Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Hippocratic Quarterback

Tom Brady's passing statistics so far this season are bad, very bad. Except for one, which is perfect. The perfect one may well be one reason the others aren't up to below par.

Brady is 24th in the NFL in passing yards, despite having thrown more passes, 114, than all but five other QBs. He's thrown more times than Peyton Manning has. His average yards per attempt of 5.5 is lower than all other quarterbacks who've started all three games except Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill. Brady's completion percentage of 58.8 is lower than all three game starters except Tannehill and Jake Locker.

Add it all up in the incomprehensible NFL way, and Brady's passer rating is 82.9. That's better than only the following three games or most of three starters: the Smiths, Geno and Alex, Tannehill, Carr and Locker. Those are not quarterbacks with whom other QBs should want to share a paragraph.

Now we come to the anomaly at the heart of New England's offensive issues this month. Brady would likely have the  lowest passer rating in the NFL were it not for his perfect exception to an otherwise dismal throwing effort. In those 114 pass attempts, Brady had yet to throw an interception. Only two other NFL starters are without a pick. One is Cam Newton. If you can guess the other without looking it up, maybe you should start your own football blog. It's Brian Hoyer of the Browns.

Brady's ability to avoid the worst play a quarterback can make is remarkable when one considers that his protection has been, well, let's say inconsistent to date. Putting the heat on the quarterback is the primary way defenses generate interceptions. It takes both nerve and skill for a slower-footed quarterback like Brady to throw balls away where they can't be touched and take the sacks rather than make questionable throws.

My long distance guess is this. After the Dolphins debacle, when Brady had the crap beaten out of him in the second half, not coincidentally losing two fumbles on sacks, and the New England passing attack vanished altogether, he, Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick made an adjustment, probably both consciously and unconsciously, that until the offensive line stabilized itself, the Patriots passing game would operate on a strict "first do no harm" game plan. Only the most reliable receivers would be targeted on what the coaches and quarterback regard as the most reliable patterns. When in doubt, remember incompletions aren't the end of the world, just one drive. Don't let  those offensive penalties drive you nuts out there, Tom.

If my guess is correct, it leads to two conclusions, both pretty obvious. First is that the downsized New England offense has been part of two consecutive wins, so as a strategy, it can't be called a failure. Teams without turnovers win much more often than they lose.

Unfortunately for the Pats, the second conclusion negates the first. Do no harm is a strategy with distinct limits. Avoid pain, avoid gain. The best teams built around error avoidance usually make the playoffs then get beat by teams capable of overcoming their errors with touchdowns. Let's not beat ourselves out there is not the war cry of champions.

The Pats' three foes in 2014 were quarterbacked by Tannehill, Carr and Matt Cassel. They're 2-1 because they're playing teams with worse quarterbacks than the limited 2014 Tom Brady edition.
Brady knows all this, which is why he's come out after the last two wins talking about how the offense needs improvements amounting to an overhaul. But until he and Belichick believe the offensive line can be trusted, the do no harm offense will remain in place, at least in the game plan.

That game plan will be discarded when the scoreboard makes risk-taking imperative. That will be when the 2014 Patriots season really gets started.

The perfect can be the enemy of the good. It won't seem like it when it comes, but the first interception Brady throws this year may be a most encouraging development.


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