By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Too old. Too slow. Washed up. Not the same guy. No longer a top-five quarterback.
All of these things were shouted about Tom Brady … six years ago. You might remember, but the 2013 season spelled the end of Brady and the Patriots dynasty, because, well, just look at the results. They were bad, he was bad, and thus, age had come for the quarterback like it had for everyone else in the history of sports.
You also might remember what happened after that season: The offensive line got fixed, Rob Gronkowksi got healthy, Brady dedicated himself to improving his mobility, a weapon was added on offense, the defense added a Hall of Fame corner, and the Patriots kicked off an unprecedented run of success, winning three Super Bowls and making it to another in the five years that followed. Brady, no longer too old or washed up, has been driving the train.
That was, until this year, when after an 8-0 start, the train has started to wobble. The Patriots have lost three of their last five games, with all of those losses coming to AFC division leaders. Their offense is stuck in the mud, and many fans who two months ago had their early-February trips to Miami saved on Expedia are suddenly grappling with the reality that it might not happen.
And Brady? Too old. Too slow. Washed up. Not the same guy. No longer a top-five quarterback.
It’s a vicious cycle.
And, while we learned last season to never be too certain about impending doom when there are still games left to play, it is nevertheless very challenging to not pick up on a scent of 2013 when looking at this year’s Patriots.
That 2013 team went 12-4, going 2-2 against playoff teams and 2-1 against division leaders.
This year’s team is 10-3, having gone 3-3 against current playoff teams and 1-3 against current division leaders. (Pittsburgh may end up not making the playoffs, thus removing a win from the Patriots.)
This year’s team is coming off a loss where the referee and officiating crew were … not helping them very much. It was a game where this was ruled to be a foot out of bounds:
The 2013 team lost an overtime game thanks to that same referee calling … illegal pushing? And the 2013 Patriots also lost a game where this was not pass interference:
Anecdotally, there are some similarities. But a look at the offensive statistics really shows why 2019 feels the most like 2013.
Here’s how Tom Brady’s personal stats compare to his projected stats for 2019.
4,343 yards, 6.9 Y/A, 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 87.3 rating, 40 sacks
4,230 yards, 6.6 Y/A, 23 TDs, 9 INTs, 86.5 rating, 30 sacks
Brady’s lowest touchdown totals in full seasons came in 2003 (with 23), 2006 (with 24), and 2013 (with 25). Barring a burst against two putrid defenses left on the schedule, Brady’s set to add another year to that list.
While some misguided minds might be attributing that in 2019 to age, the history of 2013 shows that with no protection, a limited receiving corps, and no tight end, playing quarterback with great success is very difficult to do, even for the greatest to ever do it.
When it comes to protection, 2013 was a rough year for Brady. He took 40 sacks, one off the career-high he took as a first-year starter in 2000. Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg in the middle of the season, leading in to fill-in starts from the inexperienced Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek. Ryan Wendell, an NFL starter for only three seasons, was the center, and rookie Josh Kline started a game at guard.
It’s been a comparable story in 2019. David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs in August, ending his season. Second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn missed half the year with turf toe, after missing his entire rookie season. Backup center Ted Karras got hurt in Week 13, leading to James Ferentz manning center duties last weekend.
The result has been a lot of sacks, as Brady’s already taken three more sacks than he did last year in three more games, and a lot of throwaways. Brady’s 60.5 completion rate is among the lowest marks of his career, due in large part to the throws to nobody in order to avoid taking sacks and losing yards.
One difference making things more difficult this season is the complete lack of an ability to run the ball. Back in 2013, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 1,545 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. This year, the Patriots’ top two rushers (Sony Michel and James White) are on pace to combine for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. It’s been a problem all year, and it too relates to the issues on the O-line.
And then there is the passing game. Rob Gronkowski missed the first six weeks of the year due to lingering issues from his 2012 forearm injury, and then he had his knee torn up in Week 14 vs. the Browns. (Bill Belichick was not happy about that.) Tight end production behind Gronkowski was atrocious. (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile, Brady was trying like hell to incorporate rookie receivers into the offense, with not-so-great results for Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. The only reliable receiver Brady had all year was Julian Edelman, who put up some monster numbers. (… sound familiar?)
For some perspective, check out the stats of the Patriots’ top receivers in 2013, compared to the projected numbers for the Patriots’ top receivers in 2019.
Edelman: 105-1,056-6 (151 targets)
Amendola: 54-633-2 (83 targets)
Vereen: 47-247-3 (69 targets)
Gronkowski: 39-592-4 (66 targets)
Dobson: 37-519-4 (72 targets)
Thompkins: 32-466-4 (69 targets)
Edelman: 111-1,243-7 (166 targets)
White: 76-663-4 (114 targets)
Dorsett: 34-427-6 (62 targets)
Meyers: 28-411-0 (47 targets)
Burkhead: 25-234-0 (38 targets)
Back in 2013, Edelman accounted for between 25 and 30 percent of the team’s targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
In 2019, Edelman accounts for … between 25 and 30 percent of the team’s targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Rookies Dobson and Thompkins caught 69 passes for 985 yards and eight touchdowns, which looks like a statistical windfall compared to the output of Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry (who have 374 combined receiving yards). In 2013, Brady at least had Danny Amendola for 12 games plus the playoffs in his first season with New England.
In 2013, running backs accounted for 25 percent of Brady’s targets. This year, with an even less reliable receiving corps and a worse tight end situation, running backs account for a tick under 29 percent of targets in the passing game.
And as you surely know, those who watched every moment of that 2013 season also saw the season conclude the way that anyone could have reasonably expected. Brady was chucking bombs to Matthew Slater, throwing passes to Matthew Mulligan and Aaron Dobson, targeting Austin Collie (acquired midseason, playing in his final NFL game) six times, getting no help from the running game (63 yards on 16 carries), and throwing 15 passes at Julian Edelman hoping that he might be able to make some magic happen.
And in what was the play that can stand as the perfect picture of the entire game, Brady was swallowed up by Terrance Knighton on a fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter, when the desperate Patriots badly needed touchdowns.
Brady finished that game with 277 passing yards and one touchdown, and the Patriots mustered just 16 points. They lost by 10, though it wasn’t really that close, as the Broncos took a 23-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
All of that would, presumably, portend doom for the current iteration of Patriots, right? The similarities are striking, particularly with the quarterback constantly having to run for his life behind a weak offensive line while trying to make things work with Edelman plus some rookies and some not-quite-elite talent at receiver. Throw in the worse running game, and the road to Super Bowl LIV clearly appears to be as hellacious as the road to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Yet if there is one reason for optimism in this year’s team, it unsurprisingly comes from the defense.
Back in 2013, Matt Patricia’s defense ranked 10th in points allowed and 26th in yards allowed. They had the third-worst run defense in the NFL, they gave up the seventh-most first downs, had the seventh-worst third-down defense, and a mediocre (16th-ranked) red zone defense.
This year … well, this year it’s better. They rank first in points allowed and first in yards allowed. They have the fourth-best run defense and the second-best pass defense. They have the best interception rate and the sixth-best sack rate, and they’ve given up the fewest first downs in the league. They boast the NFL’s No. 1 third-down defense and the sixth-best red zone defense. If they can limit the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins to an average of 20 points per game, they’ll become just the eighth team in history to allow fewer than 200 points in a 16-game season.
They’re very good. Historic, even.
And if this year’s Patriots hope to achieve their goal, they’re going to need that defense to be the difference. That almost assuredly will require a better showing in any potential postseason rematch against the Chiefs, Texans and/or Ravens, and it may even require a defensive touchdown or two to be scored during the playoff run. The offense kind of needs it.
There is, of course, plenty of reason to believe that this defense can and will put forth powerful postseason performances. Enough reason, in fact, that it would be unwise to write off the second-seeded Patriots in any way at this moment in time.
Yet, if the Patriots end up on the road in the AFC title game, and Brady is left to toss up deep prayers to Slater while desperately looking to Matt LaCosse or Brandon Bolden to carry the offense? That feeling of déjà vu will be very, very real.