Super Bowl Hangover Pt. 2: From Bradying to Welker
Cold, Hard Football Facts Downfield Threat
On Monday we took a quick look at Tom Brady’s not-so-terrific playoff struggles. Now we’ll go more in-depth, and not just for the seasons that haven’t produced a ring.
One of the most talked about plays from Super Bowl XLVI is Brady’s pass to Wes Welker on 2nd and 11 with 4:00 left in the game. Welker was unable to hold onto the ball, and the Patriots would soon punt.
Peter King says the fault is more on Welker. Mike Florio thinks it’s more about Brady’s throw. Cris Collinsworth said Welker catches that ball “100 times out of 100” as he broadcasted the game Sunday night.
The correct answer is both players are at fault. It’s a catch Welker should make, and it’s a throw Brady should have made much easier to catch to a wide open receiver.
As for Collinsworth’s point, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. In fact, it gets right down to the core problem in New England’s offense and why those two players failed to connect on that play.
The Brady-to-Welker failure is a shining example of New England’s inability to stretch the field in the passing game.
Since 2007, Wes Welker has 554 receptions in the regular season. But only 11 of those receptions have been caught on passes thrown 20+ yards in the air, such as this pass was. That’s only 1.99% of his receptions. One of those passes was by Matt Cassel in 2008, leaving just 10 career connections between Brady and Welker on passes over 20 yards down the field in the regular season.
In seven playoff games together, Welker doesn't have a reception longer than 19 yards no matter where the pass was thrown to.
Why would anyone expect Welker to make a play like that 100 times when he’s never done it anywhere close to 100 times in his career? He’s the underneath slot machine. All the bread and butter plays between Welker and Brady are on short routes (under 8 yards). It’s not a surprise they would be out of sync on a pass and catch they practically never make together.
With a number of plays as small as 10, it took us just minutes to compile all of them for you to view. In discussion of the pictures, we'll be moving from left to right, and from top to bottom.
2007 (2 catches) and 2010 (1 catch) - link for larger image
Our first play is a 35-yard touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in 2007. Welker was doubled, but got behind the coverage as no safety was deep.
The second play from 2007 is a blown coverage by the Giants in Week 17. Welker caught it right at the 21-yard marker from the line of scrimmage, and would gain 28 yards on the play. On the bottom row you can see an alternate view (left) of the play, with Welker having so much open space to make the catch. Cris Collinsworth said, "Apparently [the Giants] didn't get the call on that one, because he came running up into the flat, and just left nobody on Wes Welker."
Our last play comes from the 2010 season against the Green Bay Packers. It was Welker's only such catch of the season, and it was another blown coverage with Welker getting completely lost in the middle of the field (you can see three defenders went deep) for a 35-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
2009 (3 catches) - link for larger image
Now in the 2009 season only, the first play was in the snow game against Tennessee, who were brutal in coverage all game long. Welker easily beat his man to haul in the 48-yard gain.
The second play came against the Jets. New York brought a blitz, but there was no one deep. Welker quickly raised his hand to call for the ball like teammate Randy Moss, and the Patriots had an easy completion for 43 yards. "Nobody deep [on Jets]. On a blitz, and they retreat, but look at the gap that it leads for Wes Welker going up the seam." - Phil Simms
The bottom two pics are both against the Dolphins, with Welker making a catch over the middle and running for a 58-yard gain (2nd longest of the 10 plays listed). "I'm watching Wes Welker the whole play, I'm going okay, this time they'll double cover him. Nope, they double cover somebody else on the inside, he's wide open going down the field." - Phil Simms.
2011 (4 catches) - link for larger image
The first play was a 24-yard pass in the Week 3 loss at Buffalo. The coverage wasn't too bad, but Brady and Welker made the play.
The second play has two angles, and it came against the Jets in Week 5 on the first play of the third quarter. Welker fooled Darrelle Revis on the play, and beat Revis and safety Eric Smith over the middle and after nearly scoring, Welker gained 73 yards on the play.
Our third play was a blown coverage by the Eagles that led to a very easy 41-yard touchdown for Welker.
The last play was Welker getting matched up with a linebacker (big mistake by Miami), and the pass dropped in there for a 42-yard gain.
The Difference in the Super Bowl
Now you see the 10 catches down the field Brady and Welker have connected on together. Notice any patterns? Welker was able to run after the catch on all of them because of where the ball was when he caught it. There was no wild adjustment needed to catch the ball.
When trying to locate the touchdown against Philadelphia, we stumbled upon a gem of a play that looked awfully similar to the Super Bowl. It was a catch Welker didn't make, albeit on an imperfect pass. Compare this play with the Super Bowl failure:
Week 12 drop (top) vs. Super Bowl drop (bottom, two views) - link for larger image
The similarity is striking, with Welker trying to extend off the ground, falling backwards for the ball, and not being able to come down with it on both occasions. Notice that what you see here is not what you saw the first 10 plays.
When you have a quarterback that simply is not used to throwing to this receiver on these types of passes, and when you add the pressure of the fourth quarter in a close Super Bowl, it's not a surprise at all they failed to convert this big play together.
History says the surprise would have been if they did make the play.
Misconceptions For the New England Passing GameThe misconception is that New England doesn’t throw deep more because of the personnel around Brady. Chad Ochocinco was a major disappointment, catching just 15 passes in the regular season. “When they had Randy Moss, Brady threw deep like crazy!”
No he didn’t.
Using data from the Elias Sports Bureau and STATS LLC, here are Brady’s starting seasons broken down by the percentage of pass attempts he threw that were either 10 yards or shorter, or more than 20 yards in the air. Note: regular season only.
|Season||<10 yards %||21+ yards %|
That’s right. The 2006 Patriots, with Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Ben Watson, a 35-year old Troy Brown, and Kevin Faulk had a higher rate of passes more than 20 yards down the field than the 2007 Patriots did with Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth.
“But how could that be? The 2006 Patriots had a terrible receiving corps. Randy Moss caught a record 23 touchdowns in 2007. That was a vertical offense! I saw Brady’s deep balls!”
No, you saw highlights. Specifically, you saw Brady throw 15 touchdown passes that year on passes of 20+ yards. In 2006 he had only 7. Throw in the Moss factor and the opportunity for the spectacular catch, and it’s likely you saw a lot more of these plays than you would have the previous year.
- 2006: Brady was 23/63 for 735 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT on passes thrown 20+ yards.
- 2007: Brady was 28/69 for 1,112 yards, 15 TD, 5 INT on passes thrown 20+ yards.
- 2009: Brady was 16/60 for 701 yards, 9 TD, 6 INT on passes thrown 20+ yards.
- 2010: Brady was 14/36 for 537 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT on passes thrown 20+ yards.
- 2011: Brady was 13/45 for 474 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT on passes thrown 20+ yards.
Sure, Randy Moss can make you a more effective downfield passer, but the offense Brady is more comfortable with revolves around the short passing game because it plays to his strengths better.
Those 2004 Patriots with Deion Branch, David Patten and David Givens were easily the most vertical of the New England offenses under Brady. Go figure that was his best postseason (and last Super Bowl win).
You can see the strong dink and dunk tendencies of early Brady (2001-02), and you can see what’s happened the last two years as they moved to a two-tight end offense. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been outstanding in their first two seasons, but there’s really no other offense in the league that’s based on two tight ends and a slot receiver.
For the final drive in the Super Bowl, Giants’ RB Brandon Jacobs, who had a lot to say this week (including making Albert Breer’s mouth quiver in fear), said that Brady “does a great job with the guys he has. But if that was Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers on the other side, with those big play outfits, 57 seconds would have been plenty enough time for those guys.” He said the Patriots passes are much shorter. “They needed a helluva lot more than 57 seconds to be able to win the football game,” Jacobs said. “So I wasn’t worried at all.”
Defenses don’t have to be as worried either. It’s hard to imagine why any of them wouldn’t have played tight, single-coverage on the outside, rarely blitzed, and just flood the middle with defenders to stop all the inside receivers.
Not being able to stretch the field isn’t something alarmingly new for the Patriots, but it becomes more of a problem when you no longer have an elite defense, and are put in more difficult positions (long fields) where you have to score, and you need big plays to do it.
Lack of Big Plays in the New England Passing Game DefinedOn Monday we looked at the distance of Brady’s 9 TD passes in his five Super Bowls. The distances on those plays are 1, 2, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 8, and 12 yards. The last came Sunday night to Aaron Hernandez.
But this isn’t just some Super Bowl statistical trend. We looked at the only 24 quarterbacks to throw at least 15 touchdown passes in the postseason, and broke down the distances of their scoring tosses.
|QB||TD||Avg.||1 yd||%||1-3 yd||%||<10||%||20+||%||50+||%||70+||%|
Brady has easily the shortest average touchdown pass at just 12.1 yards. The “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica comes in with the highest at 33.4, but you can see the other elite quarterbacks Brady battles with (Peyton, Roethlisberger, Brees) are closer to Lamonica’s end, so it is not just an “old timer” stat.
1-3 yards is a good spilt, because those are the kind of plays that are often reserved for running backs to score on the ground. Brady ties Marino with the most at 7.
Perhaps the craziest stat of them all is Brady having 26 touchdown passes thrown 1-9 yards (<10). Joe Montana is second all time with 16, so Brady is 10 ahead of the runner-up. His 68.4% is more than 30% above the average of how often these other quarterbacks threw a 1-9 yard touchdown pass in the playoffs.
The numbers were even more skewed before this postseason, with 80% of Brady’s first 30 touchdown passes coming in this short distance.
Despite having the third most playoff touchdown passes (38), Brady is tied for the fewest 20+ yard touchdown passes with just four in 22 games. That percentage of 10.5% of his touchdown passes is over 25% below the average.
Brady’s longest playoff touchdown pass is a 63-yard play to Ben Watson against Jacksonville in the 2005 AFC Wild Card. It was a play that was more than fortunate to work out. Facing a 3rd and 13, Brady threw a very short pass, playing it safe with a 14-3 lead, but Watson managed to break three tackles and not just get the first down, but raced his way to the end zone to complete the 63-yard play. A week later, Watson would show his athletic ability again by chasing down Champ Bailey at the one-yard line following a Brady interception. The 2005 postseason is clearly the highlight of Ben Watson’s career.
You may say a touchdown is a touchdown no matter where it’s scored from, but the same still holds true for the other 23 quarterbacks on the list; most of them finding ways to get scores on bigger plays (on average).
But touchdown passes aren’t everything for a quarterback, and this gets right back to the general New England problem of not being able to stretch the field no matter where the line of scrimmage is.
Out of 65 qualified quarterbacks (min. 150 attempts), Brady’s 6.66 YPA ranks 40th, and his 10.59 YPC ranks 63rd all time.
Not the stuff of legends. Only Drew Bledsoe (10.35) and Steve McNair (9.59) rank lower in YPC than Brady, and those are two names you want no part of being in the same sentence as for the playoffs.
With the improvement in regular season stats since 2007, that just makes the decline in the playoffs that much larger.
|2001-2006 Reg. Season||7.04||11.38||88.4|
|2007-2011 Reg. Season||8.16||12.27||107.3|
Some decline in the playoffs is expected because of the difference in competition, but this is more than you would expect. Despite having less talent from 2001-06, the average playoff completion by Brady was 0.77 yards more than it has been since 2007.
What was different in 2001-04 that led to a 9-0 playoff record and three Super Bowl wins? Brady still averaged only 6.42 YPA and 10.27 YPC in those nine games.
The difference is Brady made up for a lack of offensive production by protecting the ball (just 3 interceptions on 304 attempts), a lot of good situational football, and of course a defense and special teams that kept the score down and even added to the scoring for the team.
They held six teams to 17 points or less, won a wild shootout with Carolina in a Super Bowl, and intercepted Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb three times each in the 2004 playoffs.
Brady still was rarely pushing the ball down the field, but the team was better prepared to grind out victories because of the defense they had. Now that the team is more built around Brady and excel so much offensively in the regular season, the expectations are higher for the playoffs, as are the requirements for them to win games. And they are not being met.
Despite three offenses that scored over 500 points in a season, the Patriots have lost playoff rematches with the Giants (twice) and Jets, and scored just 14, 21 and 17 points in the process.
Over four years later, and “we’re only going to score 17 points?” sounds like a dreadful joke; an ominous foreshadowing of disappointments to come.
Brady's His Own Victim of Early Career SuccessWithout stretching the field enough in the passing game, it puts a lot of pressure on the whole team to excel in other areas to help with field position and scoring.
When your team is built around a high-scoring offense, it’s not acceptable or even reasonable to try winning games by scores of 14-10 and 17-15; hoping to stop Eli Manning on the last drive. You have to outscore the opponent. This isn’t 2001 anymore.
The Patriots need more points in the playoffs; those same points that are so abundant to them in the regular season. Big plays produce scoring, and big plays come in the passing game.
How do you get more big plays? By throwing the ball down the field. The play of Super Bowl XLVI was Eli Manning just ripping a pass over two defenders to a receiver that wasn’t even his first option. Just like that, 38 yards and off they go on a winning drive.
We know Brady isn’t going to scramble around, extend the play and find receivers open that way. It’s not in his abilities to play that style. The play has to come from in the pocket, and with his arm throwing accurate passes down the field. Keyword: accurate.
Brady and Welker failed to connect on a big play in the Super Bowl, because it’s not the kind of play they are used to making together. Maybe Welker needs to start running more routes down the field and expand his role in the offense.
Whether or not Gisele is a curse, the Giants/Eli Manning are New England’s kryptonite, Brady is suffering the cruelest regression to the mean ever, Wes Welker’s mustache lost the ball in the lights, or if the Football Gods keep punishing Bill Belichick for running up the score/playing for records, there is one thing that holds true through it all.
If Tom Brady wants to win that fourth Super Bowl ring, he has to start making the tougher throws necessary to get there. The dink and dunk offense can only take you so far against the better competition.
Brady is practically a victim of his own success. If he plays like the old Brady in the playoffs that won three rings, it might be too conservative for this current team, and they won’t score enough to win. Yet, by trying to carry the team since 2007, they still aren’t scoring enough points and winning any championships. What should he do?
Great players strive to get better, no matter how much previous success they had. Brady has a weakness in his game that’s been there since the start. It’s been masked by the great teams around him early on in his career, and his all-time proficiency in the short passing game. But sooner or later, your weakness will be exposed, and it’s up to you to push yourself to overcome it.
Brady literally has to stretch his game to a newfound level.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He’s glad Gisele didn’t marry Aaron Rodgers or else there might be a lynch mob out on those receivers for their drops. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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