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.