It’s easy to forget now, but for the first third of his career, Tom Brady was viewed by many as a game manager. Remember the “Brady versus Peyton Manning” debates? Brady had the rings, Manning had the stats. To be anti-Brady back then was not to be jealous of his unmatched success, dashing looks and supermodel wife (Giselle had not yet entered his world). You were merely unmoved by his mediocre fantasy numbers. Manning, privately, was known to bristle at his comparisons to Brady. (“Peyton absolutely hates it,” a coach of Manning’s once told me.) Inside the NFL, Manning was overwhelmingly viewed as the better quarterback.
Then 2007 happened. The Patriots added Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and Brady became the first player to throw 50 touchdowns in a season. (His record was later topped by Manning’s 55 for the Broncos in 2013.) Brady would remain nearly this prolific in succeeding years, but strangely, he stopped winning titles. The Patriots had a nine-year ringless stretch even though their quarterback—let’s call him Brady 2.0—was so clearly better than the Brady 1.0 that won three rings.
In 2014, Brady 2.0 and 1.0 merged into Brady 3.0, who became known as the G-O-A-T. There was his epic fourth quarter Super Bowl comeback to beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, overshadowed by Seattle’s goal-line play-call at the end. Two years later, there was an even greater come-from-behind Super Bowl win over the Falcons, in which Brady 3.0 posted Brady 2.0 numbers (466 yards) through Brady 1.0 means (no completions over 28 yards). Last year, Brady 3.0 won MVP and went to another Super Bowl, turning in his greatest performance but losing to Philadelphia in a shootout.
The question this year, as the Patriots gear up for another run, likely as the AFC’s No. 2 seed, is: Which Brady are they playing with? Besides a few isolated crossfield throws petering out ever so slightly, Brady, 41, has still shown little sign of physical decline. And yet, New England’s recent approach suggests we’re looking at Brady 1.0 again.
Since their Week 11 bye, the Patriots have run the ball on 50% of their snaps (exactly 171 runs and 171 passes). Brady is averaging just under 22 completions on just over 33 pass attempts per game. In those contests, the Patriots are 3-2, averaging 216 rushing yards in wins and just 86.5 rushing yards in losses—while two-possession leads led to run-heavy second halves in those three wins, they also ran it 30 times (for just 77 yards) in the back-and-forth loss at Miami. By most appearances, the greatest quarterback of all-time and reigning league MVP is orchestrating a ball-control offense.
It’s not just that the Patriots are running it, it’s how they’re running it. They’ve always been more of a traditional two-back offense than people realize. This season and last season, they’ve gone “two-back” personnel (aka “21”) with fullback James Develin more than a quarter of the time. The average NFL team uses “21” just 7% of the time. (Only one team besides New England uses “21” more than 12% of the time: the Niners, who do it around 41%, because they have a uniquely multidimensional fullback in Kyle Juszczyk.)
Since their Week 11 bye, the Patriots’ two-back snaps have risen to near-Niner levels—39%. This smashmouth approach may have been the plan all along. In spring, New England spent its first-round draft picks on run-game helpers from Georgia: offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and tailback Sony Michel. Wynn wound up missing the season with a torn Achilles, but Michel has been exactly what they’d hoped: a strong, patient, professional runner. He consistently executes plays as they’re designed, leaving no yards on the field and, often, gaining a few extra. He is ideal for the “21” sets that now define New England’s offense.
Of course, in today’s NFL, unless your ground game is augmented by a uniquely mobile QB like a Lamar Jackson or a Russell Wilson, where opponents must defend you differently, a run-first offense is only as good as the passing game you build off of it. This is where the Patriots are set up to flourish. They have one of the NFL’s most complete play-action attacks. Their most reliable pass play is bang-play-action, where a guard pull-blocks (like on a “power” run) and a tightly aligned receiver—Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman or, more likely Rob Gronkowski—runs a skinny post behind the reacting linebackers. In recent weeks the Patriots, who always evolve over the course of the season, have added wrinkles to their two-back play-action looks.
They’ve also expanded their backfield screen game, which has long been one of the NFL’s most complete and is especially potent when tailbacks James White or Rex Burkhead are in. Michel’s receiving prowess is a tick below these two, but still high enough that New England can quickly flex its “21” package into a spread empty formation, with Develin splitting out wide. This is strictly a means of punishing defenses that have loaded up for the run—with Develin aligned wide, Hogan, Edelman and Gronkowski operate inside, facing overmatched linebackers and safeties.
Brady, the ultimate field general, is adept at checking in and out of these looks, and the more opponents fear New England’s ground game, the more potent those checks become. We have been reminded of this time and again, including last postseason, which the Patriots entered looking similar to the smashmouth team we’re seeing now, only to feature an electrifying spread passing game in the divisional round against Tennessee. After that, they featured a vertical downfield passing game in the AFC championship game against Jacksonville and Super Bowl against Philly.
That team, however, had Brandin Cooks. With Josh Gordon suspended, this New England offense has no bona fide perimeter weapon. How Brady and the Patriots perform this January will depend on how the rushing attack performs.
We could do 800 words on each player, but let’s save it for the offseason and settle for essentially expanded tweets on each guy:
5. Josh Allen: Everything we saw at Wyoming, we’ve seen in Buffalo: fantastic arm strength, sneaky mobility and occasionally erratic ball placement. What we didn’t know is how comfortable Allen would be reading an NFL field. He ran a “pro style” system at Wyoming, but that means less and less as the NFL and college games continue to merge. Though he’s gotten better down the stretch, for much of this season Allen has looked much too wide-eyed.
4. Lamar Jackson: The jury is out because we don’t yet know what he is as a passer. As of right now, it’s presumably “not much,” judging by Baltimore’s run-intensive play-calling. But stay tuned; the Ravens have obviously had a ton of success building around Jackson’s legs, and it will be fascinating to see how (and when) the offense expands from there.
3. Sam Darnold: He’s made a lot of mistakes, but few of them twice. What’s disheartening is the 2018 Jets never carved out a clear offensive identity around him.
2. Josh Rosen: He was better in his first few starts, before Arizona’s already subpar O-line fell apart, its so-so receiving corps regressed (and lost impressive rookie Christian Kirk), and a change was made at offensive coordinator. Yes, replacing OC Mike McCoy with Byron Leftwich will likely be good for Rosen’s big-picture growth, but the system change that comes with it is difficult to implement on the fly. When Rosen is comfortable, his precision accuracy is among the best in the league. That’s enough to make his long-term outlook bright.
1. Baker Mayfield: He has played with better arm strength and athleticism than expected because he quarterbacks so decisively. The “I don’t care what anybody thinks” attitude has created a fearlessness in how he attacks downfield.
NICK MULLENS IS NOT A FLASH IN THE PAN
This isn’t to say San Francisco’s undrafted second-year quarterback should compete for Jimmy Garoppolo’s starting job next year, but Mullens’s style of play is one that typically translates well to sustained NFL success: He operates on-schedule. He seems to know how most coverages relate to his receivers’ routes, which allows him to work into his later progressions. And, best of all, he’s tough in the pocket. He’s willing to, as my friends at NFL Films have long put it, “stare down the gun barrel” when defenders are closing in. That crucial trait is why middle-of-the-road quarterbacking talents can prosper while combine gems like Kyle Boller, Blaine Gabbert or [pick one of the other dozen recent QB busts] flounder.
SEATTLE’S HIDDEN GEM
Backup defensive back Akeem King last Sunday night did something few, if any, defenders have done over the last three years: contained Travis Kelce. King, at times aided by having two safeties back deep (an unusual approach for the Seahawks), consistently stifled the Chiefs’ superstar tight end in matchup coverage. The NFC’s unlikeliest playoff team may have recently stumbled upon a hidden gem.
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR
Skip New Year’s. It’s our emptiest holiday. To celebrate the passing of time is to celebrate literally the most inevitable of all things. Nothing feels more refreshing than getting a jump on your new year by making January 1 a regular, productive day, just like any other.
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