By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In our weekly video segment, I asked WBZ’s Steve Burton if there’s a reason for legitimate concern about Tom Brady’s recent play. He nearly laughed me off the set.
He was convincing, too. He asked, incredulously, “How in the world do you doubt him?!”
He’s right. You can’t.
But I do.
At least, I half-doubt him, in that I doubt that he is fully healthy, or even close to it. And I believe it’s affecting his play.
Stats aren’t everything, but the stats aren’t good. Ever since the Dolphins beat the bejeesus out of him back in Week 12, Brady has been a mediocre quarterback. In the last four weeks Brady has thrown four touchdowns and five interceptions. His two touchdowns this past Sunday weren’t spectacular passes. One came on a back shoulder throw to Rob Gronkowski that was far too wide and required a superhuman effort from the tight end. The other came on a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage. Another of his touchdowns in the month of December came on a pass to James White in the flat.
His interceptions, for the most part, have been quite bad, too. He underthrew Brandin Cooks on his second pass of the night in the loss to Miami, getting picked by Xavien Howard, who entered that game with two total interceptions in his two seasons. The interception in Pittsburgh was a forced, poor decision in traffic, and it was the type of turnover that can lose an important game for a football team. His interceptions for the most part have been bad.
It was uncharacteristic, to say the least.
For simplicity’s sake, here’s a breakdown by month. When you lay it out like this, it really is a bit jarring. His best single-month marks are bolded. You’ll notice that none of them are in December.
Tom Brady, 2017
Sept.: 64.6%, 9.93 Y/A, 8 TDs, 0 INTs, 121.5 passer rating
Oct.: 67.8%, 7.28 Y/A, 8 TDs, 2 INTs, 98.2 passer rating
Nov.: 73.7%, 8.41 Y/A, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 128.1 passer rating
Dec.: 64.7%, 7.45 Y/A, 4 TDs, 5 INTs, 81.5 passer rating
Stats can be deceiving, too. Brady completed 21 of his 28 passes on Sunday for a crisp 75 percent completion rate. But the ones he missed were by large margins. His incompletion over the middle to Rob Gronkowski stands out as the worst, while an overthrow and an underthrew to Cooks did not look like passes that left the right hand of Tom Brady but rather the right hand of Joseph Flacco. Or the left hand of Tom Brady. Same thing, basically.
Now, statistically December has been Tom Brady’s worst month throughout his career. His completion rate, yards per attempt, TD-to-INT ratio, and passer rating are all at their worst in the month of December. This makes sense. It’s cold. It can snow. It can rain. It’s lousy and uncomfortable and it quite often can be rather difficult to throw the oddly shaped football through the atmosphere in the 12th month of the year.
That being said, the overall dip is not quite as dramatic as this year’s. His passer rating in December this year currently sits at 81.5; his career mark in December is 92.3. His TD-to-INT ratio this December this year is 0.8-to-1; the career mark in December is 2.49-to-1.
(For perspective’s sake, Jacoby Brissett has an 81.5 passer rating on the year. Eli Manning has an 82.0 rating. Jay Cutler is at 80.9.)
This is not to say that Brady has suddenly fallen off “the cliff,” or that he’s washed up and is a bum and should retire next month. After all, Brady wasn’t too much younger when he threw for 10 touchdowns and one interception last December. You can’t be young in November, when he posted a ridiculous 128.1 passer rating, and then old when the calendar flips to December. That’s not how aging works. And he’s still just 10 months removed from a historic Super Bowl performance, which I hear was something special.
It is, however, to say that the NFL season is long — particularly one that sends a team to Denver and Mexico City in consecutive weeks as part of a stretch of five road games in six weeks. That stretch ended with a road game on Monday night followed by a road game on the short week. That’s a grind.
Perhaps Brady is a bit exhausted. Throughout his career, at different ages, he’s made it through seasons at different levels of health. He battled through the 2009 season at age 32 with a broken finger and broken ribs. As a young buck in 2002, he suffered a shoulder separation in December, one that worsened when he played through it. He rehabbed, played through the 2003 season, won the Super Bowl, and then underwent offseason surgery. (This Boston Globe story should be read aloud at Brady’s Hall of Fame induction.)
Sometimes over the course of a season, a football player sustains some damage — damage that we don’t know about until after the season, or for years later. So perhaps the injury concerns with his throwing hand that appeared to be present on television broadcasts all the way back in Week 5 in Tampa have some merit.
Brady has been on the injury report since Week 12, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of that Achilles injury. In one of his weekly interviews with Jim Gray, Brady said “I think hey have me listed as an Achilles.” Make of that comment what you will, but the mid-week Achilles injury had a way of evaporating in time for Friday’s final injury report.
This week, the Patriots added Brady’s left shoulder to Brady’s injury list. This makes sense considering all the hits he’s taken over the past few months. A 25-year-old quarterback might be sore after all that. A 40-year-old quarterback certainly would be as well — even if he does subscribe to a magic beans diet.
Speaking of which, a popular topic of conversation in Boston regarding Brady’s dip in play has involved the banishment of Brady’s guru, Alex Guerrero, from the sideline. This seems a rather unlikely source. Guerrero helps Brady stretch and rubs his muscles to maximum efficiency; he doesn’t tell Brady where the holes are in Miami’s zone coverage. The timing of the two occurrences is noteworthy, sure, but the two circumstances appear to be coincidental. (Though, admittedly, Brady and Belichick hate each other behind closed doors is a much juicier storyline than anything else that could be conceived.)
Now of course, any time you raise doubt about Tom Brady, you run the risk of watching him throw for 455 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions on 87 percent passing a few days after you say it. This is the life we all lead.
However, it has to at least be on your radar — and the Patriots’ radar — that the best quarterback in the NFL has not been playing at the MVP level he displayed from September through November.
Thus far, the dip in performance has not hurt them in their quest to land the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And it certainly will not stop the Patriots from rolling over the New York Jets on New Year’s Eve to finish the season at 13-3. Likely 31 NFL teams would love to have Tom Brady as one of their “problems” at this moment in time.
But with the playoffs on deck, and with winning a Super Bowl still serving as the only goal that matters in New England, the Patriots quite simply need their quarterback to play better than he’s been in the month of December.