Statistics can be a useful tool to take a closer look at topics and to analyze and discuss them on a rather uniform basis. A sport like professional football benefits greatly from statistical evaluation as it allows teams, fans and the media to dig deeper into the intricacies of the game and as a result expand their understanding of it.
Statistics are not the be-all, end-all of evaluation and debate, however. They are, after all, subject to interpretation and can easily be used to push an agenda particularly if presented without proper contextualization. Enter Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar, who has done some groundbreaking statistical work on the NFL in the past.
His latest analysis – a tweet on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady – is not among it:
Brady might be the only QB who could go 5-2 in Super Bowls w/6.7 YPA.
Some NE fans mistake this for skill, ignoring the obvious.
Brady, that much is obvious, has been an integral part of five Super Bowl winning teams despite “only” gaining 6.7 yards per pass attempt; despite some errant throws and bad decisions. His average yardage gained per attempt, which ranks the future Hall of Famer 36th among passers who have tried at least 10 throws in a Super Bowl, cannot be disputed.
What can be disputed, though, is what Kacsmar alludes to: that this is a sign of the most decorated quarterback in NFL history lacking skill. And this is where the above-mentioned contextualization becomes important because the statistics alone can be deceiving and create a distorted image of Brady's role in helping his team become a five-time world champion.
To add at least some context, let us take a look at the Patriots' seven Super Bowl appearances with Tom Brady as the quarterback.
Tom Brady's 17th career start saw the Patriots beat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams 20-17. While Brady is remembered for engineering the drive that set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning last second field goal – a drive that earned him MVP honors –, the first-year starter played a rather mediocre game up to that point. Brady did not take a lot of risks and neither did offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
Consequently, Brady finished the game with an unspectacular stat-line: He completed 16 of 27 pass attempts for 145 yards and one touchdown. His 5.37 yards per attempt remains the lowest of his seven-game Super Bowl career. This number is no surprise though. After all, New England opted to play it safe with its young passer in order to maximize its chances of beating the NFL's sixth-best pass defense in yards per attempt.
As a result, using a lot of short and screen passes was the way to go. And rightfully so, as moving Brady out of this relatively safe comfort zone would not have been the way to accomplish the goal of getting him feel comfortable while simultaneously taking time off the clock and keeping drives alive.
Fast forward two years and Brady played one of the best Super Bowls of his career: In yet another MVP performance, the fourth year pro went 32 of 48 for 354 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. His 7.38 yards per attempt remained Brady's personal Super Bowl best until 2016 – and it came against a Carolina Panthers defense that had given up only 5.75 yards per pass in its first 19 games.
As they did against the Rams, the Patriots tried a balanced offensive approach against what proved to be a stingy opponent. However, New England's play calling during the game was less conservative than it was in Brady's first starting season particularly in the second half of the game. Consequently, the team was willing to test its opponent deep more often; a strategy that ultimately proved to be a successful one: New England won 32-29.
New England faced another solid pass defense in the following season's Super Bowl: The Philadelphia Eagles gave up only 5.90 yards per attempt over their first 18 games of the year. And like he did the prior year, Brady was able to gain more than that in the NFL's title game by going 23 of 33 for 236 yards and a 7.15 average per attempted pass.
As they did against the Panthers, Charlie Weis and his offense again went for a balanced game plan behind Brady and newly acquired running back Corey Dillion. The very same approached helped the team gain the fourth-most points during the regular season and lead it to a 41-27 blowout victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.
In the Super Bowl, Brady did not go deep often. Instead, New England's passing attack put its focus on the intermediate areas of the field to take advantage of the Patriots pass catchers' superior speed and quickness – particularly game MVP Deion Branch – against Philadelphia's defenders. Again, the plan worked and the Patriots won 24-21.
Entering the game with a perfect 18-0 record, the Patriots offense under second-year coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to attack its final opponent similarly to how it had beaten its first 18: with a pass-first, spread offense against a defense that allowed 6.30 yards per attempt over its first 19 games. Consequently, Brady dropped back 53 times and attempted 48 passes. However, he completed only 29 of them (for 266 yards and one touchdown) for a per-throw-average of 5.54 yards; the second worst of Brady's championship game career.
The reasons for that are manyfold: Above all stands the imbalanced offensive attack (53:16 pass-run-ratio), the Giants' ability to put pressure on the quarterback despite mostly rushing only four players and Brady oftentimes simply trying to go for the quick completion. They all contributed to the league MVP's rather pedestrian showing and New England's ultimate demise.
Even though the offense found a rhythm late in the game and was able to re-take the lead with 2:45 left, it was not enough to secure victory. With the Giants being able to eliminate the deep passing threat that had terrorized teams throughout the year through quick pressure, New England had to fall back on a plan B that proved unable to lead the team to victory.
The Patriots' rematch against the Giants four years later ended with the same result: New England's offense struggled to consistently move the football against a physical New York defense. The team again tried to attack its opponent primarily through the air – theoretically a sound approach considering the 6.75 yards allowed per attempted pass through the team's first 19 games – and again came up short.
On a per attempt basis, Brady actually played a solid game and finished with 6.73 yards a throw (27 of 41, 276 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) despite New England rarely going for the deep shot. With Rob Gronkowski hobbled and no other skill position player able to stretch the field, Bill O'Brien's offense instead opted to attack the short and intermediate areas with its quick other options.
The plan made sense and played to the strengths of New England's offense particularly with Gronkowski a virtual no-show. However, it was well defended by an athletic Giants defense that a) was again able to put consistent pressure on Brady and b) keep the game close enough for the team's offense to pull away late in the contest.
New England's fourth Super Bowl win is arguably the best example of why a statistic like yards per attempt can be misleading when presented without context. Brady, who was voted MVP, gained an average 6.56 yards per pass – only the 63rd highest in Super Bowl history and fifth-best of his career. Considering the Patriots' game plan, however, this rather low number does not come as a surprise.
As stated by head coach Bill Belichick in the 2015 NFL Films documentary "Do Your Job", one of the offense's points of emphasis was attacking the Seattle Seahawks' top ranked defense by using quick and vertical patterns rather than horizontal routes. The plan did not work perfectly as Brady threw two interceptions but it still allowed the quarterback to go 37 of 50 for 328 yards and four touchdowns.
More importantly, it gave the Patriots the best chance of gaining ground against a defense that allowed only 4.68 yards per play prior to the Super Bowl (5.88 per pass) while keeping the game under control and the clock running. With the plan in place and only slight adjustments made during the game, New England was able to come back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to win the game 28-24.
Super Bowl LI
Brady's best Super Bowl performance, at least in terms of yards per attempt, came in February against the Atlanta Falcons: The future first ballot Hall of Famer gained 7.52 yards per thrown football. Historically, the number does not stand out, though, as 43 other quarterback performances resulted in a higher number. Does that lessen what Brady has been able to do during his record-breaking performance? Absolutely not.
Instead, it is another prime example of how the Patriots of the Brady-Belichick era have been operating, especially since the return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in 2012. The team plays a risk-averse offensive game that puts emphasis on control and attacking the opponent based on strengths, weaknesses and in-game developments.
Against Atlanta, it did not work perfectly especially in the first two-plus quarters. However, based on the situation, the offensive attack opted to shift towards a lopsided pass-run-ratio to take advantage of matchups and New England's superior conditioning – an approach that worked in the Super Bowl but looks different from week to week.
And while it may not lead to Tom Brady or any other player being a statistical standout in select categories, this system has proven to be the most successful one since the NFL introduced the salary cap prior to the 1994 season. And this is exactly where the problem lies with Kacsmar's above-quoted tweet and a general over-dependence on statistical analysis.
Statistics oftentimes place more value on individual performance in a sport dependent highly dependent on the context provided by teammates, coaches and opponents; by the times and even localities it is played in. Using stats in a vacuum therefore creates a distorted view on things that might place more value on certain aspects of the game than others and as a result tries to quantify something subjective like “greatness” or “good performance”.
Are Brady's comparatively low yards per attempt in seven of 271 career games therefore reflective of a lack of skill? In a strict theoretical setting, it is entirely possible. However, in practice, Brady's success as an individual and a member of the team – nevermind his impact on the sport and its popularity – shows that he rightfully finds himself on the Mount Rushmore of professional football.
And 6.7 yards per throw in the Super Bowl, of which he has won more than any other quarterback, does not change this.