By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — What a difference a year makes.

Last year, in an important Week 15 matchup in Pittsburgh, there was Tom Brady, firing darts all the way up the field, leading New England on a go-ahead drive in the closing minutes of the game, completing three of four passes for 69 yards before completing a two-point conversion pass to put his Patriots up by a field goal.

This year, in an important Week 15 matchup in Pittsburgh, there was Tom Brady, heaving up a fourth-quarter interception in the red zone, taking points off the board for his team for the second consecutive week. There was Brady, with a chance to tie the game in the final minute, firing two incompletions out of the end zone before throwing up a prayer that went unanswered on fourth down, leading to a disappointing road loss that alters the outlook for the entire season.

And as you might imagine, all of the folks who’ve been salivating for the chance to declare with certainty that Tom Brady is finally on the decline will be trumpeting the dreaded D-word as much as possible in the coming hours, days, weeks and months. To them, the decline for the 41-year-old has arrived — albeit a few years late.

But … has it really?

Physically, you’d be hard-pressed to point out many throws from the quarterback that point to a physical decline. He admitted he misjudged his throwaway on the pick in Pittsburgh, but overall, the football was coming out of his hand the exact way he wanted to all afternoon long. As the X’s and O’s guys like to say on the television, he can still make all of the throws.

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

One of those went for a 63-yard touchdown, the bullet to Cordarrelle Patterson was good enough to move the chains on a third-and-5, one went for a gain of 19 to Josh Gordon, and two went for drops by Julian Edelman. A mixed bag of sorts in terms of results, but in terms of the physical throws? Brady is still delivering the football where it needs to go much more often than not.

He can still slide away from pressure to deliver passes downfield:

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

He can still wait patiently before dropping passes to open receivers in front of the safeties — passes that cut the field in half on potential game-tying drives in the final minutes of the fourth quarter:

Tom Brady pass vs. Steelers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

And all of this came one week after Brady fired a 37-yard missile with pinpoint accuracy for a touchdown in Miami:

Tom Brady pass vs. Dolphins (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Physically, it’s all still there for Brady. This is not a repeat of 2015 Peyton Manning, when the greatest passer of all time suddenly lacked the ability to throw a forward pass. And this is clearly not a repeat of 2010 Brett Favre, when the strategy for the QB appeared to one entirely reliant on hope and good fortune.

This is a quarterback who, physically, can still do everything he needs to do in order to perform his job.

The obvious question follows: Why, then, are the numbers down across the board? And why have the Patriots lost a fifth regular-season game for the first time in nearly a decade? Surely, the Brady of yesteryear would never allow that to happen.

On that, the answer remains a bit more difficult to deduce.

For two straight weeks, we’ve all witnessed moments from the Patriots’ quarterback that felt distinctly un-Brady-like. Before halftime in Miami, Brady took a sack in a situation where the last thing he could have done was take a sack. That cost the Patriots three points. This week in Pittsburgh, Brady launched a pass to the sideline off his back foot that just didn’t get as far as he would have liked, leading to an interception that took either three or seven points off the board for New England.

Limiting mistakes has been a hallmark of Brady’s Hall of Fame career, so seeing such glaring errors in back-to-back losses surely has many antennae raised around the football world that something is amiss.

If there were to be a physical complaint to be had, it would be in Brady’s seeming reluctance to take hits, which leads to him throwing some passes off his back foot. That was most evident last weekend in Miami, when Brady bailed out early on a pass and sailed one high over Chris Hogan’s head in the end zone, just prior to the sack that ended the half. And it showed up again on the final failed fourth down of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.

While Brady clearly does have a tendency to fade away from certain pass rushers in certain situations, this is not necessarily something new. This is not something that has recently arisen out of nowhere. And frankly, this is something that only gets discussed after losses. If Brady shies away from a blitzing 250-pound linebacker in the midst of a victory, it almost always gets ignored. That’s because most people understand it for what it is — a quarterback living to see another day. Brady’s certainly capable of standing in and absorbing significant punishment from time to time, but the fact that he missed zero games due to injury from 2001-07 and missed zero games due to injury from 2009 to the present is not a coincidence. Limiting physical damage has likewise been a staple of Brady’s Hall of Fame career, so it would be disingenuous to spotlight such activity as a sign of something larger taking place — especially on a day when the quarterback navigated the pocket as well as he always does.

Really, what often goes unspoken in these discussions is the element of play-calling and play design. Admittedly, it’s not an overly juicy topic for the hot take artists on TV to use as a springboard for shouting at each other, but it is nevertheless a significant aspect at play — especially on Sunday.

With a second-and-15 from the Steelers’ 21-yard line, the Patriots sent three receivers into the end zone, where four defenders awaited.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Josh Gordon held up near the 5-yard line, but he was covered tightly. This was a play that had almost no chance of success from the very start. Brady had to throw the ball through the back of the end zone.

Yet, inexplicably, the Patriots dialed up a nearly identical play on the next snap. Brady, flushed from the pocket, once again had to throw the ball through the end zone.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That led to a gotta-have-it fourth-and-15. After the complete lack of success on second and third down, one might have foreseen something a bit more creative come from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Alas, the Patriots … sent four receivers to the end zone, three of whom ran to essentially the same spot on the field. The defense converged and easily broke up the pass.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Here’s a look at the play in video form:

This was a bad play, with very low chances of success. The Patriots ran it, essentially, three straight times.

In a related story, the Patriots lost the game.

This is the type of thing that doesn’t often happen to the Patriots. This is typically the type of thing that happens to opponents of the Patriots. And yet, it’s the type of thing that has much more influence over the outcome of games than any and all debate or discussion about a decline in the quarterback’s abilities.

Those were the most high-profile questionable play calls and play designs from the Patriots on Sunday, but they weren’t the only ones. On a third-and-4 at the Steelers’ 13-yard line, the Patriots opted to bypass gaining the yardage the old-fashioned way and instead went with a screen pass to Edelman; he was stopped short of the line to gain by a swarm of black jerseys:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

 

Of course, with Brady and McDaniels working hand in hand with so much of their offense, the quarterback is not removed from this process of play-calling. Generally, he and McDaniels are on the same page. And considering Pittsburgh called a timeout prior to that fourth-and-15 play, Brady had ample opportunity to offer up a suggestion or two to McDaniels during the stoppage in play.

In that department, Brady and McDaniels both need to be better. We can’t in one breath praise Brady for driving a highly functioning offense, only to pin the blame on McDaniels when things don’t go so smoothly.

But overall, as the talking heads shout and scream about age and decline and GOATs and everything else, it should not get lost that Brady is still physically capable of making every pass he needs to make. What’s going on with the Patriots this season may lack a clear explanation at this point, but there should be no doubt that it involves something much greater than any supposed decline from the quarterback.

GIFs and images from NFL.com/GamePass

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments (25)
  1. I think it’s fair to say coaching has failed this season. That sharp Patriot edge is not there. When mistakes occur in so many different aspects of the game, it rolls up to the coaches.

  2. Mike says:

    Brady was in decline when he decided it was time to cheat to win. The narrator on this article says “What are the Patriots good at?” Answer: Cheating.

    1. Brad Kaplan says:

      Smart-mouthed little loser. That’s all you are mike…that’s all. Nothing more.

    2. Tom Menino says:

      Sorry to hear about your bruised vagina.

  3. No, he’ll never be in decline in the minds of Pats fans. But to the rest of the world, what a screw up getting rid of Garoppolo. He could have been training behind Brady. Now, this team won’t sniff a ring for a decade or more.

  4. malewurmhole says:

    OK, the bobble heads on the video were just that. I guess they are Patriot fans? As somebody that doesn’t eat, live and sleep Patriot football, allow me to put your minds at ease. Every single year I see them play a couple regular season games, and they win. I always wonder how. They never seem to have the best receivers or the best running backs (yes, they do on a couple occasions…I remember Moss and Blount). When they get to the playoffs, all they do is win. Hate him for everything he is off the field, on the field he is Tom Brady (as for that, I don’t know why I dislike him off the field. Because he has everything?) Some times it seems the ball doesn’t have enough zip. Usually he doesn’t seem to be mobile enough. The defense never seems good enough. Gronk is always hurt. Still, when it comes down to it, they seem to win, unless they don’t.

    Thing is, they win far more often than they should. I think this season is going to be a lot like the last 18 and probably next year too. I would get a new quarterback if I were looking toward the future and the owner of the organization, but that is their decision.

  5. Rob Spencer says:

    Every time someone counts Brady out, he comes back to kill you

  6. Don’t count Brady out just yet. We’re all in physical decline.Getting pounded into the ground with every sack takes a toll regardless of your age. So 41 yr. old Tom Brady is clearly not as athletic as 21 yr old Tom Brady. No surprise there. OTOH he’s way more experienced. And even if he’s no longer “the best” he’s still ” top 5″ – way better than most, and as good as all the other 8-6/9-5 QBs in the league. You can’t pin the Pats’ performance this year 100% on Brady – there’s a whole team there behind him that is not quite as sharp as in past years. But when the worst you do is “not get the bye week in the playoffs” – but you still made the playoffs… that’s not terrible. And it’s way better than the Bills…

  7. Reed Sawyer says:

    The obvious answer, although no one is saying it, is that football is a team game, and a quarterback is only as good as his protection. You can have the best qb in the game, but if he is pressured, he is not going to complete throws. I don’t think that Brady is done, I think he just hasn’t had the support that he’s had in the past.

  8. The Steelers fans simply don’t get it. The Patriots took a loss, now they have the Steelers exactly where they want them, set up for a crushing loss in the playoffs. Will those towel-waving morons never figure it out? Probably not.

  9. bushlied says:

    Naysayers, I bet if NE was playing Miami or Pittsburgh tomorrow you wouldn’t have the man stuff to bet against Brady.

  10. Steve Oifer says:

    When your receivers get the ball in their chests and still drop the ball, it’s not the QB’s fault!

  11. Richard Baker says:

    It is inevitable no matter your off-season regimen for Brady to be on the decline.

  12. Its kind of obvious the weakness on this team is defense. I would not be shocked that if they get eliminated in the playoffs, Brady sits down and comtemplates if he wants to do another training camp, another season? Maybe he might decide, its not him and his abilities its the team around him and needs to be rebuilt and he doesnt have the time for that.
    If so you’ve just seen the best leave the game.If you young you may see one better in your lifetime but then again you may not.

  13. John Bower says:

    The play call on 4th down was baffling. My son and I were watching the game and he asked me during the timeout what I thought they were going to do, and I told him since the end zone would be well covered, I thought they would design a play to get a first down inside the 5 and then run up and spike the ball, but no, they ran the same play that just failed twice and it predictably failed. This is two weeks in a row that NE has come up short in coaching.

  14. David Scuncio says:

    in decline, will be in the play offs an SB #6 ring coming soon

  15. I think it is fair to say all you fan boys and girls have been reading his quotes.

    He aint playing until he is 47. He will be lucky to make it two more years. Injuries are next, and he is not God.

  16. Carl Ball says:

    are you people nuts? the guy was throwing on target even covered. besides there is no I in team! every one is to blame unless you play for the lakers and the new guy thinks there is! they will be in the play offs you can be sure and yes with brady

  17. Adam Carlson says:

    I prefer long haired (aka MANGY) Tom Brady. I dunno what year he was mangy in, maybe like 2004 or 2006 or something.

  18. Dennis Egan says:

    The Pats normally watch while other teams beat themselves. The shoe is on the other foot now with the Pats making the mistakes in the last two games that led to losses. Miami loss was 100 percent on the coaching staff. Brady and company are suffering from all of the offensive penalties which are uncharacteristic and their offence is not designed and never has been for third and long. They need to get back to Patriot football which is do your job and do not make mistakes and they will then have to be beaten by a better team.

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