There are two Tom Bradys, but only one of them can win in the end.
The first Brady is the quarterback we watch, read about and want to believe in. He’s the one who led the league with 36 touchdown passes at the age of 38, who at times looks like he doesn’t need standout skill position players around him to have the offense performing at a high level. He’s the one who just signed an extension with the New England Patriots to play until he’s 42 and said twice last season he wants to play far longer — maybe until he’s 50.
Then there’s the Brady who performed in the last Patriots game that counted. He’s the guy who was on his back at Sports Authority Field in Denver after 4 sacks and 20 quarterback hits. He’s the one who couldn’t rise above the circumstances around him; not against an all-time great Broncos defense that locked down his receivers and used three and four rushers to tear through his patchwork offensive line.
Stephen Gostkowski’s first missed extra-point attempt in 524 attempts over 10 years didn’t help Brady’s cause, either.
The second version is the one that’s closer to what to expect from signal callers who reach their late 30s. Brett Favre kept trying, even after the Green Bay Packers moved on from him. But at age 41, after throwing 8 more interceptions than touchdowns and feeling the affects of all of the hits to his body, he retired.
Peyton Manning put together the greatest season by a quarterback in history in 2013 when he was 37. Two years later he could barely throw the ball beyond 15 yards and called it quits.
Ever since Manning’s Broncos got the best New England in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have been in a race against time and reality to preserve the Brady they want to believe in. But they’re also facing reality.
This offseason, New England let offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo’s contract expire and replaced him with a franchise legend in Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots offensive line coach for all but two years from 1982-2013. The Patriots then traded their top pass rusher, Chandler Jones, to the Arizona Cardinals for fourth-year guard Jonathan Cooper, who has yet to reach his potential as a former top-10 draft pick. The Patriots believe they can get him there, as they often do with reclamation projects.
Brady has long been able to overcome so-so play up front with his rapid-fire release, an ability the Patriots played into with quick play calls and utilizing the league’s top tight end. Rob Gronkowski’s ability to draw multiple coverage looks in the middle of the field forced defenses to stay light on the blitz, allowing the offensive line to simply protect in small bursts to be effective.
Things started to break apart last season, as injuries ripped through the offensive line and Gronkowski wasn’t able to draw extra coverage. After finishing second in adjusted sack rate in 2014, the Patriots slipped to 18th last season, according to Football Outsiders. Then the Denver game happened, and fear settled in about what could happen to their future Hall of Fame quarterback, with the memories of how Favre and Manning went out fresh on the Patriots’ minds.
As usual, the Patriots have a plan. In the same offseason they extended Brady’s contract by two years, they made the commitment to extending his ability to play it out at a high level.
It doesn’t mean everything is fixed. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who filled in on the left side for an injured Nate Solder last season, will miss at least the first six weeks of the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List with a nagging hip injury that ESPN reports could sideline him for the season. New England also has to find a way to replace center Bryan Stork, who was released this week after he couldn’t pass a physical. And for all the talent Cooper has, it might take time to get his pass blocking up to the standards New England needs.
If the Patriots are to effectively keep Brady clean in the pocket after he returns from a four-game suspension for the Deflategate scandal, they’ll do it by continuing the schematic approach they’ve always won with while enhancing the safety valves for when those systems begin to break down. Trading a fourth-round pick to the Bears for tight end Martellus Bennett this offseason played into both ideas. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Bennett will add stress to the coverage, particularly when defenses are in their base package and lack the athleticism to keep up with two of the best receiving tight ends in the game.
When defenses are in nickel, Bennett will offer another safety valve for Brady. A plus blocker, Bennett also offers a chipping and run-blocking asset on the opposite side of Gronkowksi to keep teams from playing mismatches.
The Patriots don’t run the ball enough (just 25th in attempts last season) or call enough deep passing plays to need a dominant offensive line, but they do need a group more capable of holding for longer counts when the coverage is working. It’s a need that’s only going to intensify with each passing year.
And it’ll ultimately determine which version of Brady is the one that’ll be their reality.