Sorry, Max Kellerman, but Tom Brady isn’t tumbling over a cliff.
He might, however, be stumbling down a hill.
There’s an obvious distinction between the two, but it’s not like the latter is ideal. We love to describe the Patriots quarterback as ageless – and lord knows, what he’s doing now remains unprecedented -- but if we’re being honest and objective, subtle signs point to his clock ticking like everyone else’s.
On Sunday, Brady and the Patriots played their second-worst game of the season in a 34-10 loss to Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans (the Lions loss remains the standard-bearer). Brady completed 21 of 41 passes for 254 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked three times while recording a QB rating of 70.6.
Even QBs as great as Brady have bad days. It’s all the more forgivable when you’re missing the best tight end in NFL history, as well as half of your starting blockers by game’s end.
But Brady has never made excuses, so why should we? Brady hasn’t looked quite like himself for about a month now, with only one touchdown pass in his last three games. It’s not like he’s 2015 Peyton Manning, wobbling passes downfield with the oomph of the Nationwide jingle. But he’s not playing like the G.O.A.T., either.
Sunday brought so many strange plays, like . . .
-- Brady rushing to the line on fourth-and-a-long-1 in the red zone for a sneak that ended as soon as his scapula collided with the substantial undercarriage of center Ted Karras.
-- Or a fake reverse to Cordarrelle Patterson that fizzled when Brady dropped a harmless bloop single at the 2-yard-line with wide receiver Josh Gordon double covered at the back of the end zone.
-- Or a third down out to James White that Brady yanked into the ground even though he has made throws into tighter windows virtually every week for the last 18 years. That didn’t stop broadcaster Dan Fouts from curiously declaring the miss intentional because of blanket coverage.
-- Or the Patriots making the EXTREMELY questionable call to put Brady in harm’s way with a reprise of the option pass he dropped during last year’s Super Bowl. Brady caught this one, but he tripped on a blade of grass and ate sod shy of a first down.
But of all the strange sights, perhaps this topped the list: backup Brian Hoyer playing the final seven minutes while Brady licked his wounds on the sidelines.
The Titans clearly knew what they were doing. With starting left tackle Trent Brown in and out of the game because of a back injury and/or illness, Vrabel wore out Brady’s blind side. In addition to the three sacks, Tennessee hit Brady another six times, and that cumulative damage left a mark. Brady wanted no part of Wesley Woodyard and Co. by the end.
If Brady’s frustrated, it’s justified. With tight end Rob Gronkowski once again sidelined and suddenly being talked about in the past tense (did it look like they missed him this week by any chance?), slot machine Julian Edelman hobbled by a foot injury, and Chris Hogan remaining invisible, Brady found himself targeting the unreliable Gordon a game-high 12 times. Gordon caught four of them, and if you want to trust him with a dozen throws a game, be my guest, but as often as not, either his hands, footing, or route-running will fail him.
Meanwhile, first-round pick Sony Michel looks like a nice player, but I’d rather have spent $19 million on Dion Lewis than waste a first round pick on a running back, and judging from Lewis’s postgame comments, the former Patriot agrees.
“I just had to let our team know that these guys are beatable,” Lewis told the NFL Network’s Mike Giardi. “I know those guys. I know that you be physical with them and let them have it and they'll fold."
That’s awfully strong language, but the few times we’ve seen Brady rattled over the years – think playoff losses vs. against the Giants, Ravens and Broncos -- it’s against teams that played like the Titans did on Sunday. Vrabel knows this as well as anyone.
As Giardi noted, Brady has struggled in the face of pressure. Over the first five games of the season, he completed nearly 78 percent of his passes vs. the blitz with four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 148.7. Over the last five weeks, he’s at 44.8 percent with no TDs, one interception, and a passer rating of 56.4.
Blaming his struggles on pressure also lets Brady off the hook, though, because a number of his throws weren’t even close. He bounced two on one drive and sailed numerous others. Even the sacks he took looked uncharacteristic. Brady usually absorbs punishment on his terms, protecting his right shoulder, ducking to avoid heavy contact, or flopping like a crash-test dummy. But on Sunday he found himself stepping directly into the path of a screaming Logan Ryan (who helped him up almost sheepishly), taking a direct shot to his knee, or being folded into a pretzel by Jayon Brown.
Brady looked flustered and frustrated. It didn’t stop him from making some great throws, like a missile to Gordon in traffic, or a third-down conversion to a diving Edelman among three defenders. But he also looked more like a 41-year-old than perhaps at any other time in his career.
We can pretend his ball has the same zip and accuracy, or we can acknowledge the truth: he’s not himself right now. We’ll see if this hill leads to flat ground or somewhere more ominous.