It's inevitable. No matter how great an athlete is, Father Time will eventually come calling, and his audits are always severe. We've seen this with Peyton Manning, during a 2014 season in which Manning started out healthy and ended not, though his deep ball was regressing before those injuries started to add up. Similarly, Tom Brady -- who could legitimately be called the greatest quarterback in NFL history -- has changed his game to reflect his age (37) and the receivers currently employed by the Patriots. Back when Brady and Randy Moss were making beautiful music together, Brady was among the league's best deep-ball throwers because he had increased his core strength exponentially and Moss was the NFL's finest deep target.
But if you were watching closely, things started to change a few years back. Sitting high up at Lucas Oil Stadium as the Giants and Patriots faced off in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012, I noticed that the Giants were cheating their defense up over and over -- and getting away with it. Brady completed 27-of-41 passes for 276 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in New England's 21-17 loss, and the longest reception was a 21-yard strike from Brady to Chad Ochocinco at the start of the second half. Brady threw a 19-yard pass to Deion Branch as the Pats tried to mount a comeback attempt near the end of the game, and those two completions were the only two in which Brady targeted a receiver deep and made a completion. He threw four deep passes during the entire game, with a long incompletion to Rob Gronkowski and a drop by Wes Welker comprising the other two.
In the corresponding seasons, the Patriots' passing game has reflected a short-passing sensibility to be sure, and that probably started in the 2010 season, when New England selected Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the draft. Hernandez's career was obviously waylaid by offseason issues, and Gronkowski's on-field dominance has been delayed at times by injuries. When he's on the field, as he has been through most of the 2014 season, Gronkowski is almost impossible to stop. But the inability to replace Moss as a true deep target has definitely affected Brady's ability to throw deep, and in truth, this may be less a concern than a systemic change of mind.
Pro Football Focus has Brady's deep passing numbers (20 or more yards in the air) since 2007, and the difference from then, when the Pats had the most prolific passing offense in NFL history, to now is pretty graphic. (Note: Brady missed most of the 2008 season due to a knee injury.)
2007: 84 attempts, 32 completions, 1,245 yards, 11 TD, 8 INT, 12.2 Deep Ball %, 45.2 Accuracy %
2009: 72 attempts, 19 completions, 715 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT, 11.9 Deep Ball %, 30.6 Accuracy %
2010: 49 attempts, 18 completions, 613 yards, 7 TD, 3 INT, 9.1 Deep Ball %, 42.9 Accuracy %
2011: 73 attempts, 23 completions, 746 yards, 10 TD, 4 INT, 10.1 Deep Ball %, 41.1 Accuracy %
2012: 94 attempts, 31 completions, 1,023 yards, 10 TD, 4 INT, 12.8 Deep Ball %, 40.4 Accuracy %
2013: 75 attempts, 22 completions, 774 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 10.9 Deep Ball %, 37.3 Accuracy %
2014: 69 attempts, 21 completions, 649 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT, 10.3 Deep Ball %, 34.8 Accuracy %
Outside of the 2007 and '12 seasons, Brady has been in the middle of the pack among deep throwers over the last several seasons. Is personnel the issue? To be sure, he had Moss at his best in 2007 and an unexpected rebound year from Brandon Lloyd in '12. Other than that there are no receivers you could call consistent deep targets. Is arm strength an issue? Not really -- even a cursory look at Brady's 2014 season would tell you that he can still drive the ball.
This deep throw on a seam route to Gronkowski in the divisional round win over Baltimore is typical of Brady's efforts when he has time to throw deep -- he steps up in the pocket and zings it for a 46-yard gain. Brady isn't muscling the ball; he's got his usual command of mechanics, and the wrist snap is still there.
And this 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell in the fourth quarter shows that Brady still operates with a different level of velocity when throwing deep -- quarterbacks unable to air it out consistently vary the gas on their throws in ways that lead to mistiming with their receivers. Not the case for Brady.
However, there are other moments that would lead one to believe that the reasons for dialing back the deep ball have to do with Brady's ability (or lack thereof) to consistently make deep throws. This season, through the first four weeks, Brady completed just 1-of-16 attempts that traveled over 20 yards in the air. Week 1's 33-20 loss to the Dolphins was especially frustrating, as Brady threw deep 10 times and completed one pass. There was an overthrow to Gronkowski in the end zone in the first quarter, and this two-play sequence in the second quarter. First, Brady hits Julian Edelman for a great 44-yard gain even with his feet improperly planted.
Can't throw it much better than that.
On the next play, though, Dolphins end Cameron Wake breaks through the protection and harasses Brady as he's trying to throw to Edelman down the right side, and Edelman has to play defensive back, batting the ball away to avoid an interception. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer got his lunch eaten by Wake, and Brady had to make that throw off his base.
Getting pressure on Brady is the key to success against him, and not just right up the middle as it's always been. The Wake pressure indicates what's been happening all season -- when he's been under pressure in the 2014 season, Brady has completed 77-of-171 passes for four touchdowns and seven interceptions. He used to be deadly under general pressure -- Brady threw 10 touchdowns and four picks under pressure in 2007, for example -- but these days, Brady needs more room around him to make those deep throws happen. So, perhaps we should delineate between deep throws made, and deep throws made under pressure and say that Brady's arm is as good as it's been when he's got a clean pocket, and sub-par when he's asked to bail out.
And in that case, he's more vulnerable than he has been in the past. The Patriots' coaching staff seems to understand this, and has mitigated the damages of age with two fixes -- quick passing and play action.
"Typically, I think the less time you have as any player out there, when decisions have to be made faster, you’ve got to speed up the pace of the game," Brady said a few days after the season-opener when asked about the advantage of speeding up the pace of the play. "Whether that’s the quarterback position or any other position, you’ve got to make quick decisions out there. And you’re right, it’s very anticipatory for all of us, and that’s why we practice – so we can get on the same page. Typically in the NFL, if you wait for something to happen, then it’s too late. You kind of have to anticipate it, see it, and that’s why the best offenses are the ones people can really understand what you’re trying to do before the play even starts. We’re trying to get there."
One way they've gotten there this season is quicker throws -- per PFF, Brady has averaged 2.37 seconds from snap to throw this season. Only Peyton Manning has averaged less time per throw at 2.25 seconds. On throws taking 2.5 seconds or less, Brady has completed 70.9 percent of his passes with a 101.9 passer rating. On throws taking 2.5 seconds or more, Brady has completed 49.3 percent of his passes with an 87.7 quarterback rating. Generally, deeper throws take longer and will have a lower completion percentage, but Brady ranks 14th in completion percentage on sub-2.5 passes, and 29th on over-2.5 passes. That's a problem, and the blame for that issue can be shared equally among Brady's offensive line, which has been iffy at best in pass protection this season.
In the 2014 season, the Patriots have allowed 179 pressures, 10th-highest in the league, with tackles Nate Solder (29) and Sebastian Vollmer (28) as the primary culprits on the outside, and center/guard Dan Connolly (29) matching Solder's total. Interior pressure has always been a problem for Brady -- go back to the Patriots' two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, and watch New York's defensive line (especially Justin Tuck) roll right up the middle and force Brady out of his ideal spot.
With this in mind, play-action is a two-pronged sword for Brady. On one hand, and especially with the emphasis on the run game the Patriots have had in the last two seasons, it forces defenses to cheat up and leaves open patches of coverage. On the other hand, play action takes time -- even when you're getting the ball out quickly as Brady has been. This season, according to PFF data made available to SI.com, Brady has thrown from play action on 24.4 percent of his passing attempts, he's been pressured on 36.2 percent of those throws (as opposed to 27.3 percent of his non-play action throws), and he's been sacked on 5.5 percent of his play-action dropbacks (as opposed to 2.8 percent of his non-play action throws). PFF charts Brady as having 2.28 seconds to throw and 2.31 seconds in the pocket per non-play action throw, and 2.64 seconds to throw and 2.56 seconds in the pocket on play-action throws. On average, NFL passers have had to factor in about half a second per play action throw in the 2014 season, so Brady is hardly unique there.
The upside of play action for Brady is a more consistent deep ball -- his completion percentage is the same this season on both types of throws (64.4 percent), but he is averaging 9.0 yards per attempt on play action throws, and 6.4 without it.
So, when Brady takes on the Seahawks estimable defense on Feb. 1 in Super Bowl XLIX, he'll have to balance the inevitable reduction of his physical capabilities, the ways in which those reductions have been minimized and the most intimidating opponent of them all -- time.