Tuesday, November 27, 2018

It's Almost As If It Was a Team Sport

Through 11 games of the 2018 NFL season, there is a quarterback who is closest to Tom Brady in passer rating. He has completed more passes than Brady, has a slightly higher completion percentage and higher yards per attempt. He trails Brady in TD passes 19 to 14, but has thrown only the same number of interceptions. Can you guess his name without looking it up?

Liar. It's Eli Manning, about to get benched yet again by the 3-8 Giants. The Patriots, of course, are 8-3 and methodically plodding their way to the number one seed in the AFC playoffs. This is despite the fact Brady's individual performance, while quite good by any historical standard including his own, is nowhere in the ridiculous passing stat parade of 2018. His 65.2 percent completion percentage, which would have led the league by a mile almost every year until the 21st century, is the overall average for NFL passers this season. He has thrown just about half as many TD passes as Patrick Mahomes and three times as many picks as Drew Brees. And so on and so forth.

Still, 8-3 is 8-3, and no team has that record unless its quarterback is playing well enough to win, the only standard that really matters. More importantly, no team has that record unless it's playing well enough to win as a whole. To illustrate that point, let's consider an individual stat I left out in the earlier Eli-Tom comparison. Manning has been sacked a league high 38 times, Brady only 16. Some sacks are the quarterback's fault, but not all of 'em. Manning may be getting benched for his own protection.

It stands to reason that at a time when quarterbacks are doing more than ever, they will receive more scrutiny, and hence, a lot more flawed analysis and comment. There is a school of thought, held by more than one level-headed and worthwhile NFL observer, that in 2018, Brady is, if not in decline, in a kind of gentle glide path towards the end of his career. He is doing less because that's all he's capable of. He has become the dreaded "crafty veteran."

Perhaps. It should be noted this theory must skip over the Kansas City game, where Brady was quite capable of shooting it out with Mahomes from start to finish. I propose an alternate theory, that Brady is doing less because that's all he has to do for the Pats to win most of the time. It's not decline, it's playing his own team as the chalk it's been for 20 years.

Just yesterday, Brady mused aloud on the importance of avoiding turnovers. That's a tell. Brady's known that fact his whole life, but back in his salad days, like last year, he didn't usually talk about it as a prime directive. The remark was especially noteworthy since with the return of Rob Gronkowski against the Jets, he could have just as easily said something to the effect that with all its weapons healthy, the offense could start to be both efficient and explosive. He didn't.

Is this lack of confidence in his own ability? That I very much doubt. It is more likely to express confidence in the Pats' collective ability. We will get our points because everybody in this getting their points. What we need to focus on is not giving the other guys any through error.

The Brady declinists note, accurately, that Brady played poorly in New England's losses to the Lions and Titans. He was not alone. Those defeats were total teams efforts, with ineptitude displayed by almost all hands throughout. In particular, Brady spent significant portions of both games on his back with large hostile men on top of him. All quarterbacks look bad in those circumstances. Ask Eli.

Against the Jets, who in a refreshing exception to NFL trends can't score any points, Brady was his 2018 self. He had an excellent but not spectacular game and was happy to let New England run the ball to dominate New York. Is that managing decline, or was it just "hey, this is the easiest way to win"?  And when the final score is 27-13, what does difference does the answer to that question make?

How time is affecting Brady I do not know. Not enough to matter much is my guess, but it's just a guess. How time is affecting PERCEPTIONS of Brady is beyond obvious.

When an athlete's 31 and has a bad game, people say he looked bad. When he's 41, they say he looked old.

Know who looks old out there this year? Eli Manning, who's 37. A quarterback's football age can be most accurately measured in the quality of his blocking, or lack thereof.