It’s the weekend*, so I’m going to take a little liberty with this article. At its core, it is about critical thinking, but the journey is going to take us through a lot of sports talk. If sports talk isn’t your thing, please come back tomorrow where I hope to publish another article more related to money. I think the concept of critical thinking is important and this article should show how bad .
As with most sports talk, there’s a lot of bias. As a Red Sox fan, it’s not exactly easy for me recognize great Yankees, but I try to do my best. I recognize how amazing Rivera’s career has been and how great that Judge’s season has been. I have to get this disclosure out of the way because this journey is going to be about Tom Brady. I believe that Brady should be more popular than Beatles when they were popular than… well let’s not make that mistake again.
I’m going to be critical of a person today, but I hope he finds it as constructive criticism. I have great respect for his view and he’s clearly done his research. His main conclusion will be proven correct. Ty Schalter knows his football. (If he’s upset by this article he can always cherry pick that sentence as an endorsement. Hopefully we’ll see what I did there by the end of the article.) And if nothing else, I respect him as a Detroit Lions fan. I can channel my memory of the 1990 Patriots fan and can simply say it can get better. I still hope to have a room someday that simply shows Barry Sanders’ highlights. And even Barry said “I had good meetings with both of them, joked with Quinn about how similar Detroit is to Boston”. (Yes, I’m still disclosing fan bias, because we have to when sports is involved. It’s the ultimate partisanship.)
So the article I have an issue with is Schalter’s Tom Brady Will Be Bad Eventually. We all know that Father Time is undefeated. Pick any sports player and that’s true. Tyson, Trout, or Phelps, eventually every athlete loses the ability to compete… and it extends beyond people named Mike.
What sets this article apart is that it makes the case that Brady may be bad this year. In sharp contrast, a USA Today columnist has Brady leading the Patriots to a 19-0 record. Las Vegas casinos have favored the Patriots in every game this year. These are the best projections I’ve ever seen in more than 30 years of following the Patriots, so it’s worth looking into Schalter’s theory. Maybe he’s seeing things that we aren’t.
Let’s break down Schalter’s article with a few quotes:
“But despite Brady’s unwavering intent to demolish both the AFC East and time, it’s reasonable to ask how much longer he can keep this up.
Brady’s 2016 season didn’t just stand out from the rest of the NFL — it towered over his own recent campaigns.”
In consecutive sentences, Schalter put Brady ahead of the rest of the NFL and asked if he can continue it. That’s a fair question to ask, but it is a little strange in an article suggesting that he’ll “eventually be bad… maybe even this year.” Again, I have no problem with “eventually”, just the prediction of it being this year. I grant Schalter no literal license with “maybe”, because maybe can be like Wayne describing how monkeys might fly out of his butt. It seems to cover the grey area from 0.1% chance to 99.9% chance. It seems that Schalter is clinging closer to the 99.9% chance than the 0.1% chance of Brady being bad.
“Compared with his other recent seasons, 2016 almost looks like an aberration:”
The article continues to show a few graphs of Brady’s statistics that generally move up from 2013 to 2016. They don’t show that 2016 was an outlier and I’m not sure how to “almost” counts in a statistical analysis.
Additionally some of the graphs, such as “win percentage” and “touchdowns per interception” are deceptive. While a QB can and does contribute largely to “win percentage” there are other factors involved (such as the defense)… any football fan would agree.
Touchdowns for a QB aren’t always a great indicator of great performance. The TD can be often decided by a playcall inside the 5 yard line. I’m not throwing it out completely, but it’s a little like using RBIs in baseball.
Interceptions are worse, especially in Tom Brady’s case. He’s thrown very few interceptions in general over the 2013-2016 seasons. The interception rates are 1.8 and 1.1 through 2015 before his record-breaking 2016 number of 0.5. Interceptions are a particularly weird statistic… sometimes the ball bounces off the receiver’s hands and the defender gets it. In baseball terms, we’d call that an error on the receiver. Conversely, sometimes a QB passes the ball right at a DB and he fails to catch the ball. DBs drop potential interceptions all the time. The 2007 Patriots would be 19-0 if not for this dropped interception.
In this case, Brady only threw 2 interceptions in 2016. He’s had other years when he threw 4. As the denominator becomes small, it becomes hard to statistically consider it in such a ratio. One bad bounce and a 30/2 TD/INT ratio becomes 30/3. We can plot a 15 and a 10 on a graph and show a big drop. The drop doesn’t mean anything because it was simply a bad bounce out of hundreds of throws.
Anyone doing statistical analysis will tell you that putting a weird numerator over a weird denominator is just crazy pants.
A third graph in the article shows QBR, which goes up and down. The result is that 2016 is essentially the same as the 2014 season. We’ll get to the down year in 2015 in a bit. As Sarah Silverman might say, “Put a pin in it and we’ll get back to it later.”
Let’s move on:
“Before the start of the 2015 season, Brady seemed to be on the decline; his rate stats in 2013 and 2014 were the worst since he first achieved All-Pro status in 2007. ‘Worst’ is relative: Over this stretch, he was good enough to earn four Pro Bowl nods, four division titles and a Super Bowl win.”
“Before the start of the 2015 season, Brady seemed to be on the decline” works towards the idea that he might rounding out his career. However, there’s the pesky 2015 and 2016 statistical seasons. And it is fair to say that comparing Brady’s stats now to his record-destroying 2007 season with superstar receiver Randy Moss is very unfair. Even with this extreme comparison, it is qualified that “‘Worst’ is relative” along with a bunch of awards.
The idea of Tom Brady’s decline was debunked in 2015 (according to Schalter analysis). But….
“Brady’s numbers improved in 2015 and then skyrocketed in 2016 — but his overall 2015 numbers don’t tell the complete story. In that season, his production started off significantly better than the previous two seasons, but he wasn’t able to sustain it:”
There’s a number of graphs that follow this, but let’s stick with the beginning: “Brady’s numbers improved in 2015 and then skyrocketed in 2016…” This negates all the pre-2015 analysis of a “decline”, right? If Lebron James’ “numbers improved in 2015 and skyrocketed in 2016” would anyone write an article titled, “Lebron James Will Be Bad Eventually” with a subtitle of “Maybe even this year.” If Mike Trout’s “numbers improved in 2015 and skyrocketed in 2016” would anyone write that article?
“The drop-off in his level of play over the last month of 2015 was unmistakable, and it carried into the playoffs. His two-interception, four-sack, 56.4-rated passing performance in the AFC championship game was one of the worst playoff outings of his career.”
It’s true that Brady’s numbers declined after week 12 in 2015. The graphs again are deceptive. In this case there are only two data points… weeks 1-12 and weeks 13+ (includes post season).
While the drop-off might be “unmistakable”, let’s focus on the fact that football is a team sport. Sandra Bullock can tell you about “The Blind Side.” If you need a reminder here’s the opening monologue. That’s one player. Football fans know the offense is a combination of the offensive line, the tight ends, the wide receivers, and the running backs. It is important to keep defenses honest with a running game. A good football statistician would talk about play-action.
What Schalter didn’t mention is that the Patriots had a bad string of injuries that decimated their offense. They lost their “Blind Side” early in the season with Nate Solder’s injury. They were able to compensate for it for a bit.
Wide receivers who can get open in a second like Julian Edelman are gold. Having a certain Hall of Famer Gronk as a tight-end also helps the whole machine work. Edelman got injured and missed the last half of the season. Gronk played through his injury, but he didn’t seem to close to 100%.
Dion Lewis averaged 55 yards/game as a receiver and was most productive rusher (via Y/A). But Lewis got injured and played only 7 games. Blount had 700 yards rushing, but he got injured after 12 weeks… perhaps not coincidentally related to the “Brady drop-off.” The Patriots gave carries to special teamer Brandon Bolden. Steven Jackson and James White combined for 106 yards on 43 carries.
Here’s what a local Boston website said around week 12: The Coaches Know that Tom Brady is Hit Way Too Much:
“As the offense currently stands, the playcalling is putting Brady in the scopes of the defenders since the Patriots aren’t a threat to run the ball. Since defenders aren’t concerned about the run, they’re keying in on the quarterback and hitting him at a relentless pace. The fix will have to come from a combination of better playcalling, better blocking, better rushing, and better route running.”
Comparing Brady’s numbers from weeks 1-12 with the star LT, the 2 star RBs, and the #1 WR healthy is very different from comparing the numbers to them all being injured. Brady has always been able to maximize the talent around him, but the difference between the 2006 and 2007 Patriots might have something to do with upgrading from Reche Caldwell to Randy Moss, Wes Welker, etc. The rest of the roster does matter.
The “drop-off” didn’t actually carry into the playoffs as Schalter claims. Brady had his best passer rating in 3 years of playoffs games in the first game. (And yes this cherry picking a bit, but it negates any kind of “drop-off” logic.) Then there was the AFC championship that Schafter brought up. Despite the numbers, Brady actually performed very well considering the circumstances. As NBC Sports notes Brady was hit more times in that game than ANY QB in ANY game that year. Von Miller destroyed Marcus Cannon and it won him one of the biggest contracts in football.
I had a back and forth with Schalter on Twitter, but he essentially said that it is part of playing quarterback. He’s not wrong, but having a running game and play-action essential… as is an offensive line. You have to give credit to Denver’s defense too. Despite all that, the Patriots would have tied the game if their kicker hit his extra point opportunities.
Let’s get back to the 538 article:
“Unlike in 2015, Brady may have looked sharp late in the 2016 postseason because he had fewer games on the odometer — and not by his choosing. His Deflategate-related suspension for the first four games of the 2016 season not only served as a rallying cry for the entire Patriots organization, but also spared his body and arm from a month of bumps, bruises and repetitions.”
Brady might have also looked good in the 2016 postseason because he had a complete team. Marcus Cannon went from one of the worst offensive lineman to the best when the Patriots brought their sure HoF coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement. The book has always been that if you give Brady time he’ll beat you. That alone could be difference. Of course the Patriots also had more weapons even with Gronk injured. Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell caught the ball at 65% or better. Martellus Bennett filled in for Gronk despite battling injuries himself. Edelman was the team’s leading receiver. Blount stayed healthy and James White added more protection from the runnning game.
It’s an easy formula: Brady + protection + dangerous receivers + running game = Great Offense.
The problem here is a classic one of causation vs. correlation. The correlation of the Patriots’ performance drop-off in 2015 lead Schalter to put the blame on Brady when a deeper analysis shows that it might have been the surrounding people. In 2016, we never got data to support any kind of slowdown in performance. All we have to go on is that Brady had the statistically best season of any quarterback in 11 years according to Pro Football Focus.
Yes he was better than he was in 2007 or 2010 when he won the MVP. It doesn’t make sense to speculate on a drop-off that didn’t happen.
So the “pattern” is a bad causation/correlation and something that didn’t happen.
Back to the article:
“This season, Brady will have no such early-season sabbatical. He’ll be facing players who were born while he was in college at the University of Michigan. Thriving at his age in the NFL is certainly rare — but it’s not unprecedented. Warren Moon, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning all had a dominant season at or near age 40. But all three experienced a sudden decline in performance, as if a switch had been flipped on their ability:”
Moon and Favre played in a different era of football. The league protects quarterbacks much more now. Favre took a lot of hits and was certainly a tough guy to take them. Let’s remember that Favre’s good post-40 season came when he went away from the “gunslinger” to the dropping shorter high-percentage passes. I give him credit for learning a new trick as an old dog. However, this has always been Brady’s game and he’s arguably the best ever at it. It stands to reason that he’d fair better than Favre.
Warren Moon was a great passer, but he was also known for his ability to scramble. He had a lot of miles on those legs. When he played in the 80s and 90s, he surely took a lot of hits. This was a time when the Lotts and Atwaters were celebrated for their jaw-dropping hits. I think it would be fair to argue that Moon playing well at 41 would be similar to a player playing at 45 today’s game.
Then there’s Manning. We all know the stories about his injuries. Yes, as the body gets older it’s harder to heal. However, these injuries were extreme. He literally went from being the best quarterback to the worst. He was injured that last season and everyone could see it. Of course Brady could get injured too. It’s also possible that Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers gets injured too.
Predicting an injury is a difficult situation. I think you talk about when it happens and when you understand the scope of it. I think its fair to say that injuries usually aren’t the reason for a career to end.
There’s a statistical problem of a small sample size here. Each player has their set of circumstances. Brady will eventually has his as well, but we don’t what that is now. There’s nothing in his statistics to show that he’s any different today than he was 10 years ago. What we know is that he’s created a business around being athletic for a long time and loves playing football. This past offseason, he said that football is particularly fun now because he “has all the answers to the test.” You can’t show him something on the football field that he hasn’t seen. Warren Moon didn’t have the benefit of all the advanced film study we have today.
Back to the article:
“New England seems intent on helping Brady replicate his 2016 season. This offseason, the team traded for speedy wideout Brandin Cooks to bolster the Brady arsenal. Patriots owner Robert Kraft compared the impact of this spring’s trade for Cooks to the team’s acquistion of Randy Moss in 2007. That deal sparked the greatest statistical season of Brady’s career. Some experts are projecting the Patriots to go undefeated, as they did after Moss arrived.”
Once again, this goes against the narrative of the article. The Patriots did indeed add more weapons. Also Gronk appears to be healthy. Brady has never had a bad season when he has players out there. Injuries can and will happen. That’s the nature of the sport.
“There are a lot of reasons to believe Brady will stay excellent, from his self-care regimen to the talent around him to perhaps the best head coach in NFL history. But Favre and Manning were both playing their best football immediately before playing their worst.
Brady picking up at age 40 where he left off at age 39? That would be unprecedented.”
Except that Warren Moon got much better from age 40 to 41. Even in Moon’s age 42 season (his last as a starter) he had a higher QB rating than he did during his 4 year span from age 28-31.
I think it’s likely that Schalter was tasked with writing an article that supported an agenda. Since anyone can have a website and express their views (this is one example), a lot of people have the same ideas. It’s at least an interesting idea to explore that Brady hasn’t put together a full 16-game regular season for 2 seasons. Unfortunately, I think analysis of 2015 missed the mark and there’s no data to support a performance drop in 2016. It was quite the opposite. Predictions of a perfect season show that many aren’t expecting it in 2017 either.
Predict something that going to eventually happen enough times and you’ll be right… but you could be wrong a bunch of times first. The problem is that when you are eventually right, people will go back and say, “You were wrong too many times, so this means nothing.”
So what do you think? Do you see cases of odd statistical analysis used to cover up the whole story?
* It WAS the weekend when I started and intended to publish the article.