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In Focus: Predicting Brady’s ‘decline’ using 2013 numbers misses big picture

06.04.14 at 12:39 pm ET

By now, we all know about the recent column that said Tom Brady‘s career is in decline because of what happened over the course of the 2013 season.

A disclaimer: I like Sam Monson — I’ve leaned on him for his football wisdom on several occasions in the past. I even had him on my podcast. But here are four reasons why he was off-base when talking about Brady.

1. Measuring Brady’s career arc — that is to say, indicating the end is near based on what happened last year — using the context of the 2013 season is shortsighted at best and foolish at worst.

In many ways, the 2013 season was the most challenging of Brady’s career. Stripped of so many veteran targets over the course of the offseason (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead), he worked with new faces, many of them with precious little experience at the NFL level. For the first time in his career, he opened a season with three rookie wide receivers on the roster. Gronkowski didn’t return to full strength until late October. Another receiver who was expected to pick up the slack, Danny Amendola, missed four games. And the multidimensional Shane Vereen (one of a handful of running backs capable of pulling off a 40-catch/40-carry season) missed eight games because of a wrist injury.

Brady was bad at times. There were plenty of occasions when he was unable to jump-start the offense in the early going, leading to first-half deficits that forced the Patriots to operate from behind. The occasional sideline fits made him appear small and petty. His performance in a monsoon in an early-season loss to the Bengals — when he missed a bunch of throws — was one of the worst of his career. And he missed at least three passes in the early stages of the AFC title game against the Broncos that ultimately doomed New England.

However, his four-game stretch between Nov. 3 and Dec. 1 was as good a stretch of play as I have ever seen from Brady. Against the Steelers, Panthers, Broncos and Texans, he went 115-for-164 (70 percent) for 1,443 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions — a razor-sharp per-game average of 29-for-41 for 358 yards, 2.5 TDs and 0.5 INTs. (November 2013 was one of the finest months of his career.) In the end, despite all the personnel changes, he was able to work the controls of an offense that outscored the high-octane Broncos over the second half of the regular season.

And this doesn’t even begin to take into account his penchant for dramatics. While it shouldn’t define his 2013 season — and doesn’t excuse the fact that he was at least partially responsible for digging those holes to begin with — it has to figure positively on his resume. Pro Football Reference has him down for five fourth-quarter comebacks/game-winning drives last season alone, including last-minute victories over the Saints, Browns and Bills and an overtime win against the Broncos. It was tops in the league in 2013, and tied with 2001 for the tops in his career in a single season (As defined by PFR, a game-winning drive is an offensive scoring drive in the fourth quarter or overtime led by the quarterback that puts his team ahead for good.)

There’s no denying that Brady had problems over the course of the year. But to use a half-season of woe as an indication he will soon slip into the depths of mediocrity because he struggled with pressure — in a year when the Patriots essentially asked him to hit the reset button in the passing game — misses the big picture.

2. Brady wasn’t listed among the five best quarterbacks in the game, but you’d be hard-pressed to name four other quarterbacks who could manage the personnel changes and seismic shifts in offensive philosophy that the 2013 New England offense endured and still be a legitimate part of the MVP discussion into December.

Because of week-to-week game-planning, injuries and the emergence of some relatively surprising offensive faces (LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman), the Patriots used 14 different starting lineups in 2013, third most in the league. Key players like Gronkowski, Vereen, Amendola and Sebastian Vollmer all missed significant portions of the season, which forced New England to turn to relative unknowns like tight end Matthew Mulligan, wide receiver Austin Collie and offensive lineman Steve Josh Kline. And among the final four teams left in the 2013 postseason (New England, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco), the Patriots had the lowest percentage of plays featuring the most common lineup at 2.45 percent.

In 2013 the offensive evolution of the Patriots went through three phases: Weeks 1 through 4, when they were still sluggish as they searched for an identity; Weeks 5 through 12, when they clearly were a pass-first bunch powered by one elite tight end (Gronkowski) and one elite receiver (Edelman); and Week 13 through the postseason, when there was a renewed focus on the running game. Through it all, the stat lines for Brady and the rest of the team ebbed and flowed, but it was good enough to get them to a 12-4 mark and the AFC title game.

Ultimately, there were are a lot of reasons why the 2013 Patriots — who ended the year with ALMOST $28 MILLION worth of contracts on injured reserve — were able to overachieve over the course of the season. But if an experienced veteran with a deep background in that offense is not under center for that team, there’€™s no way it gets as far as it did. The numbers weren’t there like they were in 2007 and 2010 (Brady had four games when he tossed for fewer than 190 yards, including the AFC divisional playoff win against the Colts), but no other quarterback was able to handle the constant personnel shifts, radical changing of the week-to-week game-planning and mentoring of young pass-catchers like Brady.

3. To that point, while Brady’s on-field impact wasn’t at the same ridiculously high level it was for the previous decade-plus, it was a year of personal and professional growth for the quarterback, who — by his own admission — had to take on a new series of responsibilities in 2013, holding weekly film sessions with the rookie receivers and working as a mentor to several members of his offense. (It’€™s odd to think Aaron Dobson was just 10 years old when Brady and the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.) In addition, he played a major role in infusing the 2013 team with a level of mental toughness that hadn’€™t been seen around Foxboro for the better part of the last decade.

4. There are elements of the Pro Football Focus column that do ring true. Much of the debate was sparked because of Brady’s struggles under pressure, and while offensive line play can be almost impossible to truly quantify unless you have played the game at the highest level, it was clear to see that there were issues up front for this team. New England faced some of the best defensive front sevens in 2013, and while the Pats were frequently up to the challenge, there were times where they had issues, particularly in pass protection.

Some of that can be blamed on the fact that, as a group, the offense still was searching for an identity and struggling with the acclimation of so many new faces. And at times, there were injury issues — Vollmer had a leg injury that limited him to eight games, while Nate Solder missed a game because of a head injury. As a result, the Patriots had to rely on versatility and depth to get them through some of the toughest points of the season, including moving left guard Logan Mankins to left tackle.

In regards to protection and the quarterback, one of the other things that caught my eye over the course of the regular season was the fact that Brady did appear to have pocket issues throughout the campaign. Brady always has had an acute ability to be able to sense pressure and make the requisite adjustments with a lateral move left or right. Many times, that added sense was almost like having an extra offensive lineman on the field. But there were some occasions in 2013 where it came back to cost the New England offense.

Ultimately, Brady doesn’t deserve a complete mulligan for the season — anyone who remains one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league knows that’s just life in the big city. But when it comes to the best thirtysomething quarterback of all time, you’ll need more than a substandard half-season to indicate that there is a real, marked decline in his play.

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