In 2007, Tom Brady had the greatest quarterback season of the salary cap era, a time-frame that spans 1994 to the present. The combination of wins, statistical dominance, and circumstances had never been seen before or since, as the 2007 Patriots ran roughshod over the league, smashing scoring records culminating in a perfect regular season record. But before I get into the why, it is important that I explain what led to the completely unexpected explosion that was Tom Brady and the Patriots' season.
Raise your hand if you can name the top five receivers for the New England Patriots in 2006. I know you can do it. Oh come on now, it wasn't that long ago. Do you have your answer? Do you give up? Ok then. Did you answer Reche Caldwell, Troy Brown, Doug Gabriel, Chad Jackson, and Jabar Gaffney? If so, then you'd be right.
When you hear people refer to the 2006 Patriots team, it is usually to mention how Tom Brady made it to the AFC Championship Game throwing to no-name receivers and scrubs. To look at the receivers more objectively, let's look at some facts regarding Brady's receiving group.
1. The Patriots number one and number two receivers from 2005, Deion Branch and David Givens, were gone.
2. The only receiver on the list that had played with Tom Brady prior to the season was Troy Brown. He famously stripped Marlon McCree following McCree's interception of Brady on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter in the Divisional Round win over the San Diego Chargers.
3. Reche Caldwell famously recovered the aforementioned McCree fumble and then caught the touchdown to cap off that drive. The next game he infamously dropped what many believe would have been the game-clinching touchdown in the loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. With the score tied 28-28 at the halfway point of the fourth quarter, in the red-zone, Reche Caldwell was inexplicably left unguarded on the right side of the field. A pass from Brady that hit him right in the chest, that would have easily gone for the first-down, and maybe even the touchdown, was dropped.
4. Doug Gabriel, the third leading receiver, played twelve games with the Patriots before being released. After finishing 2006 with the Oakland Raiders, he never caught an NFL pass again.
5. Chad Jackson's 12 receptions for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns made him good for fourth on the Patriots receiver charts. He is often considered the biggest receiver bust of the Belichick era. Arguing about whether or not it is him or Bethel Johnson seems trivial.
6. Jabar Gaffney was the jewel and the most surprising player of the 2006 playoffs. How surprising was he? In 2006 Jabar Gaffney had 11 receptions for 142 yards and 1 touchdown. How many Patriots players out-produced him in receiving? Well, in addition to the four receivers ahead of him on this list, there was Kevin Faulk, Daniel Graham, Ben Watson, Laurence Maroney, and David Thomas. In the playoffs, Jabar Gaffney had 8 receptions for 104 yards in the win over the Jets in the Wild Card Round, 10 receptions for 103 yards and 1 touchdowns in the win over the Chargers, and 3 receptions for 37 yards and 1 touchdown in the loss to the Colts. The combined 21 receptions for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns nearly doubled his entire season's production as he led the Patriots in receiving for the playoffs that year.
Despite the Patriots scoring 27 points on offense against the Colts (7 of the 34 came from an interception returned for a touchdown by Asante Samuel) many felt the Patriots needed to get Tom Brady some weapons. They set out on a mission in the offseason to do so, and the results are still astonishing. The Patriots traded with the Miami Dolphins for Wes Welker with their second round (60th) and seventh round (238th) picks early in the offseason. Next they signed free agent wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. Heading into the 2007 NFL Draft with an abundance of resources, the Patriots shocked the NFL world when they traded with the Oakland Raiders to acquire Randy Moss, using their fourth round (110th) pick. While all of their stories were different, one thing that they all had in common was that the Patriots brought them in to see what they could do. As Michael Smith and Len Pasquarelli wrote regarding Donte' Stallworth:
Similarly, the Patriots had acquired a 30-year old Randy Moss that had just had (at the time) career lows in receptions (42), yards (553), and touchdowns (3) while missing games due to injury. As Len Pasquarelli wrote:
Pasquarelli also took note of the Patriots moves to improve the receiving corps, mentioning the lack of an explosive receiver prior to Moss' arrival.
The events that transpired over the course of the 2006 season inspired the 2007 acquisitions that led to the onslaught delivered by Tom Brady and the Patriots during their record-breaking year. Tom Brady threw a career high 4806 yards, at the time being good for 3rd best all time behind Dan Marino's 5084 yard enigma of a 1984 season, and behind Kurt Warner's 4930 yard season in 2001. Tom Brady led the league in completion percentage at 68.9%, a percentage at the time being tied for the 7th best all time with Chad Pennington's 2002 season (Pennington attempted 399 passes that season while Brady attempted 578). Tom Brady led the league in passer rating as well, notching a career high 117.2 rating that was, at the time, 2nd only to Peyton Manning's 121.1 set in 2004. The most impressive feat of all was setting the single-season passing touchdown record with 50 touchdowns, breaking the record of 49 that Peyton Manning had set in 2004. Oh yeah, and then there was becoming the first team ever to go undefeated in the sixteen game regular season and setting the single season scoring record with 589 points, breaking the 1998 Minnesota Vikings record of 556 points.
While I consider this the greatest regular season ever for a quarterback since the salary cap was implemented in 1994, there are others that believe Peyton Manning's 2004 season with the Colts was better. Actually, there are some people that think Aaron Rodgers' 2011 season was better as well. Now I consider those to be up there as the second and third best, but not above Brady's 2007 season. So without further ado, let's dive in to why Tom Brady's 2007 season is the greatest ever.
Unlike the record-setting years of Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady's season did not come during a season in which passing dominance and apparent ease was seen league-wide.
In Kerry J. Byrne's piece "A brief, fact filled history of the NFL passing game" he explained the improved passing environment that Peyton Manning experienced in 2004 in a segment he called "The Golden Age". Here is an excerpt:
The Golden Age (2004-present) As if quarterbacks hadn't been coddled enough by coaches and rulemakers over the past two decades, one profound game, and one very angry team executive, made their lives even easier in 2004.
As a result, the NFL determined that its officials would "re-emphasize" pass interference rules in 2004 and beyond. Though not officially a rule change, the impact on the passing game was profound. The very next season, Indy quarterback Peyton Manning (pictured here) went out and rewrote the record books, with 49 TD passes and a 121.1 passer rating that was nearly 10 points better than any that had come before it. The league-wide passer rating, meanwhile, jumped from 78.3 in 2003 to a record 82.8 in 2004.
- One, New England defenders pushed the bounds of pass interference rules in the 2003 AFC championship game, badly roughing up Indianapolis receivers and shutting down the Colts high-powered offense in a 24-14 Patriots victory.
- Two, Indy's powerful president, Bill Polian, complained to the league rather loudly in the wake of his team's loss.
Len Pasquarelli wrote a piece for ESPN titled "Expect more illegal contact penalties in 2004" that echoes some of Byrne's statements.
I'm not going to try and start conspiracy theories regarding the rule "change" for the 2004 season. Chances are it will be taken that way though. Take a look at the people involved in the competition committee that year. From Pasquarelli's piece (his words in bold):
As the annual league meetings convened in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday, competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay and Jeff Fisher apprised owners and coaches that the illegal contact rule will become a so-called "point of emphasis" for the 2004 season.
Jeff Fisher, co-chairman of the competition committee, was the head coach of the Tennessee Titans team that lost the Patriots in the Divisional Round of that year's playoffs.
"It just seems like (the illegal contact penalty) was called differently the last few years," said St. Louis coach Mike Martz, a member of the coaches subcommittee which works with the competition committee. "Somehow things got a little redefined, whether it was subconscious or not, and we have to get back to calling the rule as it's written."
Mike Martz, member of the coaches subcommittee, was head coach of the 2001 Rams that lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Colts coach Tony Dungy is also a member of the subcommittee.
There was a statistical reasoning behind wanting to change the interpretation of the rule. Pasquarelli was on top of this as well:
Another element in the competition committee's decision to revisit the rule is that passing yards per game were dramatically reduced in 2003. The per-team average for net passing yards in a game dropped to 200.4 yards, a 5.6 percent falloff from 2002, and the lowest level since the 1992 season, when teams averaged 187.6 yards.
Let's just say the competition committee got their wish. Below is a chart that shows the improvement league-wide regarding some of the more heralded passing statistics. Note: YPA stands for yards per attempt.
|2003||2003 Player||2004||2004 Player|
|League High in Yards||4267||Peyton Manning||4717||Daunte Culpepper|
|# of Passers over 4000 Yards||2||5|
|League High in YPA||8.0||Steve McNair||9.2||Peyton Manning|
|# of Passers over 7.0 YPA||7||20|
|League High in Passing Touchdowns||32||Brett Favre||49||Peyton Manning|
|# of Passers over 20 Touchdowns||11||15|
|# of Passers over 30 Touchdowns||1||4|
|League High in Passer Rating||100.4||Steve McNair||121.1||Peyton Manning|
|# of Passer Rating over 90.0||6||11|
|# of Passer Rating over 100.0||1||4|
|League High Completion %||67.0%||Peyton Manning||69.3%||Brian Griese|
|# of Passers over 60% Completion||13||19|
|# of Passers over 65% Completions||3||8|
Those are pretty significant improvements across the board. Peyton Manning's 9.2 yards per attempt is absolutely ludicrous, no matter what rule interpretations were involved. It wouldn't be fair just to mention the types of changes that Peyton Manning benefited from without making mention that Tom Brady was in fact playing under said changes in 2007. However, the fact that they were playing under the same rule doesn't equate the impact those rules had on each season. Clearly the vast improvement in passing conditions assisted in improvement of quarterback performances across the board. The success was unrivaled, and defenses were experiencing the new rules for the first time.
In 2007 the NFL dealt with some rule changes of its own. While 2007 was Roger Goodell's first year as the commissioner of the NFL. According to the Associated Press, there were a couple rule changes. Those changes were:
- Approved a 5-yard penalty for players spiking the ball or throwing it up in the air on the field after a play;
- Made permanent the down-by-contact element of video replay reviews, and permanently lowered the time referees review replays to 60 seconds;
- Deleted the provision in the rules where quarterbacks can ask the referee to reset the play clock because of crowd noise;
- Defeated expanding the game-day roster from 45 players and a third quarterback to 47 and a third QB;
- Made a pass that unintentionally hits an offensive lineman no longer a penalty;
- Modified roughing-the-passer so that a defender engaged with a quarterback who simply extends his arms and shoves the passer to the ground is not penalized;
- Eliminated a player scoring a touchdown without the ball going over the pylon at the goal line in the corner of the end zone.
Not a lot of those look overly beneficial to offenses. Here is what Will Flaherty, writer for Houston.com, had to say regarding the rule changes in "RULE CHANGES FOR THE 2007 NFL SEASON" (Flaherty in bold)
One of the most notable rule changes is the introduction of a five-yard, delay of game penalty for spiking the ball after a play. This rule does not apply to scoring plays or to an out-of-bounds play, so a simple spike is still an allowable form of celebration after a touchdown. However, if a runner is not ruled down by contact and the ball is spiked, the ball is live and will result in either an illegal forward pass penalty (if the ball is spiked forward) or, if the ball is spiked backward, the ball will remain live and the spike will be considered a fumble.
I wouldn't consider this to be beneficial to advancing the passing game, would you?
The rule regarding pylon touchdown dives also has been revisited and clarified. Previously, a player just had to have some portion of his body over the goal line or pylon to count a touchdown, but the rule has been revised for 2007 to make it necessary to have the ball touch the pylon or break the plane above the pylon to count as a touchdown.
Now I don't know if this decreased scoring or not, but it definitely made it more challenging from a physical perspective to score touchdowns.
Changes for 2007 are light compared to past years, but Hochuli and his team still do their homework to get themselves, and teams, ready for the season.
"The one (change) I think is the most dramatic is not really a rule change, it’s just an interpretation change from the competition committee that deals with what is a completed catch," Hochuli said.
Beginning this season, a receiver that gets two feet down and has control of the ball has a reception.
Traditionally a player needed to make "a football move" after a catch to have it classified a reception. Now, a quick hit from a defender could result in a fumble.
"Sometimes there’s a situation where there were three steps and the ball would come out and it would be correctly ruled an incomplete pass," Hochuli said. "So, the receiver gets a second foot down, gets hit and the ball comes lose -- we would have a fumble rather than an incomplete pass."
The only way that I could see that improving passing statistics would be in completion percentage. In 2006 there were 18 quarterbacks that posted a 60% completion percentage or higher. In 2007, there were 24 players. That is a significant jump, but how did the other passing statistics get effected, like the ones in the chart I did with the 2003 and 2004 season? Well below is a chart showing those exact same numbers for the 2006 to 2007 seasons.
|2006||2006 Player||2007||2007 Player|
|League High in Yards||4418||Drew Brees||4806||Tom Brady|
|# of Passers over 4000 Yards||5||7|
|League High in YPA||8.6||Tony Romo||8.3||Tom Brady|
|# of Passers over 7.0 YPA||12||16|
|League High in Passing Touchdowns||31||Peyton Manning||50||Tom Brady|
|# of Passers over 20 Touchdowns||10||13|
|# of Passers over 30 Touchdowns||1||4|
|League High in Passer Rating||101||Peyton Manning||117.2||Tom Brady|
|# of Passer Rating over 90.0||8||8|
|# of Passer Rating over 100.0||1||3|
|League High Completion %||68.3%||David Carr||68.9%||Tom Brady|
|# of Passers over 60% Completion||18||24|
|# of Passers over 65% Completions||3||7|
So the completion percentages clearly showed an increase from 2006 to 2007. It is fair to believe that the rule change regarding completed catches has something to do with this. That said, the increase in 60% and 65% passers from 2006 to 2007 was actually less than that of 2003 to 2004. The chart below shows the changes in the number of passers in the categories from the previous charts.
|2003||2004||Difference||% Increase||2006||2007||Difference||% Increase|
|League High in Yards||4267||4717||+450||10.55%||4418||4806||+388||8.78%|
|# of Passers over 4000 Yards||2||5||+3||150.00%||5||7||+2||40.00%|
|League High in YPA||8.0||9.2||+1.2||15.00%||8.6||8.3||-0.3||-3.49%|
|# of Passers over 7.0 YPA||7||20||+13||180.57%||12||16||+4||33.33%|
|League High in Passing Touchdowns||32||49||+17||53.13%||31||50||+19||61.29%|
|# of Passers over 20 Touchdowns||11||15||+4||36.36%||10||13||+3||30.00%|
|# of Passers over 30 Touchdowns||1||4||+3||300.00%||1||4||+3||300.00%|
|League High in Passer Rating||100.4||121.1||+20.7||20.62%||101||117.2||+16.2||16.04%|
|# of Passer Rating over 90.0||6||11||+5||83.33%||8||8||0||0.00%|
|# of Passer Rating over 100.0||1||4||+3||300.00%||1||3||+2||200.00%|
|League High Completion %||67.0%||69.3%||+2.3%||3.43%||68.3%||68.9%||+0.6%||0.88%|
|# of Passers over 60% Completion||13||19||+6||46.15%||18||24||+6||33.33%|
|# of Passers over 65% Completions||3||8||+5||166.67%||3||7||+4||133.33%|
What happened before the 2004 season changed the dynamic of the NFL passing game. No longer were these numbers reflective of the truly elite, but simply a serviceable starting quarterback could put up a lot of these numbers after the rule change.
The impressive seasons by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady revolve around how unbelievable they were at passing the football, which was reflected in their touchdown totals and efficiency numbers such as passer rating, yards per attempt, and completion percentage. While Manning and Brady are clearly head and shoulders above everyone they played with when it came to setting the passing touchdown record, which also helped to reflect how dominant and historic their performances were, the other passing statistics show the context of them putting up the other numbers relative to the rule changes influence. From 2003 to 2004 the amount of 4000 yard passers more than doubled, the number of passers that averaged over 7.0 yards per attempt nearly tripled (needed 21 to triple, had 20), and the number of passers that had a passer rating at or above 90.0 nearly doubled (needed 12 to double, had 11). The numbers that became reserved for the truly elite, such as 30 touchdown passes, a passer rating at or above 100.0, and a 65% completion percentage, experienced the overwhelming change but did not differ much from the increase from 2006 to 2007.
The main arguing point for most as to why Peyton Manning's 2004 season was better than Tom Brady's 2007 is because of passer rating, in which Manning's 121.1 trumps Brady's 117.2. However, as far as the passer rating argument goes, it is easy to see that Manning was far more the beneficiary of an NFL that was changing the way they allowed defenses to play football. Defensive backs had to learn new ways to contain offensive threats, something that to this day they have never been able to learn to the effectiveness of those defenses that played before the change. Manning got to take advantage of a paradigm shift in 2004 that Brady didn't exist in 2007.
Just as the circumstances helped Peyton Manning on his way to achieving mind-boggling efficiency stats, so did the 2011 lockout help Aaron Rodgers break Peyton Manning's passer rating mark and make others believe that he had the best season ever for a quarterback. In 2011, the perfect storm hit for quarterbacks everywhere to light up defenses Madden style. If you ever played NFL Blitz, picture the way that you could hit anything ,any time, anywhere. The 2011 season was the opposite of that for defenses, handicapped by the new rules proposed by the owners using this term called a "defenseless player."
Alex Marvez, writer for msn.foxsports.com, in "Owners approve new rule changes" writes about how the league had better defined a "defenseless posture" for helping to determine illegal hits. Here is what the owners decided:
The following hits on players in a "defenseless posture" are now illegal:
• A player in the act or just after throwing a pass.
• A receiver attempting to catch a pass or one who has not completed a catch and hasn’t had time to protect himself or hasn’t clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.
• A runner whose forward progress has been stopped and is already in the grasp of a tackler.
• A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air.
• A player on the ground at the end of a play.
• A kicker/punter during the kick or return.
• A quarterback any time after a change of possession (i.e. turnover).
• A player who receives a "blindside" block when the blocker is moving toward his own end-line and approaches the opponent from behind or the side.
Rich McKay, that same guy that had a hand in the illegal contact change back in 2004, decided to change the philosophy of defensive players with his rule changes. He even said so.
"This will permanently change the mentality, we think, of the defensive back trying to separate the ball in that you’ve got to lower your aim point," McKay said. "The aim point has got to come into the numbers or below as opposed to above because you have to give that player an opportunity to defend themselves."
This, coupled with the lockout that resulted in a new CBA, helped change the landscape heading into the 2011 season by crippling defensive players. How did the lockout and new CBA do this? For one thing, the new CBA did not get worked out until July 25th. The rules about defenseless players were made in May, but teams were not practicing because the teams were in a lockout. In other words, defensive players couldn't learn to do their job heading into the season because they weren't allowed to play. What's more, when they finally were allowed to practice there had been changes in the new CBA that effected how to do so. Gregg Rosenthal, writer for profootballtalk.nbcsports.com, made mention of the practice restrictions proposed in the new CBA in his piece "The CBA in a nutshell."
Player safety: The amount of padded practices in the regular season is now heavily regulated by the league. Two padded practices per day in training camp (two-a-days) has also been banned. (This doesn’t sit well with all players.) Teams can do a padded practice and a non-padded practice in the same day in training camp.
Teams will also reportedly have more days off during their bye week.
Offseason work: Offseason Organized Team Activities (OTAs) have been reduced from 14 days to 10. The offseason program was reduced five weeks overall.
Rosenthal followed that up with "Seven things you may have missed in the new CBA" with his first point being about contact in practice.
1. There won’t be hitting for the first three days of training camp this year. (That includes arrival day and two days of practices.)
In Rosenthal's piece "Winners, losers from the NFL lockout", he cites hardcore coaches as a loser. What he really meant is the lack of hitting that players will be doing in practice.
Hardcore coaches: Practice contact will be reduced dramatically in the regular season. Offseason practices will also be cut down, with big fines for coaches who break the rules.
"The only thing the players didn’t get is someone else to play for them," one source told PFT.
With defensive players being told to hit differently, not being given time to learn how to hit because of the lockout, and because of fully padded practices being reduced, what happened to passing statistics in 2011? Let's put it this way - defenses got lit up like Clark Griswold's house in Christmas Vacation.
In 2011, Dan Marino's NFL record for passing yards in a season, which stood at 5084 yards, was broken by two quarterbacks - Drew Brees and Tom Brady. By the time 2011 ended, four of the top six single season passing yardage performances belonged to quarterbacks that performed in 2011 - Drew Brees (1st - 5476 yards), Tom Brady (2nd - 5235 yards), Matthew Stafford (5th -5038 yards), and Eli Manning (6th - 4933 yards). Only five times in history had a quarterback thrown for 40 or more touchdown passes before 2011. By the end of the season Drew Brees (46 touchdowns), Aaron Rodgers (45 touchdowns), and Matthew Stafford (41 touchdowns) joined that list. For more on just how out of whack the season was, read this.
This was no ordinary season and as mentioned it had no ordinary circumstances behind it. Here is what the numbers in 2011 looked like compared to the previous year.
|2010||2010 Player||2011||2011 Player|
|League High in Yards||4710||Philip Rivers||5476||Drew Brees|
|# of Passers over 4000 Yards||5||10|
|# of Passers over 5000 Yards||0||3|
|League High in YPA||8.7||Philip Rivers||9.2||Aaron Rodgers|
|# of Passers over 7.0 YPA||17||19|
|# of Passers over 8.0 YPA||4||7|
|League High in Passing Touchdowns||36||Tom Brady||46||Drew Brees|
|# of Passers over 20 Touchdowns||17||14|
|# of Passers over 30 Touchdowns||5||5|
|# of Passers over 40 Touchdowns||0||3|
|League High in Passer Rating||111||Tom Brady||122.5||Aaron Rodgers|
|# of Passer Rating over 90.0||13||10|
|# of Passer Rating over 100.0||4||4|
|League High Completion %||68.1%||Drew Brees||71.2%||Drew Brees|
|# of Passers over 60% Completion||20||18|
|# of Passers over 65% Completions||6||4|
Aaron Rodgers' 2011 season came at a time even more beneficial than Peyton Manning's 2004 season. Tons of records fell in 2011, and many of them not at the arm of Aaron Rodgers. Passing the football was never easier than it was in 2011 as defenses adjusted to the new rules.
Unlike Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady's record setting season was not aided by circumstances that influenced the rest of the league into good fortunes. But that isn't where it stops. Tom Brady's 2007 regular season is the greatest for a quarterback in the salary cap era for many more reasons. Those will be covered tomorrow in Part 2.