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.