Numbers. Make ‘em dance, make’em sing, make them tell you anything.
Sometimes you can even create…an illuuuuuusionnnnn…..
Take something widely accepted as fact, then find a set of statistics that reflect the opposite.
Then share your “EUREKA!” moment – found by looking through a context-free keyhole - with people who won’t wonder how the illusion was created.
The crowd goes, “Oooohhhh.” Then it shovels more Skittles into its gob.
But all sports are not created equally when it comes to stats.
In baseball, number-crunching is a reliable measure of success. There are few variables. How well a hitter performs with two outs and runners in scoring position is a zero-sum game. Did he drive the ball or reach base or did he not?
In football? Not so easy. You can’t look at a quarterback’s completion percentage on third-and-goal inside the opponent’s 10 and opine whether the quarterback succeeded or failed based on the outcome of the play. A mountain of factors determine whether a play was executed well or poorly and sometimes an incompletion is a good play. You have to allow for time and score. Play call vs. defensive scheme. Protection. How open the receivers are.
In football, stats are the beginning of the discussion. What matters is the “why” that should follow
Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus had a “EUREKA!” moment this week. He used stats-based analysis to declare Tom Brady is no longer near the very top of the quarterback heap in the NFL. He stayed clear of the “why?”
Monson writes, “Brady’s decline is well underway, and it's showing up in one key aspect of his game in particular. Let's take a look at why Brady is no longer a top-five NFL QB, the QBs who should be ranked ahead of him, and what it means for the Patriots this season.”
Before we get to Monson’s case, though, I want to skip to a line near the end of his article.
He states: “(Peyton) Manning is the standard by which all quarterbacks are measured, and Rodgers and Brees remain worthy of places on the quarterback Mount Rushmore, but Brady has slipped below passers like Philip Rivers (if he maintains his 2013 performance level) and Ben Roethlisberger.
Just so we’re clear…
Philip Rivers has thrown 46 interceptions in the past three seasons. He has fumbled the ball 27 times. He has taken 109 sacks. The Chargers are 24-24 in the regular-season games he’s started and Rivers is 1-1 in the playoffs.
Tom Brady has thrown 31 interceptions the past three seasons. He’s fumbled 18 times. He’s taken 99 sacks. He’s 37-11 as a starter in regular-season games. He’s 4-3 in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger’s played in one playoff game in the past three seasons. The Steelers lost at home. To Tim Tebow and the Broncos.
So those are some numbers to chew on before we get to Monson’s contentions which are almost solely based on Brady’s 2013 statistics.
The first portion of Monson’s article deals with Brady’s performance in the face of pressure.
Last year he was accurate on just 57.6 percent of passes under pressure, 28th in the league.
That accuracy isn't just an abstract concept, either; it results in major negative plays and turnovers, the most damaging plays an offense can have During the past four seasons, Brady's touchdown-to-interception ratio under pressure has gone from 6-to-1 to 4-to-1 to 2-to-1 to 1-to-1 in 2013, with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
His PFF grade was plus-33.2 when he was kept clean in 2013, but plummeted to minus-14.8 when he felt pressure. His passer rating experienced a similar fall, dropping more than 30 points from 96.3 to 64.0.That is a significant swing, and it highlights the fact that Brady needs protection to be successful at this stage of his career.
It's worth noting that it was also the poorest performance from the New England offensive line for several years. The unit posted its worst pass-blocking efficiency figure (a measure of the sacks, hits and hurries surrendered per pass-protecting snaps) since PFF has been grading tape, and at best the unit was in the middle of the pack when it came to protecting Brady.
Nowhere in Monson’s piece does he allow for the fact the Patriots’ cut alleged murderer Aaron Hernandez last June and had Rob Gronkowski for just nine games. Those players – when on the field together in 2011 – combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. They were going to be the core of the Patriots 2013 offense.
Nor does Monson acknowledge that Wes Welker left as a free agent, his replacement Danny Amendola was hurt by halftime of the season opener and that Brady then turned to Julian Edelman and turned a bit player into a 105-catch, 1,056-yard receiver.
Tight end and slot receiver are bailout options for a quarterback when he’s under pressure. Under duress? Whip it to Gronk who can box out, go high or outmuscle. Or hit Welker on an option route because he’ll be 1-on-1 because of the defensive attention devoted to Gronkowski and Hernandez. Not in 2013.
He was throwing to Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Michael Hoomanawanui in a timing-based offense predicated on option routes that takes years to master. It was coin flip as to whether Thompkins and Dobson would go to the right spot, never mind make a catch. It was frustrating, as you’ll remember.
Meanwhile, putting stock in the TD-INT ratio dropping while not pointing out the altered personnel and lower overall touchdown pass total (25 down from an average over 36) is disingenuous
Monson next investigated Brady’s performance when he held the ball more than 2.6 seconds.
When he had the ball in his hands for 2.6 seconds or more in 2013, he completed just 45.1 percent of his passes, worst among 16-game starters.
Brady is not in (Peyton) Manning's class when it comes to mitigating pressure. Brady was sacked more than twice as often as Manning last year despite experiencing pressure on just 10 percent more plays. The percentage of pressure snaps that wound up in a sack of Brady was a much larger figure of 18.4 percent, middle of the pack (14th) compared with Manning's league-leading mark.
When he had the ball in his hands for 2.6 seconds or more in 2013, he completed just 45.1 percent of his passes, worst among 16-game starters. His passer rating on those throws was 69.2, worse than all but a handful of replacement-level starters. It is true that his performance spiked when he had a healthy Rob Gronkowski, but that same statement would likely apply to every other quarterback in football; such is the dominance of one of the league's premier tight ends.
One of a quarterback’s biggest responsibilities is minimizing damage. Bill Belichick does handsprings over quarterbacks that gets their teams out plays doomed to failure.
And after the ball is snapped, an incompletion is preferable to a sack and a sack is preferable to an interception.
Here’s a play where Mr. Gold Standard should have taken a sack.
That Brady threw 11 picks last season was testimony to his patience, discipline and physical condition. Forty sacks at age 36. Didn’t miss a game. Didn’t get into a habit of throwing and ducking. Did he take sacks rather than put a ball up for grabs? Yes. Because turnovers, the Patriots could not afford.
Monson concludes by discussing Brady’s “current place.” A couple of qualifiers get lobbed in.
But the crux of Monson’s claim is here.
There is little doubt at this point that we are witnessing his decline in action. Brady is no longer an elite quarterback. He remains very good, but if the decline continues at the same rate, it won't be long before that is no longer true.
In the final eight games of the 2013 regular season, Brady threw 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He took 17 sacks and had a completion percentage of 65 percent. The “quarterback in decline” got the Patriots to the AFC Championship game – his third straight – where he had a poor day throwing to the likes of Matt Slater, Austin Collie and Matt Mulligan on the regular.
Show me another quarterback who could have done what Brady did with last year’s Patriots.