Tom Brady, is of course, an all time great, first ballot hall of fame QB. Personally I think you have to put him in the conversation for the greatest to ever play the position. So, here's an interesting question: why are the Pats running the ball more than any other team in football?
That's right, the New England Patriots run the ball more than any other team in the NFL. Well, you say, the Pats had become too pass heavy. Everybody in the building knew the Pats were going to pass the ball. It just became too predictable. More balance was needed. Well.... maybe. But ask yourself this: no matter how predictable the Pats had become, how many teams had any real success actually stopping them? Last year they were #2 in total offense, running 38 pass plays per game and 27 run plays per game. That doesn't sound like an offense that had become easy to stop. This year they are #1 in total offense, running 40 pass plays per game and 36 run plays per game. Yes, they improved from #2 to #1. But that is almost entirely due to the incredible tempo at which they have been running their offense, as they have managed to run a whopping 11 more plays per game than last year.
Now, look at the breakdown of additional plays being run this year. The Pats are running an additional 2 pass plays per game, and an additional 9 running plays per game. Note here that the explanation for all the additional running plays is NOT that the Pats have been blowing teams out early, then just handing the ball off to run out the clock. In fact, at 3-3 and only 2 games decided early, one would have expected less of that type of running, not more.
Well, but this year the Pats have a much more effective running attack, so they should be utilizing it much more, right? Well... not so much. Last year the Pats averaged 4.0 yards per carry. This year the number is 4.2. The league average both years was 4.1. So last year the Pats were slightly worse than average, and this year they are slightly better. Better, yes. But just incremental improvement, within the range of random fluctuation. For all the talk of the Pats revived running game and how great Ridley's been, in fact their running game has been only marginally more effective than last year.
So then, how to explain the fact that 80+% of the additional plays being run by the Pats this year are running plays? To put it another way, suppose you are Hoodie. You have been given one of the 5 greatest QBs of all time. You have been given a Pro Bowl WR, an All Pro TE, a shiny new weapon in Brandon Lloyd, and a running game that is slightly better than average. You have been given 11 plays. Why would you choose to run the ball 9 out of those 11 plays?
The answer may lie in the subtle deterioration in Tom Brady's game. On the face of it that sounds ridiculous. Brady is leading the NFL in passing yards right now. Wouldn't we love to have that kind of deterioration. But consider this. Brady's QB rating this year is 97.2, good for 6th in the NFL. Very good to be sure, but not quite the Tom Brady we've come to know and hate. The last time Brady was this low in the QB standings was 2009, coming off his injury and a year he was shaking off the rust for half the year. The last time before that was 2006. He also has a yards per attempt figure this year of just 7.6. Again, very good, and we should be so fortunate to have a figure like that, but again not quite up to the usual Brady standards. He's had a figure that low only once since the 2003 season. He's also on a pace for only 27 TD passes, a figure he hasn't sunk to since 2006.
So, maybe it's about the ferocity of the pass defenses he's been facing? Well... not so much. NE has faced SEA, DEN, ARI, BUF, BAL, and TEN. Those are the #s 7, 9, 10, 20, 22, and 29 ranked pass defenses in the NFL this year. In composite, those represent mediocrity, nothing more. And yet, Brady's stats are down to levels we haven't seen in years. Interesting.
New England, out of nowhere, has suddenly become the most run happy team in the NFL. Sure, they needed more balance. But when you have an all time great at QB, wouldn't you think more balance would mean something like bringing the team up to 15th or 12th or 10th in rushing attempts, not #1? Wouldn't you want to keep the game in the hands of your All Pro QB rather than your slightly above average running attack? Maybe it's nothing - a statistical aberration, borne of small sample size. But maybe it represents something more. Maybe, just maybe, Hoodie is seeing something the rest of the world has not quite caught onto yet. Maybe, just maybe, at the age of 35, we are seeing the first tiny inklings of the beginning of the end for Tom Brady.