By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are 2-2, and you can’t walk 5 feet in Boston without hearing someone talking about how old Tom Brady is, how old Tom Brady looks, or how bad Tom Brady is … because he’s old.
It’s gotten to the point where you can almost understand why Bill Belichick went into a shell and started reflectively repeating “we’re on to Cincinnati” when Brady’s age was mentioned the other day.
The fact is that Tom Brady is 37 years old, but that also has just about nothing to do with the dreadful performances we’ve seen thus far in 2014.
Tom Brady might have 10 percent body fat. He is obsessed with his health and his nutrition, and he’s probably in better shape now than he was 10 years ago. Might the knees be a little creaky and the back a little more sore? Sure. But Brady has played through separated shoulders and cracked ribs and broken fingers, so he’s proven to be capable of dealing with physical ailments. So to be sure, Brady is not performing poorly this year because he’s 12 months older than he was last October.
Simply, there is no quarterback — active or retired, living or dead, real or fictional (what’s up, Shane Falco?) — who could have succeeded through four weeks on this year’s Patriots team. Not one.
Going into each of the team’s four games this season, there have been four different offensive line combinations. There have been multiple O-line combos within single games, too, and some of them have involved the likes of Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon (playing out of position). On Monday night, the Patriots employed Cameron Fleming at guard, a position he had never played in his life, in front of a crowd that successfully tried to set a world record as being the loudest in the world.
Brady’s been in the crossfire nonstop this season, and if it keeps up, he won’t make it through the season — not because he’s old, but because he’s a human being, and human beings have their physical limits. Getting hit by 250-pound linebackers on a regular basis takes its toll on the human body, whether it’s 25 or 45 years old.
To point at Brady’s performance in 2014 and compare it to any of Brady’s previous seasons as evidence that he’s aging and getting worse is a fool’s endeavor. The sport of football does not lend itself to such simple comparisons.
It’s why you can’t fairly compare Brady to Peyton Manning, or Manning to Dan Marino, or Marino to Joe Montana, or Montana to John Elway, or Elway to Steve Young, or any of these guys to Otto freaking Graham.
Every single play in football is different. Quarterbacks take snaps behind different offensive lines, with different receiving options, facing different defensive personnel and schemes, in different weather conditions, in different stadiums with differing noise levels, in different eras. A quarterback, really, can only be judged/graded/assessed in a vacuum for his performance on that one particular play, given all of the factors outside of his control. Yet it’s commonplace to shout and scream and fight about which QB is better, as if there’s some reasonable way to reach such a conclusion.
The thing you can say about all of those QBs is that none would have been able to succeed in the first four weeks of the season for the 2014 Patriots — not in their primes, not ever.
And only if most things were equal — if he were getting the same protection, if he had similarly talented receivers and tight ends and running backs, etc. — with Brady’s situation in 2014 as the offense in, say, 2007, then you could begin to draw at least some comparison to Brady of today vs. Brady back then. But as it stands now, any attempt to compare Brady’s previous seasons to this one is ridiculous.
(And get out of here if you want to prop up Jimmy Garoppolo’s touchdown drive as some sort of evidence that it is possible to succeed in this offense. Yes, it’s possible to succeed if the defense is giving you plain, base looks, and you’re taking simple three-step drops and delivering a pass to your first read. Mark Sanchez could succeed in that simple of an offense, so again, if you think Garoppolo’s touchdown drive on Monday night proved anything, kindly just get right out.)
One area Brady has opened himself up to criticism is his handling of the moment on Monday. It looked as though frustration boiled over and Brady simply said “I’ve had enough.” He stopped being himself and started being Jay Cutler or gun-slinging Brett Favre, taking on the attitude of “just heave it over the middle and hope it ends up in the right place. If not, oh well, we’re screwed anyway.”
It’s surprising to see Brady, one of the most mentally tough athletes to ever play in the region, fold up quite like that on national television. He’s certainly a prideful, viciously competitive person, so it was a rare moment to see him get himself benched on Monday night, with the whole world watching.
At the same time, the root of his frustration is understandable. Think about it this way: No matter where you rank him, whether it’s the best of all time or top-three or top-five or even just top-10, the fact is that he is simply one of the best to ever play quarterback in football history. One of a handful of the true greats. A no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer.
And no matter when you think his career will end, whether it’s at 39 years old or 40 or 45, it’s clear that the end is near. Nobody can play forever, so Brady’s time on the field is limited.
Despite this obvious reality, the Patriots sent Brady to work last year with three rookie receivers — none of whom were particularly great, one of whom was undrafted. With the occasional presence of Rob Gronkowski, Brady made it work. The team won 12 games, blew out the Colts in the divisional round and made it to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots were clearly not in the Broncos’ class in that game, losing 26-16 and never really having a chance to compete, but because the Patriots stayed alive until the second-to-last weekend of football, it was widely believed that the Patriots were pretty good.
They weren’t, and Brady likely knew it, but he also likely expected the team to make improvements on offense. After all, the team couldn’t have prepared for Aaron Hernandez getting arrested and charged with murder in the 2013 offseason, so the lack of receivers was at least forgivable. Instead of atoning for that dearth of receiving options, the team only added Brandon LaFell this offseason, and the prevailing thought from the front office seemed to be, “Well, Gronk and Danny Amendola will probably be better, so let’s start the season, we’ll be fine.”
Then to make matters worse, the team traded Logan Mankins.
Now, Brady is getting knocked on his behind every other snap, and he has to look at the totality of the team’s moves (or lack thereof) from the past two seasons and wonder what is going on and question whether it will ever improve.
Brady, for all of his humble words when speaking publicly, certainly knows his own greatness. And for as much as he never publicly says anything negative about the team, you know that he’s miffed that he’s now in a worse offense than last year’s. He’s probably wondering why the team has shown absolutely no urgency to build an offense that can compete in a league with rules that heavily favor passing games. Defense may win championships, but a team still needs a functional offense to get to that championship game. Right now, the Patriots don’t have it, and they’re facing a likely scenario of being 2-3 after this weekend. If they do lose to Cincinnati, it’ll be the first time the Patriots own a losing record at any point in the month of October since 2002. That was also the only season Brady has never made the playoffs. Brady, when looking around at his inexperienced and underperforming offensive teammates, must be keenly aware of all of this.
It all seems to be piling up, and it was clear that Brady simply ran out of patience on Monday night. He was bad. He made uncharacteristically awful passes. He did not do one thing exceptionally well.
But it has everything to do with the situation he’s been placed in, and it has nothing to do with the man’s age.
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