For two decades, football fans have watched Tom Brady and Bill Belichick dominate the NFL. Since Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Patriots have won the AFC East every year except for a 2008 campaign that saw Matt Cassel step in for an injured Brady and a 2002 season in which the Patriots lost the division in a three-way tie for first place.
In the last five years, it seemed the Patriots had turned the Super Bowl into their own invitational with four appearances and three victories. Prior to Brady and Belichick, the Patriots were 0-2 in Super Bowls. Since then, they are a previously unfathomable 6-3, now leading the NFL in all-time Super Bowl appearances.
But in the league’s 100th season, it felt as though their stream of success had finally run dry. That downfall started with Brady. The 42-year-old quarterback posted near-career lows in just about every category in the 2019 season.
Brady posted a completion percentage of 60.8-percent (the third-lowest of his 19-year career as a starter), a career-worst 52.5 QBR since the NFL introduced the stat in 2006, and 4,057 passing yards (his second-lowest number in a full season this decade).
The passing yard total is alarming considering Brady attempted an AFC-high 613 passes in 2019, the fourth-highest total in his career. A decline in passing yards in a season where Brady threw the ball more than nearly any other quarterback is a major red flag.
I’ll be the first to admit that Brady was not given the most to work with. The Patriots ranked fifth in passes dropped in 2019 (only trailing Miami, Buffalo, Chicago, and Dallas). Following the same pattern, New England ranked 25th in rushing yards per attempt in 2019, which led to a major lack of balance among the air and ground attacks. All of these numbers are products of a Patriots system that the league has outgrown.
For the past few seasons, the league has produced offenses far more explosive than New England’s. But when it came down to facing the dynasty head-on, opposing teams were light-years behind New England. That came to an end this year, as the Patriots suffering defeat at the hands of nearly every viable opponent they faced.
The numbers support this: in games against playoff teams, just eight-percent of the plays the Patriots produced were “explosive” (resulting in 20 yards or more), which ranked them 27th in that category. Similarly, the Patriots ranked 21st in first downs per play and 17th in punts per offensive score, and those ranks held true for the entire season, not just against contenders (the numbers there are even worse).
This in large part has to do with the team’s toxicity rate, especially in passing situations. In 2019, the Patriots threw the ball the sixth most in expected passing situations, meaning that the offense was predictable for opposing defenses. The overall lack of offense in 2019 showed that the Patriots were, in fact, mortal, and led to their first-round exit in the playoffs (just the second in the Brady era).
As a result, Brady is now a free agent who will almost certainly hit the open market on March 18, and some would even argue that divorce among the two sides is likely. You can debate whether Tom Brady was the problem in 2019, but there is no debating the concept of the problem existing. The Patriots’ offense was the worst we have seen in a long, long time. The Patriots’ offensive system is growing old, and for that reason, with or without Tom Brady, the New England Patriots are not only mortal but vulnerable until further notice.