The veteran quarterback had just come off a sub-par season. He had had his lowest completion percentage and passer rating in a decade. Accustomed to playing in Super Bowls, he had just seen his team humiliated in the AFC Championship Game, his own effort decent if unspectacular.
Despite the disappointing finish and the quarterback’s advancing age, optimism was high around the team’s coaching staff.
Asked if he thought his aging quarterback was actually improving, the offensive coordinator said, “Yup, I do. It’s hard for me to ever feel like that wouldn’t be the case. Anytime you’ve got a guy that’s really focused on working on all of the weaknesses in his game when there really aren’t that many, you can see where there’d be room for growth.”
The coordinator was Josh McDaniels and the quarterback he spoke of was a soon-to-be 37-year-old Tom Brady.
We all know what has happened in the three seasons since. The New England Patriots have played in two Super Bowls, winning both. And Brady has indeed improved, completing 65 percent of his passes, tossing 97 touchdowns to only 18 interceptions, and putting together a 103.1 passer rating, including 112.2 in 2016.
Brady never has had the arm strength of John Elway. He never had the quick release of Dan Marino or the accuracy of Joe Montana. And it’s impossible to say his competitive fire, as intense as it is, is any stronger than any other great quarterback.
What sets Brady apart is a self-awareness to spot weaknesses and a desire to fix them, as well as an ability to mold his game to changing schemes and personnel. Those things truly make him remarkable.
In his 17 seasons in the NFL, Brady has not exactly been blessed with a long parade of Hall of Fame skill position teammates. Sure, he has had a dominant-when-healthy Rob Gronkowski. He also had three-plus seasons of Randy Moss and three seasons of Corey Dillon (one of which was great) and a nice long run out of Wes Welker. But other than those guys, it has been a whole lot of Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Reche Caldwell and Julian Edelman.
Through this endless parade of non-Pro Bowl talent, Brady has also adjusted to numerous scheme changes as his head coach, the mad scientist Bill Belichick, has constantly sought to stay one evolutionary step ahead of NFL defenses.
You want a two-back look? A complicated spread scheme? No problem. Use a two-tight end set to boost the passing game instead of the running game? He’s all over it. Go up-tempo and hand Brady full control? He can do that, too.
He has made it work – all of it — to the tune of 14 division titles, seven Super Bowl appearances and five championships. During his tenure the Patriots’ offense has never finished lower than 12th in scoring — never lower than fourth in the past seven seasons.
And through it all, Brady has identified and solved flaws in his own game.
Several years ago, he changed his mechanics to fight the age-induced threat of diminishing arm strength. He worked with his trainer to alter his throwing motion, using his torso to put more zip on the ball. Always dominant in the short game, this alteration made him a much more effective deep thrower, and last season Brady had a career-best passer rating of 121.5 on throws of 20 yards or more.
And three years ago, working together with McDaniels, Brady aimed to improve his pocket mobility so he could extend plays. This was clearly an effort to combat the ferocious pass rushes of teams like the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans.
“We were moving the pocket and then throwing off schedule throws,” McDaniels said at the time. “I mean that’s not necessarily a strength of our quarterbacks in general, but I think that’s something we’ve identified that you know what, it could have helped us a time here, a time there, and we’re adamant about making it better.”
And it has done just that: Last season, Brady’s 112.0 passer rating on plays lasting at least 2.6 seconds ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
There are many ways to judge a quarterback’s greatness, none of them perfect. Many debaters will hang their hat on championships and thus point to Brady as the best ever behind center. And while trophies are a great indicator in sports like tennis and golf, it’s an over-simplistic one in a team sport like football.
On the other hand, raw statistics don’t always tell the story either. A QB might put up great numbers, but you have to consider context, including the team’s offensive scheme (what is the QB asked to do?), the quality of his offensive line and skill position players (does he have it easy?) and his team’s defense (are they always playing catch-up?).
The important thing to remember about Brady is that he belongs in the discussion, and might even be leading it. The championships don’t tell the whole story, but they deserve to be considered. And while he has only led the NFL in passing twice, his stats largely stand up against anyone else’s.
What really sets Brady apart, though, is his constant ability to improve and evolve his own game no matter what scheme he is playing under, and no matter who his teammates are.
And there’s one more thing that shouldn’t be overlooked: He’s not done.
- The Patriots had the best offseason in the NFL
- 5 most important players for future of Patriots
- How New England can resolve its persistent punt return dilemma