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Tom Brady: The Greatest Playoff-Winning QB Ever

Tom Brady did not win the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.  Nor did he win it following the 2012 season.  Or the 2011 season.  Or in any of the last 9 seasons.  This Super Bowl-winning drought has led some to criticize Brady for not being a great playoff performer or winner.  Mike Francesca of WFAN gleefully pointed out recently that Brady has barely been a .500 QB since their last Super Bowl title.

Francesca’s point, such as it is, exists because Brady’s three Super Bowl championships were won during his first three trips to the playoffs, and the Patriots went 9-0 during that time. ¬†And it is true that since then, Brady is just 9-8 in the playoffs. ¬†So are the critics right? ¬†Is Brady mediocre in terms of winning playoff games?

Well, first off, it is disingenuous to discount all the winning Brady did early in his career. ¬†After all, he actually did go 9-0 in the playoffs to start his career, and he actually did win three Super Bowls. ¬†Those things count on his resume. ¬†They shouldn’t be tossed aside as if they never happened. ¬†It would be like saying that, apart from all the great playoff games Pedro Martinez pitched, he really wasn’t very good in the playoffs. ¬†The great performances do count.

Moreover, the way Brady’s playoff success breaks down is sort of freakish in nature. ¬†Recall that he won three Super Bowls, each by three points. ¬†And he lost two Super Bowls, by three and four points, when one play in any of those games could have changed the outcome. ¬†If Carolina converts a two-point conversion and beats New England after the 2003 season, but Wes Welker comes down with a huge incompletion late in Super Bowl 46, we aren’t even having this discussion, as Brady’s Super Bowl wins thus become adequately spaced out. ¬†Winning really is that fragile in today’s NFL.

Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to examine this narrative.  Has Brady been just mediocre in terms of winning playoff games since his last Super Bowl title?  In order to evaluate this, I compared Brady to 13 other all-time great quarterbacks:  Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Roger Staubach, Brett Favre, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman.  How does Brady stack up against these great players in terms of winning playoff games?

First I looked at each of these QBs’ playoff wins and playoff winning percentage in total. ¬†As a caveat, I did not include games by these QBs when they were backups and played just a few snaps (for example, Steve Young during the Joe Montana days in San Francisco). ¬†Now, Brady has the most playoff wins of any QB in history with 18. ¬†Montana is second with 16, and Bradshaw and Elway are tied for third at 14. ¬†Here’s the complete list:

Playoff Wins

  1. Brady – 18
  2. Montana – 16
  3. Bradshaw – 14
  4. Elway – 14
  5. Favre – 13
  6. Staubach – 12
  7. P. Manning – 11
  8. Aikman – 11
  9. Roethlisberger – 10
  10. Marino – 8
  11. E. Manning – 8
  12. Young – 8
  13. Brees – 6
  14. Rodgers – 5

I then looked at their playoff winning percentage. ¬†Here’s how that list looks:

  1. Bradshaw – 14-5, .737
  2. E. Manning – 8-3, .727
  3. Roethlisberger – 10-4, .714
  4. Montana – 16-7, .696
  5. Brady – 18-8, .692
  6. Aikman – 11-5, .688
  7. Elway – 14-8, .636
  8. Staubach – 12-7, .632
  9. Rodgers – 5-4, .556
  10. Brees – 6-5, .545
  11. Favre – 13-11, .542
  12. Young – 8-7, .533
  13. P. Manning – 11-12, .478
  14. Marino – 8-10, .444

Brady’s winning percentage isn’t as good as the four above him on the list, but it’s still top 5.

So Brady is right up there among the elite in NFL history in terms of winning playoff games, and winning percentage. ¬†He has also been to the most Super Bowls in history, tied with Elway at 5. ¬†His 3 wins are tied for second place with Aikman behind Bradshaw and Montana, at 4. ¬†He has also been to more Conference Championship games than any QB in history, with 8 appearances. ¬†Peyton Manning said after this year’s AFCCG that they should name the game after Tom Brady because he’s been there so many times.

But all this brings us to the question of whether Brady, since his last Super Bowl victory, has been simply mediocre in the playoffs. ¬†In order to truly understand this, I asked the same essential question of every single QB in this group: ¬†If you remove the years when they won the Super Bowl, what’s their playoff record? ¬†The numbers may surprise you.

At this point, Brett Favre has the most number of playoff wins in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons, with 10.  However, he has 11 losses as well, giving him a winning percentage of .476.  That makes Favre the most accomplished playoff winner in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons in NFL history.

Except for one person:  Tom Brady.

Here is the list, based on winning percentage:

  1. Brady – 9-8, .529
  2. Favre – 10-11, .476
  3. Elway – 7-8, .467
  4. Staubach – 6-7, .462
  5. Marino – 8-10, .444
  6. Roethlisberger – 3-4, .429
  7. Young – 5-7, .417
  8. Brees – 3-5, .375
  9. P. Manning – 7-12, .368
  10. Montana – 4-7, .364
  11. Bradshaw – 2-5, .286
  12. Aikman – 2-5, .286
  13. Rodgers – 1-4, .200
  14. E. Manning – 0-3, .000

In other words, if you take away their Super Bowl-winning seasons, every single one of these quarterbacks looks much, much worse. ¬†And that is a patently obvious statement, yet apparently it needs to be mentioned. ¬†Tom Brady is the only QB in NFL history that has a winning record in the playoffs in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†That is remarkable. ¬†The average QB in this group wins 41.4% of his playoff games in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†Brady is at 52.9%. ¬†No QB in the NFL has ever won a higher percentage of his playoff games in years where he did not win a Super Bowl. ¬†Tom Brady is not only the greatest winner in playoff history, he has taken his team deeper more often than anyone, and he’s even been the best in history when his team hasn’t won the Super Bowl. ¬†That’s remarkable.

There is one more item to consider:  How often have these quarterbacks been one-and-done?  Here is the list again, this time by the number of one-and-dones:

  • 8 – P. Manning
  • 4 – Elway, Montana
  • 3 – Favre, Staubach, Marino, Bradshaw, Aikman, Rodgers
  • 2 – Roethlisberger, Young, Brees, Brady

So for all his playoff success, rarely has Brady simply been a complete dud.  If you take that number and divide it by the total number of playoff games they have played, Brady looks even more impressive.

  1. Brady – 2 out of 26, .077
  2. Favre – 3 out of 24, .125
  3. Young – 2 out of 15, .133
  4. Roethlisberger – 2 out of 14, .143
  5. Staubach – 3 out of 19, .158
  6. Bradshaw – 3 out of 19, .158
  7. Marino – 3 out of 18, .167
  8. Montana – 4 out of 23, .174
  9. Elway – 4 out of 22, .182
  10. Brees – 2 out of 11, .182
  11. Aikman – 3 out of 16, .188
  12. E. Manning – 3 out of 11, .273
  13. Rodgers – 3 out of 9, .333
  14. P. Manning – 8 out of 23, .348

The rarity with which Brady goes one-and-done, combined with the regularity with which he goes deep into the playoffs, have combined to make him the greatest playoff-winning QB in the history of the NFL. ¬†These numbers show that the narrative that Brady is mediocre in the playoffs is false. ¬†It is true that since his last Super Bowl win he is just 9-8, but that percentage is higher than any other QB’s playoff winning percentage in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†Brady is criticized for this simply because the three championships came early in his career, and none have come since then. ¬†That’s an unfair burden to place on any QB for comparison’s sake.

The bottom line is this:  Tom Brady is the greatest playoff-winning quarterback in NFL history.  Period.

2000-2012 Patriots Draft Analysis

We are a day away from the 2013 NFL draft, and as we get excited about the prospects of who might end up where, it’s as good a time as any to ask whether the Patriots under Bill Belichick have been good at this drafting business. ¬†Well, I’ll give you the conclusion at the outset: ¬†Yes, they are. ¬†Very good, in fact.

Using pro-football-reference.com’s expansive database, I’ve taken time the past few months to put every draft pick from 2000-2012 into a spread sheet, along with numerous categories to analyze. ¬†The Patriots haven’t been the best in every possible way, but they are an elite NFL team when it comes to drafting, when the entire package is analyzed.

Let’s start with the basic truth that must be understood. ¬†The Patriots are a very good team and, by and large, draft late in each round. ¬†Of course, trades impact their draft position, but on average, the Patriots have had the third-worst draft position in the NFL. ¬†Here’s every team’s average draft pick #.

Rank – Team – Avg. Pick #

  1. Ari – 114.274
  2. Det – 117.928
  3. NYJ – 118.464
  4. Den – 118.619
  5. Cle – 119.140
  6. Cin – 121.109
  7. Min – 122.570
  8. SD – 123.408
  9. Hou – 123.615
  10. NO – 124.299
  11. KC – 125.471
  12. Oak – 126.020
  13. Car – 126.200
  14. StL – 126.739
  15. Chi – 127.165
  16. Buf – 127.703
  17. NYG – 129.309
  18. Bal – 129.990
  19. Phi – 130.157
  20. Dal – 130.693
  21. SF – 131.053
  22. Sea – 131.420
  23. Jax – 131.695
  24. Mia – 131.753
  25. Ten – 131.810
  26. Atl – 132.110
  27. Pit – 132.740
  28. Ind – 133.638
  29. GB – 134.026
  30. NE – 134.111
  31. Was – 139.589
  32. TB – 142.238

The Patriots, therefore start off every draft at a disadvantage compared to most other teams in the league.  This is no small matter, as over a 13-year period one would expect teams with such a draft disadvantage to perform significantly worse both in terms of the draft itself, and on the field as well.

Next, let’s look at the number of picks each team has actually taken since 2000. ¬†Again, keep in mind that teams trade picks (like the Pats’ dealing a 4th rounder for Randy Moss). ¬†I am only talking about actual draft picks, not players acquired in trades involving draft picks.

Rank – Team – # of picks from 2000-2012

  1. Ten – 121
  2. NE – 117
  3. StL – 115
  4. Phi – 115
  5. GB – 115
  6. SF – 113
  7. Sea – 112
  8. Buf – 111
  9. Cin – 110
  10. Cle – 107
  11. Den – 105
  12. Car – 105
  13. Jax – 105
  14. Ind – 105
  15. TB – 105
  16. KC – 104
  17. Bal – 104
  18. Pit – 104
  19. Chi – 103
  20. Dal – 101
  21. Min – 100
  22. Oak – 100
  23. Atl – 100
  24. SD – 98
  25. Det – 97
  26. NYG – 97
  27. Mia – 97
  28. Ari – 95
  29. Hou – 91
  30. Was – 90
  31. NO – 87
  32. NYJ – 84

So you see the difference between, say, New England and the NY Jets.  The Jets have a much higher average draft position, but a lot fewer picks, than the Patriots.  So we see the strategy here employed by both teams.  The Jets have traded a lot of picks to move up in the draft, hoping that the smaller quantity is made up for by improved quality.  The Patriots have adopted a different approach, on the whole, using picks to trade down and add future picks.  They have taken a longer-term approach, hoping that an increased volume would give them better odds at landing quality players.

Now, let’s see how these approaches have worked. ¬†Let’s look at the number of total years played in the NFL by these draft picks:

Rank – Team – Total Yrs Played

  1. Ten – 501
  2. SF – 492
  3. GB – 480
  4. Sea – 472
  5. Car – 464
  6. Buf – 463
  7. Phi – 462
  8. Bal – 449
  9. NE – 449
  10. NYG – 437
  11. SD – 436
  12. Ind – 435
  13. StL – 435
  14. Cle – 434
  15. Pit – 434
  16. Cin – 431
  17. Chi – 426
  18. Ari – 417
  19. Dal – 417
  20. Oak – 414
  21. Jax – 413
  22. NYJ – 412
  23. Den – 407
  24. Atl – 403
  25. KC – 394
  26. Det – 393
  27. Min – 386
  28. NO – 385
  29. Mia – 384
  30. TB – 375
  31. Hou – 349
  32. Was – 308

Those 117 draft picks have managed to play 449 years combined in the NFL. ¬†That comes to an average of 3.8 years per draft pick, which would rank the Patriots 27th in the NFL. ¬†So it’s pretty clear that¬†most of their draft picks don’t achieve a whole lot in the league. ¬†The Jets, conversely, have gotten 412 years out of their 84 draft picks, for an average of 4.9 years per pick. ¬†That’s much better.

But now let’s talk about quality. ¬†It’s one thing to have players stick in the league for a while. ¬†It’s another to have them be of high quality. ¬†So we’ll look at three levels of quality. ¬†The first is the number of years as a starter.

Rank – Team – # of Years as Starter

  1. SF – 203
  2. Ari – 199
  3. Jax – 194
  4. SD – 192
  5. Bal – 192
  6. NYJ – 183
  7. Ind – 180
  8. Car – 176
  9. GB – 173
  10. Cin – 173
  11. Ten – 171
  12. Chi – 170
  13. Sea – 169
  14. Pit – 165
  15. NE – 164
  16. Oak – 163
  17. NYG – 161
  18. StL – 159
  19. Atl – 157
  20. Phi – 156
  21. Buf – 154
  22. NO – 152
  23. Den – 151
  24. Cle – 151
  25. Dal – 149
  26. Det – 145
  27. Mia – 145
  28. Min – 139
  29. KC – 135
  30. Hou – 124
  31. TB – 113
  32. Was – 96

Here we see the Patriots in the middle of the pack in terms of starting seasons their draft picks have produced.

This next list shows each team’s number of player-years as an All-Pro 1st teamer, and years as a Pro Bowler.

Rank – Team – All-Pro Seasons – Pro Bowl Seasons – TOT AP+PB

  1. NE – 12 – 44 – 56
  2. SF – 14 – 30 – 44
  3. Bal – 11 – 33 – 44
  4. SD – 9 – 34 – 43
  5. Dal – 8 – 34 – 42
  6. Chi – 10 – 29 – 39
  7. Car – 9 – 27 – 36
  8. NYJ – 8 – 26 – 34
  9. Ind – 7 – 26 – 33
  10. Ari – 3 – 30 – 33
  11. Sea – 10 – 22 – 32
  12. Pit – 5 – 26 – 31
  13. Cin – 5 – 25 – 30
  14. NYG – 5 – 24 – 29
  15. Min – 9 – 19 – 28
  16. KC – 8 – 19 – 27
  17. NO – 6 – 21 – 27
  18. Den – 6 – 20 – 26
  19. Hou – 6 – 19 – 25
  20. GB – 2 – 23 – 25
  21. Atl – 1 – 20 – 21
  22. Oak – 8 – 12 – 20
  23. Ten – 6 – 13 – 19
  24. Phi – 4 – 15 – 19
  25. Was – 0 – 19 – 19
  26. Cle – 3 – 11 – 14
  27. Buf – 1 – 13 – 14
  28. Jax – 2 – 11 – 13
  29. Det – 3 – 9 – 12
  30. Mia – 1 – 9 – 10
  31. StL – 0 – 3 – 3
  32. TB – 0 – 3 – 3

The Patriots have produced by far the highest number of elite seasons from their draft picks than any other team in the league.  And lest we think this is just Tom Brady, consider that Brady accounts for 2 All-Pros and 8 Pro Bowls.  If we remove him from the mix, the Patriots still have the highest combined number in the league.  But of course, removing Tom Brady is silly, since he represents the single greatest single draft pick in this entire 13-year period, and he has had the single greatest influence in the success of the Patriots, from a player perspective.

And finally, we will look at pro-football-reference’s AV stat. ¬†They have a formula for determining the value of a player, and they apply it to every position – including linemen. ¬†If you take all the draft picks and total up their entire career AV numbers, we’ll see the total value each team’s draft picks have produced.

Rank – Team – Total AV

  1. SD – 1571
  2. NE – 1560
  3. GB – 1524
  4. NYJ – 1498
  5. SF – 1493
  6. Car – 1490
  7. Bal – 1486
  8. Ind – 1464
  9. Ari – 1461
  10. Chi – 1443
  11. Pit – 1436
  12. Ten – 1424
  13. Jax – 1403
  14. Atl – 1397
  15. NYG – 1392
  16. Sea – 1375
  17. Cin – 1363
  18. Phi – 1337
  19. Dal – 1293
  20. Buf – 1286
  21. Den – 1262
  22. NO – 1220
  23. Cle – 1188
  24. Min – 1188
  25. StL – 1145
  26. Det – 1092
  27. Hou – 1083
  28. KC – 1060
  29. Mia – 1045
  30. Oak – 1039
  31. TB – 885
  32. Was – 851

So let’s sum up what the Patriots have been able to do in the draft from 2000-2012. ¬†Starting from one of the worst average draft positions in the league, the Patriots have accumulated the highest number of draft picks in the NFL. ¬†They’ve used these picks to draft a better-than-average amount of player years, an average amount of player years as a starter, but, most importantly, by far the most amount of stars. ¬†The only teams that have drafted at the same level as New England are San Diego, San Francisco, Baltimore, and, somewhat surprisingly, Carolina. ¬†But when draft position is taken into consideration, the top two teams turn out to be New England and San Francisco.

Every team has significant misses in the draft, as well as significant hits.  The Patriots will likely draft a player or two this year that is a total bust, but also a player or two that ends up being very good.  What we do know is that, on the whole, the Patriots are one of the very best teams in the entire league at drafting, and the 13-year drafting record under Belichick is a testimony to that.

Making Sense of Wes Welker and Danny Amendola

So Wes Welker is a Denver Bronco, and we will watch him catch 100+ passes from Peyton Manning.  And Danny Amendola is a New England Patriot, and we hope we will watch him catch a ton of passes from Tom Brady.  How did we get here?

The Patriots acquired Welker before the 2007 season for their 2nd and 7th round picks.  They then signed him to a 5-year, $18.1 million contract, making him a Patriot through the 2011 season.  Over those 5 years, Welker played in 77 out of a possible 80 regular season games, averaging 111 receptions, 1221 yards, and 6 td a year.

Last year, the Patriots offered Welker a 2-year, $16 million contract (all $16 million guaranteed). ¬†Welker refused and ended up playing for $9.5 million in 2012 under the franchise tag. ¬†As soon as he signed that, he tweeted, “I signed my tender today. I love the game and I love my teammates! Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results. #leapoffaith”. ¬†The “#leapoffaith” hashtag indicated that he was hoping he would be able to sign a longer-term deal under favorable conditions, but the Patriots came back with an even lower offer. ¬†Naturally, he did not sign that either.

Playing for that $9.5 million, Welker opened the season in a strange situation. ¬†Having played an average of 90%, and never less than 75%, of the Patriots’ offensive snaps during his tenure with the Patriots, he played just 64% of their offensive snaps in the season opener against Tennessee, catching 3 passes for 14 yards. ¬†Speculation ran rampant as to what was going on (see, for example, this article here: ¬†http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/blog/nfl-rapidreports/20139713/patriots-notebook-is-wes-welker-being-phased-out).

As this piece points out (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-network-total-access/0ap1000000064168/Is-Wes-Welker-being-phased-out), the Patriots were making a philosophical shift in their offensive scheme, using the two TE, two outside WR set, and Julian Edelman’s skill set suited that philosophy better. ¬†But then Aaron Hernandez went down with an ankle injury, and the Patriots made an adjustment. ¬†Welker was back in his slot role and he ended up with his usual eye-popping stats (118 rec, 1354 yds, 6 td).

Fast-forward to the end of the 2012 season. ¬†Welker put up big numbers in the playoffs (2 games, 16 rec, 248 yds, 1 td), but the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. ¬†The discussion in New England turned to their roster for 2013, and first and foremost was talk about Wes Welker. ¬†Did the Patriots want Welker back, and did Welker want to come back? ¬†Well, it’s hard to say. ¬†It would seem crazy to think that the Patriots would not want one of the greatest receivers in their franchise history back, and it would also seem crazy to think that Welker would not want to return. ¬†But the final numbers suggest that each side prioritized their own economics over wanting the marriage to last.


Wes Welker’s departure makes you wonder how we got to this point? (FILE:USPresswire)

The Patriots did not apply the franchise tag to him, and no agreement was reached prior to free agency, so Welker was free to negotiate with other teams. ¬†Reports surfaced that the Patriots had sent him a “lowball” or “laughable” offer. ¬†He ended up receiving from the Broncos a 2 year, $12 million deal. ¬†Welker thus took a serious pay cut to play for Denver, just as he would have taken a serious pay cut to play for the Patriots. ¬†We found out that the Patriots had offered Welker a 2-year, $10 million deal with incentives that could take the deal up to $18 million. ¬†Welker apparently felt that those incentives were unattainable, so let’s pretend that the incentives were not in there. ¬†Was a 2-year, $10 million offer “laughable”? ¬†If you had asked most fans and experts during the middle of the season, the answer probably would have said yes. ¬†But the fact is, on the open market, the best offer Welker could get was 2 years, $12 million. ¬†So 2 years, $10 million was hardly “laughable”. ¬†In fact, as things turned out, it was a pretty accurate assessment of the market.

Why didn’t the Patriots go a little higher for Welker? ¬†This is where we get back to the whole “did they want him” conversation. ¬†Sure they wanted him. ¬†But they wanted him for $5 million a year, not $6 million a year. ¬†Could they have gone higher? ¬†Yes, of course. ¬†But they tend to place a value on a player and hold to it, so they wanted him, but not for more money than they were willing to spend on him. ¬†It goes the other way too, of course. ¬†Did Welker want to remain a Patriot? ¬†Well, yes he did, but just to a degree. ¬†He could have taken just $1 million less per year to remain in a situation he knew was good for him. ¬†But he didn’t. ¬†In fact, Ron Borges has reported that Welker never even gave the Patriots a chance to match Denver’s offer (which may have been a condition Denver placed on the offer in the first place). ¬†So just as New England preferred to remain at 2/10 rather than spend more to keep Welker, Welker preferred 2/12 rather than remain with the Patriots. ¬†So each side may have wanted the marriage to last, but only at their terms.

With Welker gone, the Patriots had a huge hole to fill at WR. ¬†Rumors had circulated for weeks about Danny Amendola as a possible fit, so it wasn’t too surprising to find out later in the day yesterday that they had indeed signed him. ¬†What was surprising was the contract: ¬†5 years, $31 million. ¬†Doing the math, that comes to $6.2 million a year, which is $100,000 a year more per year than Welker got from Denver. ¬†It has long been agreed by most experts that Amendola would be a good fit for the Patriots, so it is understandable why they would want to acquire him. ¬†But why were they willing to pay Amendola more money than they offered Welker? ¬†That was the shocking part.

Let’s try to see this from New England’s perspective. ¬†What does Amendola bring that Welker may not? ¬†Well, Amendola is 5 years younger, two inches taller, and is both quicker (measured by the 3-cone drill) and faster. ¬†He’s a bigger, faster, and younger version of Welker. ¬†Those factors alone may be sufficient for Belichick to feel that the money spent on Amendola represented a better investment moving forward than it would be with Welker.

But Welker is someone we know can be tremendously productive in this offense.  We do not know that about Amendola.  Are there football skills that Amendola brings to the table that Welker could not match?  Welker is one of the toughest and most consistent receivers Рslot or otherwise Рin the NFL.  Amendola has never put up the kind of numbers Welker has.  But that is a bit of an unfair comparison.  Welker has spent the last 5 years catching passes from the greatest QB of all-time in Tom Brady, while Amendola has been catching passes from Sam Bradford.  A better comparison would be Welker before he came to New England versus Amendola.

Welker’s best season before arriving in New England was in 2006, when Welker was 25. ¬†He played in Miami, catching passes from Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, and Daunte Culpepper. ¬†He had 67 receptions for 687 yards and 1 td. ¬†Amendola’s best season was in 2010, at age 25, catching passes from Bradford. ¬†He had 85 receptions for 689 yards and 3 td. ¬†This does not mean that Amendola is destined to catch 111 passes a season. ¬†But it does mean that Amendola has plenty of ability to be a successful NFL receiver.

Amendola, being bigger and faster, is a better outside receiver than Welker is, and that is the direction the Patriots appear to be wanting to move with the position.  He can also play the slot, so he brings the Patriots more flexibility.  And he may have a better set of hands than Welker has, which may come as a surprise to people.  Consider these numbers from the last 3 seasons:

  • Welker – 326 receptions, 28 drops, 8.6% drop rate
  • Amendola – 153 receptions, 9 drops, 5.9% drop rate

So Welker, even though he’s been an amazing receiver for the Patriots, drops the ball at a significantly higher rate than Amendola does. ¬†So Amendola is bigger, faster, younger, and has better hands.

The remaining two issues, though, are: ¬†(1) Is Amendola as durable as Welker, and (2) Will he thrive in New England’s offense? ¬†The second one is a guess, but a reasonable guess is yes. ¬†He’s a terrific player with a lot of ability, and terrific receivers tend to do well with Tom Brady throwing the football. ¬†He might not put up Welker’s numbers (possibly because a change in philosophy will spread the ball out more) but he should be good.

The first issue, however, is the big one.  Welker is as tough and durable as they come, and Amendola has missed a lot of time with injuries.  Of a possible 64 games over the past 4 seasons, Amendola has played in just 42 of them.  He has suffered three serious injuries that have forced him to miss 22 games over that time period.  Welker, meanwhile, has played in just about every regular season game during his time in New England.

One question related to this is whether Amendola is “injury prone” or if those injuries are of the more “freakish” variety. ¬†He suffered a dislocated elbow that cost him almost the entire 2011 season, and he had a serious shoulder injury in 2012 that, according to this report (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/danny-amendola-injury-could-life-threatening-173715914–nfl.html), could have been life-threatening. ¬†Jay Glazer of foxsports.net wrote that, “the Rams called around the league to find a case of another player suffering a similar injury, but they could not find one”, so obviously that injury was a very rare thing. ¬†And lest we forget, Wes Welker did suffer his own enormous freak injury when he tore his ACL in the last game of the 2009 regular season on a play where he wasn’t even hit by anyone. ¬†If that freak injury – which certainly could have happened at any time – had occurred at the start of the 2010 season instead of the end of 2009, Welker’s games played per season average would look a lot different today.

The bottom line is that the Patriots no longer have Wes Welker and instead they have Danny Amendola.  They are one of the best-run franchises in all of sports, not just the NFL.  Generally, they make correct decisions with respect to personnel.  It is difficult to see how losing Welker and replacing him with Amendola for the same amount of money is a wise move, but it is equally difficult to make the case that the Patriots will be anything less than a very good team in 2013.

The Incomparable Tom Brady

Yesterday we learned that Tom Brady and the Patriots worked out a deal extending Brady’s contract with the club for what is, by NFL standards, a pittance: ¬†3 years, $27 million for a franchise quarterback. ¬†The move frees up millions of dollars in cap space for the Patriots, giving them the financial flexibility that few teams enjoy. ¬†It allows them to retain their own key free agents with money left over to improve the team elsewhere. ¬†By any measure, it was a team-first move by Brady that ensures they have the best chance possible of winning as he enters his final years in the league.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nfl/news/20130225/tom-brady-new-england-patriots-contract/#ixzz2M0goIX6s)said of the deal, “For the second time in his illustrious career, Brady is doing something players in this day and age simply do not do: As he did in 2005, Brady, a league source told SI.com, is signing a contract with New England that will pay him significantly less money than the market will bear, in large part to help the Patriots stay competitive for the next five seasons. ¬†Amazingly, according to the source, the deal is for an eye-poppingly conservative $27 million, which is less than half his worth by any measure.”

It’s a good time to think about just what Tom Brady has meant to the New England Patriots, and, really, New England sports in general. ¬†The answer: ¬†His impact has been nearly unparalleled in the history of New England sports. ¬†Let’s look at the personal statistical resume:

  • 2-time NFL MVP (2007, 2011)
  • 2-time Super Bowl MVP (2002, 2004)
  • Currently #5 all-time in passing TDs (projects to 486 by career’s end, which would be just 22 short of #1)
  • Currently #9 all-time in passing yards (projects to 65,172 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Currently #8 all-time in completions (projects to 5,524 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Holds numerous NFL records, including (but not limited to): ¬†Most TDs in a season (50), Most career playoff attempts and completions (887 and 553, respectively), Highest completion % in a postseason game (92.9% vs. Jax in 2007)

His resume when it comes to team success is also off the charts:

  • Most playoff wins as a QB (17)
  • Fastest player ever to 100 wins
  • Most consecutive wins as a team, counting playoffs (21, in 2003-04)
  • Only QB to start in five Super Bowls
  • 3 Super Bowl titles
  • Average season with Brady as starter: ¬†12-4 (actually a little better than that: ¬†12.3 wins, 3.7 losses)

There are other quarterbacks in league history who have done more in individual categories than Brady. ¬†For example, Brett Favre has more TDs, yards, and MVPs. ¬†But he has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Peyton Manning has a higher career passer rating and has won more league MVPs, but he too has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, conversely, have won more Super Bowls, but never put up the kind of regular season statistics that Brady has. ¬†Other players may have had better individual seasons than Brady’s best, but very few players have excelled at his level for as long.

I looked at a number of objective factors in determining the greatest QB of all time. ¬†I only included seven players in this conversation – all played in the Super Bowl era – because to my knowledge nobody else in this era has been considered in the running for greatest of all time. ¬†The seven are: ¬†Brady, Montana, Elway, Bradshaw, Favre, Marino, and Peyton Manning. ¬†I then used individual statistical measurements, personal achievements (regular season and SB MVP awards), pro-football-reference.com’s AV metric, and team achievements, like regular season and postseason winning percentages, and championships won. ¬†I also looked at both the peak (the best 3 year period in each player’s careers) and the total, long-haul, performance. ¬†I then ranked all seven players in seven categories that sum all this up: ¬†career AV, AV per game, regular season winning percentage, postseason wins, postseason winning percentage, conference championships, Super Bowl titles, MVP awards (either regular season or SB), and 3-year peak determined by AV. ¬†After ranking all the players in these, I came up with an average ranking for all 9 categories. ¬†Here were the final results:

  1. Brady – 2.1
  2. Montana – 3.1
  3. P. Manning – 3.6
  4. Elway – 4.0
  5. Bradshaw – 4.1
  6. Favre – 4.6
  7. Marino – 4.9

Brady excels everywhere. ¬†He has by far the biggest 3-year peak in NFL history, as measured by AV. ¬†He has won lots of awards, and his team success is off the charts in terms of winning percentage and playoff success. ¬†Manning has lots of awards and his AV numbers are excellent, but he is not helped by his poor playoff performance. ¬†Montana has the awards and team success, but his AV numbers pale in comparison to Brady’s. ¬†Bradshaw has excellent playoff success, but his overall individual statistical profile is weak. ¬†Elway has a little bit of everything, but not as much as Brady anywhere except in terms of longevity.

So we can see that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history and the greatest New England Patriot of all time. ¬†But to New England sports fans, he’s not just that; he’s perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport in New England sports history. ¬†The short list of all-time New England greats would include:

  • Baseball: ¬†Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Cy Young
  • Basketball: ¬†Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek
  • Hockey: ¬†Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore, Ray Borque, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk
  • Football: ¬†Tom Brady, Gino Cappelletti, John Hannah, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes

Of this list, we can ask the question of which athlete was the most dominant in his or her sport, which one led to the most team success, and which one transcended their sport and perhaps impacted other sports.  This, as we all know, is not easy to sort out.

A first run through this list of amazing athletes would shave it down considerably.  Of the hockey players, only Orr makes the cut.  In football, only Brady makes the cut.  In baseball, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, and Cy Young all qualify.  And all four basketball players make the cut.  That leaves us with this list of candidates:

  • Ted Williams
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Cy Young
  • Bill Russell
  • Larry Bird
  • Bob Cousy
  • John Havlicek
  • Bobby Orr
  • Tom Brady

That’s the list of the 10 greatest athletes in New England sports history. ¬†Now let’s look at each of these players with the three criteria in mind (individual dominance, team success, and transcendence).

Ted Williams – Statistically, he was one of the greatest players in baseball history, which is amazing considering he lost four years to two wars. ¬†He transcends baseball in that people who don’t even follow baseball know who Teddy Ballgame was. ¬†But where he falls short is in the category of team success. ¬†The Red Sox were at times pretty good during his career, but they only went to one World Series, with no World Series championships.

Carl Yastrzemski – His best year (1967) was one of the all-time great seasons in baseball history. ¬†He is known all over as “Yaz” and in that way he transcends baseball. ¬†But, like Williams, he never saw the ultimate team success. ¬†He played in two World Series (1967, 1975), but the Sox could never win it all.

Pedro Martinez – One of the most electrifying players of all-time, Pedro Martinez’ peak seasons from 1997-2003 was the greatest run of pitching the sport has ever seen. ¬†That is not an exaggeration. ¬†When you factor in the era in which he played (look at the offensive numbers put up during that time), it is astounding what he accomplished. ¬†He also helped lead the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years in 2004. ¬†The only thing Pedro does not have going for him is that his career in Boston was not that long.

Cy Young – I included him in this list because (a) he was obviously an all-time great, (b) the Red Sox won several World Series titles with him, and (c) there is a major league baseball award named after him. ¬†Not many guys can boast that resume. ¬†The issue with Young was that it happened so long ago, and he played the majority of his career for other franchises (just 8 of his 22 years were in Boston) that I don’t think he can be given the title of greatest New England athlete.

Bill Russell – He is everything that’s good in sports. ¬†He was a tremendous individual player (5 MVP awards) but also the ultimate team player and winner. ¬†His Celtics won 11 titles in 13 seasons, a mind-boggling number. ¬†He did not put up the statistical profile that other great players did, but he was so good at the little things that it more than made up for it. ¬†He is as elite as they come.

Larry Bird – A 3-time MVP, Bird led the great Celtic resurgence in the 1980′s. ¬†He had eye-popping stats and the Celtics won three NBA championships during his time. ¬†Boston sports was energized by his arrival, and he is one of the most well-known sports names in the country, even long after he’s retired.

Bob Cousy¬†- A great player in his own right that was part of numerous Celtic championship teams, he arrived before Russell and was the engine that made them go. ¬†But I don’t think he ranks quite as highly as these other players.

John Havlicek – Similar to Cousy in that he was an all-time great player and his teams enjoyed success, but I don’t think he quite measures up to some of the others on this list.

Bobby Orr РOrr was the Boston Bruins for many years.  He is among the very best players in NHL history and revolutionized the defenseman position.  He also won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  His iconic leap after scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1970 is one of the most well-known images in all of sports photography.

Tom Brady РI have made the case above for Brady.  He is the greatest QB in NFL history and has unparalleled individual and team success.

Now, this list boils down to three athletes:  Russell, Orr, and Brady.  The others are great (and Pedro may be my favorite among them all), but the combination of individual dominance, team success, and transcendence puts these three at the top.  A case can be made for all three athletes.  But when you factor everything in, I believe that Tom Brady is at the top of the heap.  Here is why.

First, the individual dominance. ¬†All three players win big here. ¬†Russell’s stats weren’t as impressive as Brady’s or Orr’s, but he did win five league MVP awards in an era when Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest statistical machine in NBA history, played (and won 2 titles, people forget). ¬†Orr was one of the most dominant hockey players of all-time and put up crazy numbers for a defenseman. ¬†And Brady, as we know, holds many NFL records. ¬†It’s very difficult to separate one athlete from the other in this category.

Second, the team success. ¬†Orr won two titles, and Brady has won three. ¬†The Patriots as a whole have been better than the Bruins were during Orr’s time. ¬†But Russell blows them both away in this category. ¬†11 titles in 13 years is beyond phenomenal. ¬†It’s the greatest team run in the history of professional sports. ¬†That said, it was easier to win back then, for a few major reasons: ¬†(1) There was no free agency or salary cap. ¬†Once you had a dominant team, you could run with it for a long time. ¬†(2) The NBA wasn’t a large league at the time, so you didn’t have as much competition. ¬†And (3) By playing in series instead of a one-and-done playoff format, it affords the better teams an opportunity to have a bad game or two and still win. ¬†The Patriots, if they played playoff series instead of a one-and-done format, would almost certainly have won more titles in Brady’s era. ¬†But that’s not how football is played. ¬†Brady also has had to play in an era of free agency and salary caps, which makes it harder for a dominant team to stay together. ¬†Nonetheless, Russell wins here.

Third, transcending the sport.  This is where I believe Tom Brady rises above the other two.  Russell was an iconic figure, and Orr was legendary in hockey.  But neither played in a time where the New England sports psyche was at a low point.  Neither played in an era where every play you made ended up on television.  When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game, there was a newspaper article about it, but there is no actual footage of that game in existence today.  Everything Brady does these days (vacations with Giselle, shouting at teammates on the sidelines, you name it) is covered by the media.  He is one of the most well-known athletes on the planet, which is amazing considering that NFL football is hardly a global sport.

But consider the New England sports psyche in 2001. ¬†The Celtics hadn’t won a title in 15 years. ¬†The Bruins hadn’t won one in 29 years. ¬†The Red Sox hadn’t won one in 83 years. ¬†And the Patriots had never won one. ¬†This area was in desperate need of a hero, of a champion. ¬†When Bob Kraft bought the team, the Patriots came out of the doldrums of the previous regime and made the Super Bowl in 1996 under Bill Parcells and a hotshot quarterback named Drew Bledsoe. ¬†Things were looking up. ¬†Then Parcells jilted the Patriots for the Jets and took Curtis Martin with him, and the Patriots began a slow decline under Pete Carroll. ¬†The Celtics were enduring their 8th consecutive losing season. ¬†The Red Sox had had moderate success, but suffered some recent heartbreak at the hands of the hated Yankees (1999 ALCS). ¬†The Bruins in 1999-00 and 2000-01 missed the playoffs and there was little hope for the future.

Moreover, the Patriots themselves were in a funk.  They hired Bill Belichick from the Jets, which turned out to be a tremendous move but was not exactly an inspiring hire for most Patriots fans, who only remembered his mediocre record in Cleveland.  In 2000 the Patriots went 5-11 and the Belichick era was not off to a rousing start.

But then Mo Lewis changed everything.

He drilled Bledsoe, knocking him out of the second game of the season, and Tom Brady became the starting QB for the Patriots. ¬†He might have overtaken Bledsoe anyway, but nobody figured it would happen that soon, if at all. ¬†Yet there he was, leading the Patriots to a game-winning field goal to win the Super Bowl over the mighty Rams. ¬†The New England Patriots, as Gil Santos said, are Super Bowl Champions! ¬†He – and the rest of us too – couldn’t believe it. ¬†What in the world was this franchise doing winning a Super Bowl?? ¬†It seemed to open up the possibilities for everyone else. ¬†They won it again in 2003 and then in 2004. ¬†And in 2004, when the Red Sox were down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees, and all hope seemed lost, what did most New England sports fans think? ¬†If the Patriots could beat the Rams, the Red Sox can pull this off.

Now, I’m not saying that Tom Brady led the Red Sox to that dramatic comeback against the Yankees. ¬†But the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams changed how New England sports fans thought about their teams. ¬†The impossible suddenly became possible. ¬†There was always hope. ¬†And in an 11-year span, the Patriots won 3 titles, the Red Sox won 2, and the Celtics and Bruins each won a championship. ¬†Seven championships in 11 years for New England sports teams, all starting with the 2001 Patriots.

Now Tom Brady is entering the final phase of his career, and to kick start it, he has decided to sign a contract for less than half his value on the open market, so that the team will have more money to spend on other players that will make the team better.  It is a bold act of a true leader, one who personifies winning.

He is a remarkable athlete, one who was not highly thought of in college or entering the NFL draft, and yet he rose above it all, leading a woebegone franchise to an unlikely championship, ushering in one of the great eras of dominance in football history, uplifting an entire region that was begging for a champion, and transcending the world of sports into global icon status.

One day he will retire, and the golden era of Patriots football will end.  There will be other excellent players that play football or baseball or basketball or hockey in New England.  But there will never be another player like Tom Brady.  We are lucky to have witnessed this first-hand, and we should never forget what this has been like.

How to Improve the Pass Defense

Here are the Patriots’ league ranks in pass defense the last four seasons:

Pass Yds Allowed Per Game
- 2009: 210 (#12)
- 2010: 259 (#30)
- 2011: 294 (#31)
- 2012: 271 (#29)

Pass Yds Per Attempt Allowed
- 2009: 7.0 (#19)
- 2010: 7.1 (#21)
- 2011: 8.0 (#29)
- 2012: 7.7 (#28)

Pass Comp % Allowed
- 2009: 58.6% (#11)
- 2010: 63.5% (#24)
- 2011: 62.4% (#23)
- 2012: 62.1% (#20)

Pass TD Allowed
- 2009: 25 (#20)
- 2010: 25 (#21)
- 2011: 26 (#22)
- 2012: 27 (#21)

Opp Passer Rating
- 2009: 81.7 (#13)
- 2010: 81.2 (#13)
- 2011: 86.1 (#20)
- 2012: 86.9 (#17)

QB Sacks
- 2009: 31 (#23)
- 2010: 36 (#14)
- 2011: 40 (#14)
- 2012: 37 (#15)

Interceptions
- 2009: 18 (#11)
- 2010: 25 (#1)
- 2011: 23 (#2)
- 2012: 20 (#5)

On the whole, the numbers are pretty gruesome. The Pats are mediocre in sacking the QB, terrible in passing yards per attempt and pass yards allowed, poor in completion percentage, opponents’ passer rating, and passing TDs allowed. The only area where they excel is in interceptions. They do a really good job picking off the opposing QB.

So how do they make improve the pass defense? I would like to offer a few ideas, in no particular order.

Improve the Pass Rush
The Patriots do not generate a lot of pressure on the QB, and over the course of time that shows itself in the number of sacks they get. Sacks, of course, aren’t the end-all statistic that reveals QB pressure, but over time, the more pressure you get, generally the more sacks you’ll get. They are middle-of-the-pack in sacks.

An improved pass rush will improve the coverage. If a QB takes a five or seven step drop, looking for a longer-developing pattern, a good pass rush will make him throw it sooner than he wants. DBs need only cover for a few moments. But if there is no pressure, the QB can work through all his progressions, receivers have time to run longer patterns, and DBs have to cover for a longer period of time. That is a formula for a lot of quality completions, and bad news for the pass defense.

There are a few interesting players that could be available in free agency this year:

- DE Freeney, Ind. Down year in the sack department, but he was playing on a bum ankle and out of position in a 3-4 defense. As a situational pass rusher, he still has excellent athleticism and could potentially deliver double-digit sacks.

- DE Avril, Det. The Lions are looking to shed payroll in order to keep him, but I don’t think they’ll franchise him. The last three seasons he’s had 8.5, 11.5, and 9.5 sacks. He’ll be 27 for the 2013 season, just entering his prime.

- DE Umenyiora, NYG. He is 30 and coming off an injury-plagued season. But he has big-sack ability, with sack totals of 14.5, 13.0, and 11.5 at points in his career. A motivated Osi could be a real asset to any defense in need of big play dynamics.

- DE Johnson, Cin. He is a stud, both as a run-stopper and as a pass rusher. His sack totals have improved since 2010: 2.5, 6.0, 11.5. If he was on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, he’d be rising with a bullet. However, Cincinnati has plenty of money, and they will almost certainly retain his services.

- DE Bennett, TB. Coming off a 9-sack season, he clearly can get to the QB. But Tampa is like Cincy, in that they have plenty of money available, and there’s not a high likelihood that Bennett will be moving on.

- LB Spencer, Dal. He had 6.0 sacks in 2011, and 11.0 in 2012. Not a down lineman, he rushes from the SLB position.

- LB Barwin, Hou. He had 11.5 sacks in 2011, but just 3.0 in 2012, so at first glance, he might not seem like a guy you want to help your pass rush. But he’s young, and he might not cost a lot, which is a major factor the Patriots have to consider.

The draft also has some interesting players that can put heat on the opposing QB. Here’s a list of potential players the Pats could draft. Keep in mind that most of them will likely be gone by the time New England picks, but Belichick has been known to trade up to get a player he wants, so that’s not out of the question. And players (like Vince Wilfork) have occasionally slipped to New England’s draft slot, so you never know.

- Jarvis Jones, Georgia
- Barkevious Mingo, LSU
- Dion Jordan, Oregon
- Bjoern Werner, Florida St.
- Prince Shembo, Notre Dame
- Alex Okafor, Texas
- Ezekiel Ansah, BYU
- Trevardo Williams, UConn
- Sam Montgomery, LSU
- Quanterus Smith, WKU

Like with Chandler Jones, the Patriots might be able to snag one of these players that could help their pass rush.

Better Coverage Linebackers
The other side of the pass defense coin from QB pressure is coverage. Their current crop of linebackers are below average, as a group, in pass coverage. Spikes and Hightower are terrific run-stoppers, and there’s real value in that, but they are not quick enough to cover good tight ends or running backs. This gives opposing QBs relatively easy completions in the short-range area, which helps keep drives alive or get drives off to good starts with 5-7 yard gains. Mayo is adequate in coverage, and the return of Dane Fletcher could help in this area.

Daryl Smith of Jacksonville is a good coverage linebacker and could be a nice FA target for the Patriots, should they choose to invest money shoring up this need.

Better Cornerbacks
This is going to be a major headache for the Patriots. First off, what is going to happen to Alfonzo Dennard after he was found guilty this week? It would be a big help to the Patriots if they knew now what his fate would be. He could face several years in jail, or he could walk away with probation. We have no idea what is coming his way. So they might be all set at one corner position or they might have a gaping hole there. They just don’t know, but prudence dictates that they plan for the worst. With Aqib Talib as a free agent, it means their two best coverage corners are likely gone.

The uncertainty surrounding Dennard probably means that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to Talib. It makes sense. In the AFCCG, he easily covered Anquan Boldin until he got hurt. After that, Boldin abused the smaller Patriots’ DBs and had a monster game. Talib gives them speed, size, and ball-hawking ability. The question is whether he can stay on the field, and that’s been a problem for him. Nonetheless, the smart play here may be to franchise him to make sure that one CB spot is in good shape.

That means that there’s another CB slot that needs help. McCourty could move back there until Dennard returns. Re-signing Arrington and asking him to play the other corner position is a bad idea. There are some interesting names out there in free agency:

- Asomugha, Phi. Almost certain to be cut, he struggled in Philadelphia, but for years he was a proven stud cover corner in Oakland. He might be worth an effort at rehabilitation.

- Rodgers-Cromartie, Phi. The Patriots a few years ago lost Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel to the Eagles. Maybe it’s time to return the favor and snag both Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie? Rodgers-Cromartie is a big, strong corner with good speed. He brings his own issues, of course, and isn’t as good as his natural talent would suggest he could be. But he would be an upgrade over Arrington at the outside CB spot.

- Cox, Jax. He has struggled to stay on the field, but that may serve to depress his market. He had 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended in 2012 in just 12 games, so he can be productive around the ball.

In the draft, the Patriots might look at some of the following prospects:

- Milliner, Alabama
- Rhodes, Florida St
- Trufant, Washington
- Banks, Mississippi St
- Ryan, Rutgers
- Poyer, Oregon St
- Taylor, Boise St
- Slay, Mississippi St
- Alford, SE Louisiana
- Amerson, NC State

Coverage Safeties
Moving McCourty to safety was a terrific move for New England. He has corner skills and track star speed, and he’s a surprisingly good hitter. As a free safety, he has the ability to cover a lot of ground. But if they choose to move him back to corner, it opens up a major hole in the safety spot. Gregory is a somewhat useful player that occasionally makes nice plays, but an upgrade could be used there.

Free agency provides many interesting options, including future hall-of-famers Charles Woodson and Ed Reed. Younger, and talented, options include Goldson (SF), Byrd (Buf), and Moore (Atl).

The draft features a number of intriguing safety prospects:

- Vaccaro, Texas
- Elam, Florida
- McDonald, USC
- Wilcox, Ga Southern
- Rambo, Georgia
- Thomas, Fresno St
- Lester, Alabama
The biggest issue with revamping the pass defense is going to be money. The Patriots have some room under the cap, but it is not a ton. The Wes Welker situation might have a direct bearing on what the Patriots will be able to do with respect to defensive improvement. A new contract for Welker could be structured in a way to free up money for 2013, but in the end, more money would be available if they simply chose to not re-sign him. It is going to be a very difficult call for Belichick to make, because losing Welker will almost certainly mean a significant reduction in offensive production for the Pats. But perhaps that money could be used to add an impact pass rusher or cover man that will end up helping the team more than losing Welker will hurt.

I would like to see the Patriots keep Welker, because I believe he is a perfect fit for this offense. But the fact of the matter is that the Patriots have had effective offenses and won Super Bowls without Welker, and now they have two of the best TEs in football in Gronkowski and Hernandez, plus a capable WR in Lloyd. While I am not advocating letting Welker go, I can see the argument that says they will still be very good on offense without him, and that the money that would be freed up would be put to better use on the defensive side of the ball.

I could see the Patriots employing a game plan like this:

  1. Sign Freeney as a situation pass-rusher.
  2. Franchise Talib.
  3. Move McCourty back to CB for the time being, until Dennard is back with the team.
  4. Sign a safety like Woodson or (preferably) Reed. I doubt they’d have the $$ to get a Goldson or Byrd. Keep Gregory along with the new safety, and when Dennard returns, Gregory becomes a reserve, and the backfield ends up being Dennard/Talib/McCourty/Reed (or equivalent). That’s a pretty nice defensive backfield.
  5. Draft pass rushers, CBs, and safeties, almost exclusively, hoping to find another young stud like Chandler Jones or Dennard.
  6. Hope for continued natural improvement from Jones, Ninkovich, Francis, and Bequette in terms of pass-rushing, and Fletcher, Hightower, Mayo, McCourty, and Dennard (when he returns) in coverage.

Whatever they do, this offseason is full of interesting decisions for Belichick and the Patriots.

The Career Arc of Tom Brady

The vast majority of athletes in any sport experience similar patterns for their careers.  It resembles a bell curve, as their performance starts off at a low level, progresses upward to a peak, then declines down to a low level again.  The rate of improvement or decline varies, as does the height of the peak or the depths of the valleys, and for some the peak comes a little earlier or later, but the pattern is roughly the same from athlete to athlete, and from sport to sport.

Tom Brady’s career arc is not likely to be very different from most other players. ¬†Here is Joe Montana’s career arc, measured by passer rating:

  • first four years: ¬†88.0
  • middle seven years: ¬†96.3
  • last four years: ¬†87.1

Here’s Tom Brady’s arc:

  • first seven years: ¬†88.4
  • middle six years: ¬†105.4
  • last X years? ¬†we’ll find out

He is in the midst of an historic run of greatness, and his 2012 season was exceptional.  But, while he has been phenomenal, he has seen a bit of a decline the past three years.

  • 2010: ¬†65.9%, 7.3 td%, 7.9 y/a, 111.0 rating
  • 2011: ¬†65.6%, 6.4 td%, 8.6 y/a, 105.6 rating
  • 2012: ¬†63.0%, 5.3 td%, 7.6 y/a, 98.7 rating

In 2012, the Patriots ran for more touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL, so Brady’s touchdown percentage would be higher if they had thrown the ball more deep in the red zone. ¬†Nonetheless, his completion percentage, while still good, has declined, as has his yards per attempt, and his overall passer rating. ¬†And if you gave Brady 5 more touchdowns and no interceptions (giving him 39 td and 8 int total), his rating goes from 98.7 up to 101.2, which is still worse than it was in 2011, so the trend is still the same. ¬†So relative to Brady’s own exceptional standards, it appears that his career arc has started its descent phase.

But it’s not just that. ¬†It’s relative to other quarterbacks in the NFL too. ¬†Here’s Brady compared with other QBs in the league, by passer rating:

  • 2010: ¬†111.0, #1 in the NFL
  • 2011: ¬†105.6, #3 in the NFL
  • 2012: ¬†98.7, #6 in the NFL

So relative to other QBs around the league, Brady is no longer performing as the undisputed king. ¬†Now, bear in mind that we’re still talking about a quarterback playing at an extremely high level. ¬†Brady is still great. ¬†He’s just not performing at quite the same immortal level he has been.

The question is not if or whether Brady will decline. ¬†That is inevitable, and it has apparently already begun. ¬†The question is whether the Patriots can win with Brady in the decline phase of his career arc. ¬†To answer that, let’s look at what Brady was like at the ascent phase of his career.

Not counting 2000, where he threw 3 passes, the first four years of his career were 2001-2004.  During that time, the Patriots won three Super Bowls.  Brady was terrific in those years, but he did not carry the team.  Consider where Brady ranked by passer rating those seasons:

  • 2001: ¬†86.5, #6 in the NFL, won Super Bowl
  • 2002: ¬†85.7, #9 in the NFL, missed playoffs
  • 2003: ¬†85.9, #10 in the NFL, won Super Bowl
  • 2004: ¬†92.6, #9 in the NFL, won Super Bowl

Brady was a top-tier QB during those four seasons, but he was not putting up the insane numbers he would starting in 2007. ¬†Here’s another way to look at it. ¬†Consider the Patriots’ yards, touchdowns, and offensive plays, and compare how much of this production Tom Brady’s passing accounted for (I calculate pass plays as passing attempts + sacks; it’s too much to figure out how many of Brady’s runs were scrambles). ¬†Note: ¬†the “epic” Tom Brady era refers to Brady from 2007-2012, where he has put up insane numbers.

  • SB-winning seasons: ¬†64.9% of the yards, 52.7% of the TDs, 49.2% of the plays
  • non-SB-winning seasons: ¬†71.2% of the yards, 58.6% of the TDs, 55.6% of the plays
  • “epic” Tom Brady era: ¬†71.4% of the yards, 59.0% of the TDs, 55.7% of the plays

When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, Tom Brady’s passing, while excellent (as seen in his regular top-10 finishes in the league’s passer ratings), was a much smaller percent of the offensive production pie than it has been when they have not won Super Bowls. ¬†When we look at the percentage of offensive plays were Brady’s passing, three of the lowest five seasons since he’s been on the team (not counting 2000 and 2008, for obvious reasons) came in their SB-winning years. Now, it is true that as Brady has shouldered a larger burden of the offense, the overall offensive production has increased. ¬†For example, compare Brady’s role in 2004 with 2011, along with the Patriots’ offensive production in those two years:

  • 2004: ¬†64.5% of the yards, 57.1% of the TDs, 48.3% of the plays, Pats scored 44 offensive TDs
  • 2011: ¬†76.4% of the yards, 63.9% of the TDs, 59.4% of the plays, Pats scored 56 offensive TDs

So while it’s true that the offense has been more productive on the whole as Brady’s role has increased, the point here is that the Patriots have proven that they can win with Brady not having to shoulder as big a burden of the offense. ¬†They can probably do it again, but there are a couple of other things to consider.

First, the other parts of the team need to step up.  The running game, which was much improved in 2012, needs to continue that improvement.  The defense, which was ranked 6th, 1st, and 2nd (3.0 average rank) in scoring during their three SB-winning seasons, has  ranked 9.4 on average in scoring defense in their non-SB-winning years.  And the special teams need to see more production.

Second, and this is a major factor, it is going to be harder for the ¬†Patriots to build a team similar to what it was in Brady’s ascent phase. ¬†Why? ¬†Simple: ¬†money. ¬†When he arrived as a 6th round pick, he was making minimal money, and the rest of the team’s salary cap could be used to fill out the rest of the team. ¬†Now, Brady’s cap hit is $21.8 million, meaning there’s less money available to upgrade the team elsewhere.

The Patriots are consistently excellent, and Brady gives them a terrific chance to win any game.  As he enters the decline phase of his career, we need to remember that the Patriots do have pieces in place that give them the ability to win another Super Bowl, even if Brady is not playing at his accustomed immortal level.

The Patriots’ Offensive Breakdown

Super Bowl 42. ¬†The Patriots’ historic offense musters only 14 points against the Giants in a crushing loss, ending the dream of a perfect season. ¬†Wild Card round, 2009. ¬†The Patriots score just 14 points against the Ravens in a humiliating defeat at home. ¬†Divisional Playoff round, 2010. ¬†The Jets come into town and limit the Patriots to 14 points before a garbage time TD at the end gives a dominating offensive team 21 points in a loss. ¬†Super Bowl 46, rematch against the Giants. ¬†The Patriots’ dynamic offense can score just 17 against a far weaker Big Blue defense than the one they played four years earlier. ¬†Another tough loss in the sport’s biggest game. ¬†And then this year, in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots offense – the 3rd highest scoring unit in history – scored just 13 points in another discouraging defeat to the Ravens.

Just what is going on here? ¬†What happens to the Patriots’ offense?

First, let’s go back and see what happened to the Patriots during the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons.

2001

  • Regular season: ¬†23.2 ppg, 305.1 ypg, 1.8 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†20.0 ppg, 297.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.2 ppg, -8.1 ypg, -1.5 to/g

2003

  • Regular season: ¬†21.8 ppg, 314.9 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†24.3 ppg, 375.7 ypg, 1.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+2.5 ppg, +60.8 ypg, -0.2 to/g

2004

  • Regular season: ¬†27.3 ppg, 357.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†28.3 ppg, 326.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+1.0 ppg, -31.6 ypg, -1.4 to/g

AVERAGES

  • Regular season: ¬†24.1 ppg, 325.9 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†24.2 ppg, 332.9 ypg, 0.7 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+0.1 ppg, +7.0 ypg, -1.0 to/g

From these numbers, what we see is that the offense, during these three playoff runs, performed at pretty much the same level it had during the regular season.  The points and yards per game were very similar.  But the one big difference was that these Patriots limited their turnovers.  During these three championship seasons, they only committed six turnovers in nine playoff games.  That was a major reduction in turnovers allowed compared to the regular season.

Now we know that turnovers hurt on so many levels. ¬†At worst, it produces immediate points for the opposition. ¬†Kurt Warner experienced that first-hand when Ty Law snagged his pick-six in the Rams-Pats Super Bowl. ¬†But even if it doesn’t produce immediate points for the opposition, turnovers can either kill scoring opportunities or create excellent scoring opportunities for the other team, or just change the momentum and field position of a game. ¬†Turnovers are the single biggest factor in winning and losing a game.

So what has happened during their non-SB-winning seasons?

2005

  • Regular season: ¬†23.7 ppg, 352.0 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†20.5 ppg, 363.5 ypg, 2.5 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.2 ppg, +11.5 ypg, +1.0 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to

2006

  • Regular season: ¬†24.1 ppg, 335.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†31.7 ppg, 334.7 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+7.6 ppg, -0.9 ypg, 0.0 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to

2007

  • Regular season: ¬†36.8 ppg, 411.3 ypg, 0.9 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†22.0 ppg, 341.3 ypg, 1.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-14.8 ppg, -69.9 ypg, +0.4 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to

2009

  • Regular season: ¬†26.7 ppg, 397.3 ypg, 1.4 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†14.0 ppg, 196.0 ypg, 4.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-12.7 ppg, -201.3 ypg, +2.6 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to

2010

  • Regular season: ¬†32.4 ppg, 363.8 ypg, 0.6 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†21.0 ppg, 372.0 ypg, 1.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-11.4 ppg, +8.3 ypg, +0.4 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to

2011

  • Regular season: ¬†32.1 ppg, 428.0 ypg, 1.1 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†28.3 ppg, 396.0 ypg, 2.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.7 ppg, -32.0 ypg, +0.9 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to

2012

  • Regular season: ¬†34.8 ppg, 427.9 ypg, 1.0 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†27.0 ppg, 442.5 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-7.8 ppg, +14.6 ypg, +0.5 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

The more seasons’ worth of data we examine, the more the pattern emerges: ¬†the #1 key to the Patriots’ offensive failures in the playoffs has been the marked increase in turnovers. ¬†In their three Super Bowl winning seasons, the Patriots were +0.1 pts, +7.0 yds, and -1.0 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. ¬†In their seven non-SB-winning seasons, the Patriots were -5.0 pts, -28.2 yds, and +0.7 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. ¬†Notice the difference in turnovers. ¬†They went from -1.0 in their championship seasons all the way to +0.7. ¬†That’s nearly two full turnovers per game difference! ¬†In other words, the Patriots went from being extra careful with the football in the playoffs (and they won) to being extra sloppy with the football in the playoffs (and they haven’t won).

The Patriots’ offense is phenomenal, but it is predicated on moving the ball efficiently down the field, using runs and short-to-mid range passes. ¬†They do not stretch the field like some other teams do, but they rack up more first downs than anyone else because they are so efficient. ¬†In order to achieve this level of success with this strategy, however, the Patriots need to take care of the football. ¬†They are a low-risk, death by a thousand paper cuts kind of offense. ¬†But that requires them to keep possession of the ball. ¬†Against lesser teams, the Patriots can survive a few more turnovers because they will still score so many points. ¬†But against quality teams in the playoffs, lots of turnovers are crippling.

Why do the Patriots tend to turn the ball over more in the playoffs?  Part of it is they play defenses that are hard-hitting.

  • 2005 Den: ¬†34 takeaways
  • 2006 Ind: ¬†26 takeaways
  • 2007 NYG: ¬†25 takeaways
  • 2009 Bal: ¬†32 takeaways
  • 2010 NYJ: ¬†30 takeaways
  • 2011 NYG: ¬†31 takeaways
  • 2012 Bal: ¬†25 takeaways

Those defenses averaged 1.7 takeaways per game.  From 2005-12, the Patriots averaged 1.2 giveaways.  So which would prevail: those takeaway-heavy defenses or the giveaway-free offense of the Patriots?  Well, as it turns out, during those playoff losses, the Patriots had 16 turnovers, or 2.3 per game Рtwice their normal rate.

In other words, the Patriots, in each of the past seven playoff seasons, have had major problems with ball security.

But is that the whole story? ¬†As usual, stats can shed light on many different things. ¬†Yes, the above is all true. ¬†The Patriots have turned the ball over at a far higher rate in the playoffs (and especially their playoff losses) than during the regular season since their last Super Bowl title. ¬†But let’s look more closely at their last seven playoff losses. ¬†Here are their game stats in each of those contests:

  • 2005 vs. Den: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
  • 2006 vs. Ind: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
  • 2007 vs. NYG: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
  • 2009 vs. Bal: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
  • 2010 vs. NYJ: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
  • 2011 vs. NYG: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
  • 2012 vs. Bal: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

So in four of the seven playoff losses, the Patriots only had one turnover apiece. ¬†And yet in those games they averaged just 21.5 points and 328.5 yards per game, well under their normal averages. ¬†So it’s more than just turnovers, though turnovers obviously have been a very important factor.

It would be tempting to say that the Patriots are not built to handle physical, turnover-causing defenses, but that is just not the case. ¬†During the regular seasons against these defenses, here’s what they did:

  • 2005 vs. Den – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 388 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
  • 2006 vs. Ind – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 349 yds, 5 to; Playoffs: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
  • 2007 vs. NYG – Reg Season: ¬†38 pts, 390 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
  • 2009 vs. Bal – Reg Season: ¬†27 pts, 319 yds, 1 to; Playoffs: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
  • 2010 vs. NYJ – Reg Season: ¬†14 pts, 291 yds, 3 to; 45 pts, 405 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
  • 2011 vs. NYG – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 438 yds, 4 to; Playoffs: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
  • 2012 vs. Bal – Reg Season: ¬†30 pts, 396 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

So compare their regular season performance against these same teams with their postseason performance:

  • Regular Season: ¬†26.8 pts, 372.0 yds, 1.6 to
  • Playoffs: ¬†18.0 pts, 336.9 yds, 2.3 to

They performed significantly better against the very same teams during the regular season than they did in the playoffs, in all three metrics.

Here are a handful of games they’ve played in recent years against similarly tough and hard-hitting defenses:

  • 2012 vs. SF: ¬†34 pts, 520 yds, 4 to
  • 2012 vs. Hou: ¬†42 pts, 419 yds, 1 to; 41 pts, 457 yds, 0 to
  • 2011 vs. NYJ: ¬†30 pts, 446 yds, 1 to; 37 pts, 389 yds, 0 to
  • 2010 vs. Pit: ¬†39 pts, 453 yds, 0 to
  • 2010 vs. Chi: ¬†36 pts, 475 yds, 0 to
  • 2009 vs. NYJ: ¬†31 pts, 410 yds, 1 to

They also struggled in some games vs. top defenses, but these games show that the Patriots are more than capable of big-time production against defenses that are tough, hard-hitting, and like to create turnovers.

So why does the offense suddenly have problems in the playoffs?  Well, here are a few conclusions:

  1. The reason is not that these opponents necessarily represent bad matchups for the Patriots.  After all, the Pats have proven that they can move the ball and score against these very defenses.
  2. The reason is not that there is a particular style of defense that gives them fits.  The Patriots can move the ball and score against any scheme and any type of defense.
  3. A big reason is a marked increase in turnovers, though it is unclear as to why the Patriots turn the ball over more in the playoffs.  But it is not the only reason.
  4. Key injuries have played a major role. ¬†In 2007, they had injuries along the offensive line and Brady’s shoulder was injured. ¬†In 2009, they lost Wes Welker the week before the playoffs started. ¬†In 2011, Gronkowski was a shell of his normal self thanks to the ankle injury he suffered in the AFCCG, and Logan Mankins was playing on a torn ACL. ¬†In 2012 they lost Gronkowski in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and played the Ravens in the AFCCG without him (and without Julian Edelman, a loss that should not go unmentioned).

The long story shorter is that there is no one factor as to why the Patriots’ defense has underperformed in the playoffs compared to the regular season. ¬†But it is nonetheless a clear fact that the offense¬†has¬†underperformed in the playoffs, against opponents that they have had success against in the past.

If you read this post (http://www.patsfans.com/blogs/vampatella/2013/01/28/big-challenges-come-in-threes/), you will see that the challenge of winning three (or four) straight games against quality opponents is very difficult indeed.  In fact, in only 3 of 35 total possible scenarios have the Patriots won 3 straight games against elite opposition, while Brady played a quality game.  In the regular season, if you have one off game, you probably lose, but you shrug it off and move on, just like the Patriots did this regular season.  But in the playoffs, if you have one off game and you lose, your season is over, and every aspect is examined with a fine-toothed comb.

This is not to suggest that there is nothing wrong with the Patriots’ offense. ¬†Maybe it is just the kind of rhythm and timing and precision offense that can be frustrated. ¬†Maybe they lack other ways to win. ¬†In 2001, they had three playoff games where the offense scored 16 points or less:

  • 16-13 win over Oakland – all 16 points were scored by the offense, but it took overtime to get them
  • 24-17 win over Pittsburgh – 2 TDs were by the special teams; 10 points were scored by the offense
  • 20-17 win over St. Louis – 1 TD was Law’s pick-six; 13 points were scored by the offense

So in those three games, the offense averaged just 13 points a game.  And yet they won the Super Bowl.  In 2011, the offense averaged 28.3 points a game and they lost one of them.  And in that one loss they scored 17 points Рone more than the offense scored in any of the three games during their 2001 SB-winning season!

The Patriots can get back to winning the Super Bowl by:

  1. Reducing their turnovers in the playoffs, or
  2. Diversifying their offense even more, allowing it to play better in different circumstances, or
  3. Being healthier, or
  4. Having the defense and/or special teams step up if the offense is struggling.

Those were the keys when they won Super Bowls.  Time to go back to that winning formula.

The Incredibly Consistent Patriots Offense (2010-2012)

The New England Patriots have developed one of the most lethal scoring machines in NFL history.  They have produced four of the top 13 scoring teams of all-time:

  • 2007, ranked #1, 36.8 ppg
  • 2012, ranked #3, 34.8 ppg
  • 2010, ranked #11, 32.4 ppg
  • 2011, ranked #13, 32.1 ppg

As we look at those last three seasons, we see remarkable efficiency and consistency. ¬†Three straight seasons the Patriots have averaged between 32.1 and 34.8 points scored per game. ¬†I thought it would be interesting to look deeper into just how consistently good the Patriots’ offense has become the past three seasons. ¬†For the purposes of this study, I’ve also included the six playoff games the Patriots have played the past three seasons, bringing the total number of games played to 54.

Now, let’s start with points (we will later move to yards gained, which is another important measure of offensive capability). ¬†From 2010-2012, here is the distribution of points scored:

  • <20 – 6 games (11.1%)
  • 20-24 – 8 games (16.7%)
  • 25-28 – 3 games (5.6%)
  • 29-34 – 14 games (25.9%)
  • 35-41 – 13 games (24.1%)
  • 42-48 – 5 games (9.3%)
  • 49+ – 4 games (7.4%)

So 27 of the 54 games (50% exactly) the Patriots have played, they’ve scored between 29 and 41 points. Their low point total in the past three years was, sadly, two weeks ago against Baltimore, with 13. ¬†The high point total was this year, when they scored 59 against Indianapolis. ¬†Let’s break it down this way:

  • Between 13-26 points scored: ¬†27.8% of the games
  • Between 27-38 points scored: ¬†48.2% of the games
  • Between 39-59 points scored: ¬†24.1% of the games

Over the past three seasons, the Patriots have scored 20 or more points some 88.9% of the time. ¬†They’ve scored 23 or more points 83.3% of the time. ¬†They’ve scored 28 or more points 70.4% of the time. ¬†And they’ve scored 31 or more points 61.1% of the time. ¬†It really is amazing that the Patriots have been better than a 60% bet to score 31 or more points in a game the past three seasons.

And it’s not just that they’ve scored a lot of points. ¬†They’ve scored them in every conceivable circumstance.

Overall:  32.4 ppg, 406.6 ypg

By Location:

  • Home (29 g): ¬†32.4 ppg, 411.8 ypg
  • Away (24 g): ¬†33.0 ppg, 402.8 ypg

Vs Opponents’ Record:

  • 12-16 wins (7 g): ¬†30.9 ppg, 387.1 ypg
  • 10-11 wins (11 g): ¬†30.6 ppg, 400.3 ypg
  • 7-9 wins (17 g): ¬†32.1 ppg, 405.1 ypg
  • 5-6 wins (14 g): ¬†34.7 ppg, 434.3 ypg
  • 0-4 wins (5 g): ¬†32.8 ppg, 376.0 ypg

Vs Opponents’ Defensive Rankings, defined as (Pts+Yds)/2:

  • Rk 1-5 (10 g): ¬†27.8 ppg, 375.2 ypg
  • Rk 5.5-12 (11 g): ¬†34.6 ppg, 413.6 ypg
  • Rk 12.5-19.5 (16 g): ¬†29.4 ppg, 404.1 ypg
  • Rk 20-27 (12 g): ¬†37.5 ppg, 422.3 ypg
  • Rk 27.5-32 (5 g): ¬†33.6 ppg, 424.6 ypg

Playoffs vs. Regular Season:

  • Regular Season (48 g): ¬†33.1 ppg, 406.5 ypg
  • Playoffs (6 g): ¬†26.7 ppg, 407.5 ypg

The Patriots have put up points in good weather and in bad, at home and on the road, within the division and outside the division, in domes and outside, on grass and on turf, during the day and at night. ¬†They’ve done it with incredible consistency.

And it’s not just points. ¬†It’s yards gained, too. ¬†Over the past 54 games, the Patriots have averaged 406.7 yards per game. ¬†Here is the frequency with which they’ve gained yards:

  • < 200 – 1 game (1.9%)
  • 200-249 – 2 games (3.7%)
  • 250-299 – 3 games (5.6%)
  • 300-349 – 7 games (13.0%)
  • 350-399 – 12 games (22.2%)
  • 400-449 – 13 games (24.1%)
  • 450-499 – 10 games (18.5%)
  • 500+ – 6 games (11.1%)

They have gained 350 or more yards in 41 of their 54 games (75.9%). ¬†They have been a 61% bet to score 31 points and gain 389 yards in any given game. ¬†Think about those numbers the next time you consider a wager. ¬†Here’s how the yards gained break down by circumstance:

Overall:  406.6 ypg

By Location:

  • Home (29 g): ¬†411.8 ypg
  • Away (24 g): ¬†402.8 ypg

Vs Opponents’ Record:

  • 12-16 wins (7 g): ¬†387.1 ypg
  • 10-11 wins (11 g): ¬†400.3 ypg
  • 7-9 wins (17 g): ¬†405.1 ypg
  • 5-6 wins (14 g): ¬†434.3 ypg
  • 0-4 wins (5 g): ¬†376.0 ypg

Vs Opponents’ Defensive Rankings, defined as: (Pts+Yds)/2

  • Rk 1-5 (10 g): ¬†375.2 ypg
  • Rk 5.5-12 (11 g): ¬†413.6 ypg
  • Rk 12.5-19.5 (16 g): ¬†404.1 ypg
  • Rk 20-27 (12 g): ¬†422.3 ypg
  • Rk 27.5-32 (5 g): ¬†424.6 ypg

Playoffs vs. Regular Season

  • Regular Season (48 g): ¬†406.5 ypg
  • Playoffs (6 g): ¬†407.5 ypg

So just like with points scored, the Patriots have gained yards at an incredibly efficient and consistent clip, piling them up against good competition and bad, home and away, against highly ranked defenses or poorly ranked defenses.  There have been a few statistical outliers, but those are very rare.  Think of it this way.  There have only been three games out of the last 54 where the Patriots have both scored fewer than 20 points and gained fewer than 300 yards.  Here were those games:

  • 2011 at Pit: ¬†17 pts, 213 yds (Pit’s D was ranked #1 in pts allowed, and #1 in yds allowed)
  • 2010 at NYJ: ¬†14 pts, 291 yds (NYJ’s D was ranked #6 in pts allowed, and #3 in yds allowed)
  • 2010 at Cle: ¬†14 pts, 283 yds (Cle’s D was ranked #13 in pts allowed, and #22 in yds allowed)

That 2010 game at Cleveland stands out as the true statistical outlier and one of the most inexplicable games in recent Patriots’ history. ¬†The Steelers’ and Jets’ games can at least be accounted for given the quality of the opposition, but not the Browns game. ¬†But in 54 games, every team – even the Patriots – are allowed one inexplicable stinker.

The big question here is what happens in the playoffs? ¬†Why does the scoring suddenly go down to 26.7 points per game – a drop of nearly a full touchdown a game? ¬†We’ll examine this in our next study.

Big Challenges Come in Threes

In order for a team to win a Super Bowl, it must play at least three quality opponents in a row. ¬†Some teams, like the 2007 New York Giants, have to play four quality opponents in a row, if they don’t get a first round bye. ¬†That is a daunting challenge, to defeat three very good teams in successive games. ¬†Generally speaking, two evenly-matched teams will have approximately an equal chance of winning a game. ¬†Thus, winning three games, each at 1:2 odds, means there is about a one in eight chance of pulling off the trifecta.

Of course, we know that football games are not like fair coin flips, and the odds are not exactly 50-50, but you get the idea.  Winning one game against a tough opponent is a challenge.  Winning three (or four!) straight is a tremendous accomplishment.

Now, Patriot fans obviously want to see New England win another Super Bowl, and the early success of the team under the Belichick/Brady combination has created some lofty expectations for the franchise. ¬†What’s wrong with the team? ¬†Why can’t they win the “big one” any more? ¬†Why is Brady playing worse than he did early in his career in the playoffs? ¬†These are questions that routinely come up when the Patriots fall short of their fourth Lombardi. ¬†I thought it would be interesting to analyze Brady and the Pats in a specific context. ¬†I wanted to see how Brady and the Pats did when playing three consecutive games against quality opponents. ¬†Let me lay out some definitions to help us understand the numbers.

First, a “quality” opponent is any team that finished the regular season at 8-8 or better. ¬†Only one team has made the playoffs with worse than an 8-8 record, but there have been a lot of 8-8 or 9-7 playoff teams. ¬†Therefore, 8-8 is the cutoff point for this study.

Second, a “quality” passing performance is one where Brady finished with a passer rating of 90.0 or better. ¬†That number may seem a bit random, but we all think of Brady as an elite QB, and a “quality” performance should reflect that. ¬†Early on in his career (pre-2004), when the rules were tighter, his passer ratings were lower, and as the league opened up the passing game in general, Brady’s ratings have gone up. ¬†In 2012, the #10 QB in the league in terms of passer rating was Tony Romo at 90.5. ¬†Thus, a 90.0 rating represents essentially a top 10 rating.

The first thing I wanted to find out was just how many times in Brady’s career (not counting 2008 – I completely eliminated that season from this study) the Patriots played three consecutive games against quality opponents. ¬†It is okay if there was a bye somewhere in there, but I didn’t want to have two quality opponents sandwiched around a non-quality opponent, because in the playoffs, the Patriots would never face a non-quality opponent. ¬†So I needed to see how many times the Patriots played three consecutive games in the same season against quality opponents.

It turns out that there have been 35 times in Brady’s career, including playoffs, where they have played three straight quality opponents. ¬†Sometimes they played more than three in a row, but in that case, I took that into consideration as follows.

In 2006, for example, in games 15 and 16, plus three straight playoff weeks, they played quality opponents:

  • Game 15 – at Jax
  • Game 16 – at Ten
  • Game 17 – vs NYJ (playoffs)
  • Game 18 – at SD (playoffs)
  • Game 19 – at Ind (playoffs)

In this case, game 17 represented one specific three-game stretch against quality opponents.  Game 18 represented another specific three-game stretch.  And game 19 represented a third specific three-game stretch.  So in this five-game stretch, there were three instances where the Pats played against quality opponents in three consecutive games.

So the Patriots under Brady have played 35 such three-game stretches against quality opponents.  The average regular season records of those opponents was 10.1 wins and 5.9 losses.  That means that these opponents won 63.1% of their regular season games.  As you can see right off the top, winning three straight games against opponents who tended to win 63.1% of their games is a difficult chore.

With that in mind, I then wondered how many times the Patriots won all three of these games.  There are only 9 such instances.  Here they are:

  • 2001 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Oakland (10-6), Pittsburgh (13-3), and St. Louis (13-3) in their first Super Bowl run.
  • 2002 – Games 1, 2, and 3. ¬†They beat Pittsburgh (10-5-1), the NY Jets (9-7), and Kansas City (8-8).
  • 2003 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Tennessee (12-4), Indianapolis (12-4), and Carolina (11-5) in their second Super Bowl run.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†As a team, this is probably the most impressive 3-game stretch of the Belichick/Brady era.
  • 2006 – Games 15, 16, and 17. ¬†They beat Jacksonville (8-8), Tennessee (8-8), and the NY Jets (10-6).
  • 2006 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat Tennessee (8-8), the NY Jets (10-6), and San Diego (14-2).
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5).
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6).
  • 2011 – Games 4, 5, and 6. ¬†They beat Oakland (8-8), the NY Jets (8-8), and Dallas (8-8).

So out of the 35 opportunities to beat three quality teams in a row, the Patriots have managed to pull that feat off 9 times (25.7%). ¬†Thus, 3 out of 4 times, they haven’t succeeded at the trifecta.

Now let’s talk about Tom Brady. ¬†He is obviously a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, one of the best to ever play the game. ¬†But playing well against quality opposition is a challenge even for the great ones. ¬†How has Brady fared against the better teams in the league? ¬†Well, in his career (including postseason), he has played 119 games against quality teams. ¬†The Patriots have won 80 of those, for a winning percentage of .672. ¬†That’s an amazing number. ¬†As an individual, here are Brady’s stats in these 119 games against quality opponents:

2712-4288 (63.2%), 30,952 yds, 211 td, 90 int, 92.5 rating

We can look at that in two parts as well:  2001-2004 (the SB-winning era) and 2005-2012 (the non-SB-winning era):

2001-04:  911-1473 (61.8%), 9,842 yds, 63 td, 29 int, 87.5 rating

2005-12:  1801-2815 (64.0%), 21,110 yds, 148 td, 61 int, 95.1 rating

It is interesting to note that Brady’s individual statistical performance against quality opponents in the non-SB winning years has been significantly better than it was in the SB-winning years, though there is something to be said for the rule changes that have led to increased passing across the board. Nonetheless, it is clear that Brady has emerged as a mega star with his increased passing numbers.

I wondered how Brady has performed in three successive games against quality opponents. ¬†How often did he produce a quality passing performance? ¬†Recall that I defined a quality passing performance as a rating of 90.0 or better. ¬†I took the three successive games and totaled the numbers, and then figured out the passer rating from those. ¬†In the 35 times the Pats played three consecutive quality opponents, Brady had a cumulative rating of 90.0 or better a total of 18 times. ¬†That’s just over 50%, which isn’t bad at all.

Interestingly, of the 9 times the Patriots won all three games, Brady had a quality passer rating in 6 of them.  Here they were:

  • 2002 – Games 1, 2, and 3. ¬†They beat Pittsburgh (10-5-1), the NY Jets (9-7), and Kansas City (8-8). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†93-132, 973 yds, 9 td, 2 int, 107.9 rating.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in the playoffs. ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†55-81, 587 yds, 5 td, 0 int, 109.4 rating.
  • 2006 – Games 15, 16, and 17. ¬†They beat Jacksonville (8-8), Tennessee (8-8), and the NY Jets (10-6). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†65-97, 686 yds, 4 td, 0 int, 101.1 rating.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†80-103, 827 yds, 7 td, 3 int, 110.6 rating.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†63-93, 858 yds, 8 td, 0 int, 125.6 rating.
  • 2011 – Games 4, 5, and 6. ¬†They beat Oakland (8-8), the NY Jets (8-8), and Dallas (8-8). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†67-104, 836 yds, 5 td, 3 int, 93.3 rating.

There were 12 other times where Brady amassed a cumulative passer rating of 90.0 or better but the Patriots lost at least one of the three games.

I then wondered, of the 35 games against these quality opponents, how many three-game sets were against teams with a combined winning percentage of .625 or better.  A 10-6 record is a .625 percentage, and I figured these represented the cream of the crop, the elite.  These represented the hardest of these challenging sequences.  Of the 35 instances where they played teams with 8-8 records or better in three consecutive games, there were 18 instances where the cumulative winning percentage of their three opponents was .625 or better.  And in six of those 18 instances, the Patriots won all three.  Here they were:

  • 2001 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Oakland (10-6), Pittsburgh (13-3), and St. Louis (13-3) in their first Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .771.
  • 2003 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Tennessee (12-4), Indianapolis (12-4), and Carolina (11-5) in their second Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .729.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .833.
  • 2006 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat Tennessee (8-8), the NY Jets (10-6), and San Diego (14-2). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.

The last thing I wanted to know was how many of these three-game sequences did the following three things occur:  (1) The opponents had a combined win % of .625 or better, (2) the Patriots won all three games, and (3) Tom Brady had a passer rating of 90.0 or better.  I wanted to know this because Patriots fans not only want the Patriots to beat these opponents, it seems somewhat important that Tom Brady play well in these games.

It turns out that in only three out of 35 possible instances were all three criteria met.  They were:

  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .833. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 109.4.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 110.6.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 125.6.

What does this all mean?  I draw the following conclusions from this study:

  1. Winning three consecutive games against quality opponents is very, very difficult.  It gets progressively harder, as one would expect, the better the competition.
  2. Tom Brady has, generally speaking, played well against good competition.  But in these three consecutive game runs, he is about a 50/50 proposition to have a quality passing performance.
  3. It is exceedingly rare (just 3 out of 35 tries, which comes to 8.6%) for the Patriots to win three straight against elite teams and have Brady put up a quality performance over the course of those three games.
  4. Therefore, for the Patriots to win three straight against these elite teams, the vast majority of the time they have done so with Brady putting up a less-than-quality passing performance in at least one of those games.  That means that other parts of the team need to step up and cover for him, as great as he is.

In sum, the Patriots have never, and should never, rely on Tom Brady to carry them when faced with a 3 consecutive game gauntlet of quality opponents.  The team must be built to win on days when Brady is not at his best.  They need to be able to win with their defense, with the running game, or with special teams.  In any one-game scenario, Brady can be the primary reason for the win, but in a 3-game sequence, it is just too much to ask, even of the great Tom Brady.

Winning a Lombardi Trophy: How the Ball Bounces

The days of the uber-dominant NFL team are history.  We are in an era of football where the rules are designed to create a competitive landscape across the entire league.  In the days without a salary cap, a general manager could build a monster team and keep it together, so long as the owner was willing to spend the money to keep the talent together.  Today, however, every team must operate within the same financial boundaries, and the margin for error has decreased considerably.  For every star player you want on your team, you have to cut another one, because of the cost involved.  Thus, roster construction becomes the ultimate game of Tetris, trying to make players and salaries fit in as best you can.

Because the league is more competitive, winning a championship has become even more difficult than ever.  If the talent is spread out more across the league, it means that any particular team has less of a talent advantage than the great teams of the past.  Moreover, any one-and-done tournament comes with inherent uncertainty, as the bounce of a ball can end a team’s season.

Here is the bottom line:  Winning a Lombardi Trophy is extremely difficult, even under the best of circumstances.

Consider first the proposition that there are few uber-dominant teams in the NFL.¬† This is just one way of looking at things, but consider the rankings ‚Äď offense and defense, points and yardage ‚Äď of some of every Super Bowl winner.¬† The salary cap era began in 1994, so let‚Äôs look at the numbers from 1966-1993, from 1994-2011, and finally, during the “Patriots Era”, from 2001-2011:

Pre-Salary Cap Era (1966-1993)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  4.5 pts, 5.9 yds, 5.2 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  4.0 pts, 4.5 yds, 4.3 avg

Salary Cap Era (1994-2011)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  7.1 pts, 9.7 yds, 8.4 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  7.2 pts, 9.6 yds, 8.4 avg

Patriots Era (2001-2011)

-        Avg Offensive Rank:  9.5 pts, 12.8 yds, 11.2 avg

-        Avg Defensive Rank:  9.2 pts, 11.9 yds, 10.5 avg

So the average Super Bowl-winning team in the pre-salary cap era was ranked, on the whole, about 4 places higher than the average Super Bowl-winning team in the salary cap era.¬† This means that there are fewer uber-dominant teams in the salary cap era, and it also means that more teams that would be considered less than elite are winning the Super Bowl in the salary cap era.¬† And it‚Äôs even worse when you look at the ‚ÄúPatriots‚ÄĚ Era from 2001-2011.

The top teams have been reduced to very good teams that have flaws.  Some of the great teams in the past have literally had no flaws.  Consider these teams:

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 72 Dolphins ‚Äď Excellent running game, solid passing game, best defense in the league

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 74 and 78 Steelers ‚Äď Hall of Famers all over the place, dominant defenses, great running games, and Bradshaw, Swann, and Stallworth in the passing game

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 85 Bears ‚Äď Jim McMahon at his peak, one of the greatest RBs in the history of the sport, and maybe the best defense of all time

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 89 49ers ‚Äď Montana, Rice, Taylor, a very good running game, and an underrated, but outstanding defense

The list goes on.  Now let’s look at some of the recent champions:

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 07 and 11 Giants ‚Äď Decent teams, played great down the stretch, but each had major flaws

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 06 Colts and 09 Saints ‚Äď Good offense, but pretty bad defenses

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 08 Steelers ‚Äď Great defense, but they had a lower-third level offense

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† 2000 Ravens and 02 Bucs ‚Äď Great defenses, but average to below-average offenses

Again, the list goes on.  If you take the composite offensive rankings (pts + yds), and the composite defensive rankings, and then divide them by two, you get the average composite team rankings.  From 1966-1993, there was just one team that had an average composite team ranking above 9.0, and that was the 1980 Raiders, at 11.0.

But in just the last 11 seasons, 8 teams had an average composite team ranking of more than 9.0, and 7 of them had a ranking at 11.0 or higher.  In other words, 7 of the 8 worst NFL champions (and 8 of the worst 9), as measured by average composite team ranking, have played in the past 11 seasons.

There are no more uber-dominant teams anymore.

The implications of this are crucial to understand.  Specifically, it means that the margin of error is much, much smaller these days.  Just look at the history of the Super Bowl itself.

Avg Margin of Victory

-        Pre-salary cap era:  16.7 pts

-        Salary cap era:  10.7 pts

-        Patriots era:  8.2 pts

There have been 16 Super Bowls decided by 7 points or fewer, and 9 of them have taken place in the last 15 seasons, and 4 of the last 5. It is more fun as an NFL fan to see the league as it is, because there are always new teams emerging and the playoffs are featuring better games and even the Super Bowl matchups are turning out to be even, which makes for a far more exciting fan experience.  It’s how the league wants it, and they’ve succeeded.

So what separates the best teams nowadays?  If there are no more uber-dominant teams, and if the talent level is spread thin throughout the entire league, and if the margin of error is smaller than ever, what does it take to win a championship?  Well, if recent history is any guide, it isn’t merely talent or coaching that wins games, though those things matter.  After all, better talent and better coaching over the course of a season is still going to put you in a better position to win than other teams.  But more and more, it’s the bounce of a football that can determine the course of NFL history.

Let’s first look at the Patriots themselves.  Here are some of the fortunate breaks the Pats received during their three Super Bowl-winning seasons:

2001

-        Beat Oakland 16-13.  Famous snow-bowl game.  Two huge bounces of the ball saved the Patriots in this one:  the Tuck Rule and Troy Brown’s fumbled punt that the Patriots managed to recover.  If they don’t recover that, they almost certainly lose the game.

-        Beat Pittsburgh 24-17.  The Pats got a TD on a blocked field goal.  The block was skill, but the ball could have bounced to a Steeler.  Instead, the Pats scooped it up for a huge score.

-        Beat the Rams 20-17.  The Pats caused a huge fumble by Ricky Proehl, and, while causing fumbles is a skill, where the ball bounces from there is not.

2003

-        Beat Carolina 32-29.  After the Panthers tied things up late in the game, John Kasay kicks the ball out of bounds, giving Brady the ball at the Patriot 40, needing just a field goal to win.  It changed the game situation dramatically.

2004

-¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Beat Philadelphia 24-21.¬† Who can forget the colossal gaffe of the Eagles to not go in the hurry-up late in that game?¬† I know that‚Äôs not exactly a ‚Äúbounce of the ball‚ÄĚ, but it is still a fortunate break for NE that the Pats had nothing to do with.

And now let’s look at some of the unfortunate breaks the Pats received in some of their non-Super Bowl-winning seasons:

2005

-        Lost to Denver, 27-13.  Who can forget the Brady pick to Champ Bailey, which was a bad play by Brady?  But the bad break came after Ben Watson hustled down the field and actually knocked the ball out of Bailey’s hands just before he crossed the goal line.  It should have been Patriots’ ball at their 20 and it would have saved a touchdown.  Huge play in the game and the Pats got a terrible break on the bad call.

2006

-        Lost to Indianapolis 38-34.  Not really a bad break per se, but half the Patriots’ players had the flu for this game, and it showed late in the second half as they wore down.

2007

-        Lost to the Giants 17-14.  Who can forget the Tyree helmet catch?  It turns out that the loss of Stephen Neal to injury was huge as well.

2009

-        Lost to Baltimore, 33-14.  Losing Wes Welker the week before this game proved to be critical.

2010

-        Lost to the Jets, 28-21.  The Pats didn’t really have a bad break in this game, but made some uncharacteristic mistakes.

2011

-        Lost to the Giants, 21-17.  The bad breaks here came in the form of injuries (Rob Gronkowski, Andre Carter, etc.) and fumbles.  The Giants had two fumbles and both bounced right back to Giants’ players.  The Patriots also recovered a third Giant fumble but it was called back due to a penalty.

In order to win the championship, things have to go right for you.  Just look at fumbles during the Patriots’ five Super Bowl seasons since 2001:

2001

-        NE had 3 fumbles, recovered all 3 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 4 fumbles, recovered 2 (2 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 7 fumbles, 5 Patriot recoveries

2003

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 0 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 3 fumbles, recovered 2 (1 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 5 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

2004

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 1 (1 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        NE forced 7 fumbles, recovered 4 (2 in the SB, 1 recovery)

-        TOTAL: 9 fumbles, 5 Patriot recoveries

2007

-        NE had 2 fumbles, recovered 1 (1 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 5 fumbles, recovered 2 (2 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        TOTAL: 7 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

2011

-        NE had 3 fumbles, recovered 1 (0 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        NE forced 5 fumbles, recovered 1 (2 in the SB, 0 recoveries)

-        TOTAL: 8 fumbles, 2 Patriot recoveries

We can see a strong correlation here between the lucky or unlucky bounce of a ball and the Patriots winning a championship.  Obviously lots of other things go into a Super Bowl title besides fumbles.  But these are an interesting indicator of just how razor-thin the margin is in the NFL today.  During their three Super Bowl-winning seasons, they recovered 12 of 21 total fumbles during the playoffs (57.1%).  During their three Super Bowl wins, they recovered 3 of 6 fumbles, but during their two Super Bowl losses, they did not recover a single fumble of the five total that were put on the ground (4 by the Giants).

This past Sunday, there was one fumble, by Ridley on that vicious hit by Pollard (who else?), and naturally the ball ended up in the hands of a Raven.  On the Brady interception, the ball was batted at the line of scrimmage, and when that happens, it could be deflected anywhere.  Of course it was deflected right to Ellerbe standing 10 yards away.

Football is a game of precision, power, speed, emotion, strategy, and skill.  Over the course of time a team with better players and coaching will win more than teams with lesser players and coaching.  In any one-and-done tournament, unpredictable events can alter the outcome, and even more so if the relative differences between the teams is small.  In today’s parity-driven league, where there are no more uber-dominant teams, the margin for error is so small that these unpredictable events play an even bigger role than normal.  And nothing in football is more unpredictable than the bounce of an oblong leather object.

In order to win a championship, a team needs to be good, be playing its best football, and get the breaks.  Patriot fans have seen their share of breaks over the years, but since 2005, the ball hasn’t tended to bounce their way in the playoffs, and the result is an eight-year stretch without a Lombardi Trophy.