points per game without Gronkowski, but the running game certainly seemed to lose its early-season luster. The passing game also took a hit, decreasing in efficiency as evidenced by Brady’s lower completion percentage and higher touchdown-to-interception ratio. Gronk’s absence was especially felt against the Ravens, when the likes of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez struggled to beat press coverage and seemed physically overmatched by Baltimore’s secondary. Being a finesse offense without much mojo has prevented the Pats from winning a Super Bowl twice (2007 and 2011, both against the tougher Giants), and while the defense seems to be gaining a hard-hitting swagger the offense is still as soft as it was when Randy Moss was leaping amongst multiple defenders to haul in touchdowns.
So what’s the solution? This answer isn’t as simple, though the pieces currently in place leave the Pats with a couple ultimatums: sign Welker, keep Lloyd, and likely return to the same style of offense as last season, choose to let one walk and hold onto the other, or let both of them go and attempt to build around the team’s star tight ends. Welker is likely to ask for a big contract, comprising of multiple years and top wide receiver money (upwards of $10 million); these tend to be deals the Pats walk away from more often than not. According to ProFootballTalk.com, Lloyd, on the other hand, is set to make a base salary of $1.9 million with a $3 million bonus as he is under contract through the 2013 season. Both receivers are set to turn 32 this offseason. It would be tough to see Wes go given his outstanding track record with the Pats (100-plus catches in five of six seasons since joining the team in 2007), but his size, age, and hefty contract demands could be factors that favor his departure. Lloyd would be an easier option to part with altogether, despite the fact that he hauled in 74 catches for 911 yards and four TDs, as he turned out to be nothing more than a sideline route runner that greatly feared contact instead of a deep threat. Where would that leave the Pats if they let the two aging wideouts go? With some cap space and receivers on the free agent market, including the sizable Dwayne Bowe, the speedy Mike Wallace, and the versatile Danny Amendola, not to mention the three number-one tight ends in Gronk, Hernandez, and former Giants starter Jake Ballard.
Whichever avenue New England attempts to pursue, one thing’s for sure: Brady isn’t getting any younger. And with the years dwindling until number twelve is finally forced to call it quits, the team needs to do everything in their power to not only protect him but also greatly reduce his workload. Such changes could go a long way in not only ensuring Brady’s elite status in the league for years to come, but could finally push them over the proverbial hump they’ve been unable to overcome since 2004.