Tom Brady is the greatest player in NFL history, this is no doubt about that. How he’ll perform this season, however, is far from a sure thing. There are certain factors that could point to him struggling at least somewhat in 2019. Let’s take a look at what those factors are:
Before Brady, only five players in NFL history have played quarterback at 42 or older: Steve DeBerg, Doug Flutie, Vinny Testaverde, Warren Moon, and Earl Morrall. DeBerg actually retired in 1993, at 39, but came out of retirement five years later, and was a backup for one season, playing in eight games with one start, and only attempting a total of 59 passes. Flutie and Morrall were also both backups, with Flutie starting one game at age 42 and none with the Patriots in 2005. Between the two of them, they attempted only 74 passes in the three combined seasons they played after turning 42.
Moon and Testaverde are the only two to have actually played significant snaps as a starting QB after their 42nd birthday. Moon, after making the Pro Bowl the previous year, started ten games for Seattle in 1998, finishing with 11 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, a 56.2 completion percentage, and a rating of just 76.6. He would leave the Seahawks after that season, and go on to start only one more game with the Chiefs over the next two years. Similar to Brett Favre, he “fell off a cliff” the year after a solid season, putting up one of the worst campaigns of his career at 42.
Testaverde didn’t fare much better. He started four games in 2005, as a 42-year-old, and six games in 2007, as a 44-year-old. In the ten games combined, he put up six touchdowns and 12 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 55.4, and ratings of 59.4 in ‘05 and 65.8 in ‘07. Testaverde, however, didn’t fall off any cliff, and had led the league in picks in 2004 with the Cowboys. Plus, he really hadn’t had a solid statistical season since 1998, when, with Charlie Weis as the offensive coordinator (and Bill Belichick coaching the defense), he led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game, where they would lose to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos.
The history is simple: No quarterback in NFL history has ever put together even a competent season at 42 or older. Now, I realize that last year Brady threw for more yards, more touchdowns, fewer interceptions, and had a passer rating of about 15 points higher than Warren Moon’s 1997 Pro Bowl year. But that doesn’t change what the next year looked like, and those stats don’t bode well for Brady this season.
2. Gronk’s Retirement
This one is pretty obvious. Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in NFL history, and arguably the biggest mismatch the league has ever seen. Even when he wasn’t open, he was open. So, it would make sense that there would be some questions about Brady’s performance without Gronk. The numbers are more startling than you would think, however.
According to Scott Barrett of PFF, Brady’s passer rating without Gronk drops from 103.1 all the way down to 88.1. Let’s put that number in perspective: Out of the 23 quarterbacks that attempted at least 400 passes last season only Sam Darnold, Blake Bortles, and Case Keenum had passer ratings worse than 88.1. That’s not great. I assume that everyone is going to be looking for more out of Tom Brady this year, but that’s what history says.
Now, you can argue two things here. First, those offenses were built around Gronk, and, without an adequate replacement, they had to change on the fly and it created an offense that wasn’t functioning at 100%. Second, there are two seasons where Brady had a lower passer rating than 88.1 and they still won the Super Bowl, those were 2001 and 2003. If you remember my article from a few weeks ago, I said that the Patriots were currently in the process of building a team that doesn’t rely as heavily on the quarterback, similar to the first few years Bill was here.
Even when you know those two factors, it’s still hard to believe that the Patriots offense can be as effective as it was with Gronk in it. This directly impacts Brady, and could cause a slight dip, no matter how they scheme it up.
Obviously, Julian Edelman is hurt right now, but the receiver that has looked the best in training camp and in the first preseason game is undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers. Factor in that Brady’s 39-year-old number one tight end is suspended the first four games of the season, and has never caught more than 6 touchdowns in a year. Unless, of course, you want to trust Eric Saubert, who has five career catches. The running backs coming back are solid out of the backfield, but pretty much everyone else is unproven, and needs to build trust with Brady.
In fact, not counting Matthew Slater, only four receivers or tight ends (even if you count Josh Gordon) have ever caught a pass from Brady, and it’s only four because Benjamin Watson was here earlier in his career. There are tons of question marks at the receiving positions, and lots of trust to be built.
The good news is that what the receivers lack in experience they have in potential. Demaryius Thomas was a solid player in the NFL for quite some time, and if he comes back healthy could give the offense a boost. Both N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers have flashed a ton of potential in training camp and in last week’s game. And Gordon’s skills were undeniable last year. If everything breaks right for the Patriots, they could have one of the most talented receiving corps they’ve ever had with Brady. The problem is, there’s a few scary words like “if” and “potential” in there that make me a little nervous.
So, there are certainly some reasons why you should be worried about Tom Brady’s performance this season. The best thing to remember is that he has defied the odds many times before, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did it again. I certainly hope that he does, because, from now on, he is officially in uncharted territory. If anyone can navigate that treacherous terrain, it’s the GOAT.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
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