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Tom Brady Has Reinvented Himself Again

Tom Brady made a name for himself — and won a few Super Bowls — by orchestrating a horizontal passing game for the Patriots in the early ’00s. But after acquiring Randy Moss, Brady and the Patriots offense changed completely, as he could be seen heaving footballs down the field on a regular basis.

Post-Moss, Brady reverted to a passing game that featured a lot of intermediate passes, but Brady and the Patriots look very different in 2017. And the numbers bear that out. Brady’s average pass this season, whether being completed or not, has traveled 9.09 yards in the air. That’s really high for Brady — in fact, it’s the highest for Brady since 2006, the first year that data is available (it ranks 6th among all passers in 2017). And he’s averaging 6.96 air yards per pass on throws that are completed, which also ranks 6th in 2017 and is the 2nd (behind only 2007) best number of Brady’s career. In other words, Brady is once again throwing downfield a lot. Take a look at the graph below, which shows in blue the average air yards per pass and in red the average air yards per completed pass for Brady for each year since 2006.  The 2017 version of Brady is a lot different than the versions of Brady we’ve seen in recent years with a healthy Julian Edelman, who of course was lost for the season with an ACL tear in the preseason:


My first instinct was this could be more a Simpson’s Paradox situation than a change in style. What do I mean by that? We know that, on average, throws to running backs are very short in the air, throws to tight ends are more intermediate, and throws to wide receivers are typically farther down field. So if Brady started throwing much less often to his running backs, he would naturally see his air yards per attempt increase without any real change to his game (other than, of course, the change that exists by throwing less often to running backs). But that’s not the case at all.

Brady is actually throwing more often to running backs in 2017 than in any other season since 2006. This year, 27% of his passes have gone to his running backs, a 50% increase over his average of 18% from 2006 to 2016. And Brady is throwing to his wide receivers just 47% of the time, the lowest of any season during this period. The graph below shows the percentage of targets for Patriots skill position players in each year since 2006, broken across the three positions:

So how is Brady throwing to his running backs more than ever, his wide receivers less than ever, and yet throwing downfield more than ever? That, on the surface, makes no sense.

So what gives? Well, part of it, certainly, is that my instinct was wrong. There is no Simpson’s Paradox situation going on here: Brady is just throwing downfield much more often, and the numbers reflect that in spite of the fact that Brady is throwing to his running backs more than ever. Rob Gronkowski is not just a great tight end, but a true downfield threat. Gronk is averaging a whopping 10.7 air yards per reception; for perspective, the other 12 tight ends with 500+ receiving yards this year average 7.2 air yards per catch, with Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate (9.4) the only one within 2.5 air yards per catch of Gronk (and that is a reflection of the Bucs system more than it is of Brate). Gronkowski is a tight end in name only: he’s really a downfield wide receiver who also can be a punishing blocker.

And then there’s Brandin Cooks, who operates very differently from Wes Welker or Julian Edelman. Cooks is averaging 13.2 air yards per reception, third in the NFL behind Marvin Jones and Marquise Goodwin. Cooks is averaging 16.7 yards per reception, 5th in the NFL this season, and easily the most of any Patriots wide receiver (min: 50 receptions) in the Brady era; by comparison, Moss averaged 15.2 yards per reception in both 2007 and 2009.

Running backs James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis have been great out of the backfield, but the trio aren’t doing much downfield. Brady has completed 82% of his passes to his running backs, but as is typical with passes to running backs, it’s all short stuff. On passes to those three running backs, Brady is averaging 7.5 yards per completion, but it’s only 1.4 yards through the air and 6.1 yards of YAC.

So here’s the Patriots offense in a nutshell: more short passes to running backs than usual, but it’s complemented with a lot of deep passes to Gronkowski and Cooks, who are arguably two of the top deep threats in all of football. In the middle are Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, filling the customary roles of Patriots slot receivers that we’ve expected for years, but it’s a much more muted aspect of the aerial attack.

Here’s another way to think of it: do you know what’s missing from the Patriots offense this year? A player with 750+ receiving yards averaging less than 13 yards per catch (in fact, the Patriots don’t have anyone with 700+ receiving yards averaging less than 15.7 yards per catch). New England had that in 10 of 11 years from 2006 to 2016 with one exception. Welker was that man 6 times, Edelman 3 times, and Reche Caldwell was that man in 2006.1 The lone exception was 2015, because Edelman was limited to 9 games due to injury, but he had 692 yards and averaged 11.3 yards per catch in those 9 games, so he would have joined the list if not for injury. And Danny Amendola started 7 games that year and had 648 yards on 10.0 yards per catch.

But this year? Brady has reinvented himself again, with more passes than ever going deep or going short, with the intermediate game almost disappearing (at least, by Patriots standards). Just 26% of his receptions have gone to players who have averaged between 9.0 and 13.0 yards per catch, compared to an average of 56% from 2001 to 2016:

The 2006 season is the only other one where less than 45% of Patriots receptions have gone to players who averaged between 9.0 and 13.0 yards per reception, but even that’s misleading. A few players just missed the cut-offs that year: expand it to 8.5 to 13.5, and the number jumps from 38% to 73.0%!

In other words, this really is a different Brady offense than we’ve ever seen before.

  1. And in two seasons, there were two such players: Brandon LaFell did it with Edelman in 2014, and Aaron Hernandez joined Welker in 2011. []
  • WR

    Even early in his career, Brady was putting up some impressive air yards splits, particularly in 2004 when Charlie Weis was the coordinator. In the two seasons of 2003-2004, only 3 quarterbacks posted more air yards per attempt than Brady did. The verticality of New England’s offenses has been a function of personnel. Whenever Brady has had a legitimate deep threat, like Moss, Cooks, or Brandon Lloyd, his air yards have gone up. But in periods like 2010-2013, when his top targets were guys like Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez, it was a more horizontal passing attack.

    I think Brady will probably win the MVP award, although it baffles me that Drew Brees has not received more buzz.

    • I think Brees is harmed because much of his statistics are coming by YAC.

      Brady is averaging 6.96 Air Yards/Completed Pass and 4.99 YAC/C.
      Brees is averaging 5.01 Air Yards/Completed Pass and 6.23 YAC/C.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Brady has also been helped by the unheralded Dion Lewis, a back who outperformed the Pats’ free agent RB signings. Todd Gurley definitely has a shot at the MVP, played a huge role in the turnaround of the Rams, plus Brady did not have a strong December. One of the signs of an aging QB is more difficulty playing in cold weather, it happened to Brett Favre, and many others. I think the 2017 version of Brady will require more help than the 2016 version to win the SB. If the Vikings capture the NFC, they will enjoy a home field advantage like we’ve never seen in the SB.

    • Deacon Drake

      All the buzz in NO is about the ground game and defensive turnaround. Brees has been smooth and quiet, but hasn’t had the burden dumped on him like past seasons.

    • Mark Growcott

      Brees never gets much love from the MVP voters, he should have won the MVP in 2009, just astonishing how few votes he got compared to Manning. Sadly this year will be no different.

  • Deacon Drake

    They brought in Hogan last year as a vertical threat, but he lacked the respect from opposing defenses. Teams could/would shuffle coverage and put the #2/3 or even a S/LB type on him, allowing the #1 CB to cover Gronk, Edelman, and clog up the middle of the field. Bringing in Cooks pulls that CB wide and keeps the seams open, even if Edelman isn’t there to run his underneath tree. Pats have also split Burkhead/Lewis/White out wide more, and all three will get the ball out there, further opening the middle.

    They will have a different look without Burkhead going forward. Total utility guy, does the dirty work (chipping, blocking) better than Lewis/White, and has more complete running approach than Gillislee.

  • Josh Sanford

    Chase has tracked the career TD totals of Brees and Brady in one or two very interesting articles. They are now separated by only one score before today. 487-486. But who are the NFL players who are the best of all-time but who have never scored a touchdown?

    • My vote goes to Joe Greene, if he counts.

      • Josh Sanford

        He never scored? He’s a top-30 all-time player, right? Great answer!

        • As far as I know, he never scored. Other greats like Reggie White, LT, Munoz, Lilly, Page, and Hannah all scored.

          For me, Greene is a top ten player. I have him as the top DT and second greatest DL behind White.

          • sacramento gold miners

            There’s a funny story on how Greene earned his famous nickname. In high school, Greene was bullied by a smaller classmate, among others, and one day, this person decided to try and take the money Greene had been given by his mom to pay for his insurance to play football. Tiny amount by today’s standards, but when “Speedie” stole the money, Greene finally snapped. As a friend watched, Greene picked up “Speedie” and spiked him to the ground. And the rest of the semester, it was Greene delivering beatings to everyone who had bullied him. The switch was flipped, and a HOF football career began.

  • Four Touchdowns

    This is an awesome article, I love reading analysis like this. Hat’s off the Brady and the Pats, they seem to be able to do anything.

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  • Alex

    Awesome article – this is the kind of analysis that even other stat-heavy sites often fail to capture.

    Brady’s play for the first ~8-10 games of the season was incredibly impressive to me as he was playing like a qb from the 70s/80s (deep passes under heavy pressure) but putting up efficiency statistics more like a 2010’s top qb. Since then a combination of injury to various teammates, potentially his own injury issues, and weather has brought him back to earth. But on the strength of the first 2/3rds of the season alone I’d be comfortable with giving him the MVP, esp given the lack of other overwhelming candidates.

    Brady’s ability to succeed at the highest levels playing very different styles emphasizing different skillsets sets him apart from many of the other all-time greats and likely has been a huge factor in the Patriots’ unprecedented ability to stay at the top of the league for so long in the salary cap era.

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