Until the 2017 New England Patriots team suffers their first loss of the year, we’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between this team and the 2007 squad that ripped off 18 straight victories before finally falling in the Super Bowl.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss examined the question whether the 2017 Patriots are more talented than the 2007 Patriots squad and gave a slight edge to the 2007 team thanks to the strength of the offensive line and defensive front seven on the 2007 team. Reiss says the running back position is a draw, which I disagree with, but that Randy Moss tipped the wide receiver position in favor of 2007 and that Rob Gronkowski gives the 2017 tight ends the advantage, both stances of which I agree.
Reiss also gave the edge to the 2007 version of Brady, which gave me more pause than it probably should. Brady’s 2007 season is one of the greatest in the history of the sport thanks to the brutal efficiency of the offense with Moss and Wes Welker breaking records left and right.
But when it comes to Brady, could we argue that he’s better now than ever before?
Keep in mind that any statistic from 2007 comes linked with the incredible performance of Randy Moss- the type of receiving talent that Brady didn’t have in 2016 once Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season. Most can agree that Moss on the outside and Welker in the slot in 2007 were superior talents to Chris Hogan on the outside and Julian Edelman in the slot in 2016.
And yet Brady still put together one of the best seasons of his career, showing complete and utter control of the offense. How might he produce in 2017 with an improved supporting cast?
In 2007, Brady completed 49 of 107 pass attempts (45.8%) 15+ yards down the field. Over half (55) were directed towards 6’4 Randy Moss, who collected 22 (40%) for 766 yards and 10 touchdowns. Donte Stallworth (19 targets) and Ben Watson (11) were the other two leading deep threats.
In 2017, Brady completed 53 of 107 pass attempts (49.5%) 15+ yards down the field. 5’10 Julian Edelman saw a team-high 37 of these targets from week 5 onwards, collecting a mere 12 of them. Edelman should not be the team’s deep threat, which is why they went out and acquired speedster and one of the best deep threats in the league in Brandin Cooks.
Chris Hogan ranked second on the team with 24 targets and caught a ridiculous 17 of them (70.8%) for 581 yards and 4 touchdowns. Hogan isn’t Randy Moss, but Brady was much more efficient in 2017 while throwing deep at Hogan.
Add in the return of TE Rob Gronkowski, who was one of the best deep threats in the league prior to his injury (9 of 15 for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns), and Brady will have his choice of deep threats. Moss was the only regular deep threat in 2007, which allowed defenses to start focusing on him later in the year. With Cooks, Hogan, and Gronkowski in 2017, there will always be a potential deep threat open down the field.
There are two other main areas where 2007 Brady’s production was superior to 2016 Brady and both deserve added context: 1) in the red zone; 2) on short passes.
Brady threw an astounding 34 of his 50 regular season touchdowns inside the red zone in 2007 on 112 pass attempts, including 24 touchdowns on 60 attempts from inside the 10-yard line. The 2016 Patriots offense opted to hand the ball off to the running backs in the red zone as Brady threw 62 red zone attempts for 20 touchdowns, picking up 13 touchdowns on 32 attempts inside the 10-yard line.
It’s clear that 2007 Brady threw the ball a lot more inside the red zone, and it also turns out that 2016 Brady was more efficient. While Brady converted 30% of his red zone attempts into touchdowns in 2007, he improved to 32% in 2016. If Brady threw more in the red zone in 2016, perhaps he would have padded his stats a little more.
When looking at passes shorter than 15 yards, it’s clear that Wes Welker was a huge factor in 2007. Welker collected 133 of his 170 targets (78.2%) for 1,211 yards and 9 touchdowns at this depth of pass. For comparison, Edelman caught 88 of his 131 targets (67.2%) for 908 yards and 4 touchdowns. While Edelman has the edge in yards per reception (10.3 vs 9.1), Welker collected passes at a rate more than 10% better than Edelman.
And while Moss was 2007 Brady’s second-favorite short-area receiver, with 121 targets, 2016 Brady directed his second-most targets to RB James White (85 targets). Quarterbacks will naturally have superior passing numbers if they’re throwing a receiver like Randy Moss instead of a running back. Cooks could see a much larger role in the 2017 short game than Hogan had in 2016.
From a physical standpoint, 2016 Brady was throwing the ball with arguably just as much talent as he was in 2007, but he just didn’t have a transcendent talent like Moss on the receiving end. From a strategy standpoint, Josh McDaniels called Brady’s number in the red zone much more in 2007 than in 2016. From a mental standpoint, Brady’s making fewer mistakes and is showing better control of the offense than he ever has before.
Maybe Brady won’t put together a statistical season like he did in 2007, but I would argue that he’s playing better than ever before. The Patriots strategy of handing the ball off by the goal line (66.7% of plays inside the 5-yard line were runs in 2016, versus 48.1% in 2007) might not allow Brady to throw as many touchdowns.
But when looking at overall performance level and command of the game, there’s an argument to be made that 2017 Brady could be just as good, if not better than 2007 Brady.
Who is better?
This poll is closed
2007 Tom Brady
2017 Tom Brady
Have you ever heard of "recency bias"?!