My friends, THE GURU can’t stop talking about Super Bowl LI, a game that yielded as many storylines as an evening out with OBNOXIOUS MIKE.
This week we’re going to look at Tom Brady’s performance against Atlanta and answer two questions:
1) Did the Patriots QB play well? and 2) Did he deserve the MVP?
First, let me say this: I am in the tank for Brady and admire everything about the guy as it pertains to football. His leadership. His poise. His decision-making. Off the field, I like the way he walks, talks, chews gum and orders vegan lattes. Heck, I even went so far as to purchase the guy’s nutrition manual for $200, earning me a well-deserved slap upside the head from THE FAIR CLAUDINE.
My deep admiration aside, the tape confirms what I saw in real time: Tom Brady did not play well in Super Bowl LI. He missed open receivers, threw several passes that were – or should’ve been – easy interceptions and, most surprisingly, made suspect decisions all night.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Brady didn’t make some good passes and some excellent decisions. There was a gorgeous 27-yard throw to #11, Julian Edelman, on the first play of the second quarter, a 13-yard pass to the same receiver on the next play and a typically clutch 13-yard completion to rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, #19, on 3rd-and-11 with the Patriots driving late to tie the game.
But, for nearly every good throw, Brady made a bad pass or a questionable decision.
Let’s start with his first pass of the game as he hung Edelman out to dry over the middle with #59, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, bearing down upon the diminutive receiver. The pass was a bit late and a little high and the Patriots were fortunate that it wasn’t Edelman’s last play of the game as Campbell, closing quickly, just missed the kill shot.
The issues continued throughout the first half. Cut to the second quarter, with eight minutes remaining and the Patriots trailing 14-0. First, Brady ignored wide-open receiver Chris Hogan, #15, at midfield for a first down and instead forced the ball to a well-covered Edelman. Incomplete.
On the next play, Edelman was wide open at six yards and would’ve likely gained eight yards if he got the ball. But Brady forced it again, this time to a well-covered Danny Amendola, #80. (Sounds like a good dessert, by the way. I’ll take a well-covered Amendola and a cappuccino, please.) Incomplete.
From there, Brady seemed to get into a rhythm, hanging tough in traffic and delivering a nice ball to running back James White, #28, for eight yards, hitting White again on a gorgeous swing pass and, three plays later, tossing a perfect 14-yarder to tight end Martellus Bennett, #88, for a first down.
But, just as he was beginning to look like the star that he is, Brady threw an interception that Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, #23, returned 82 yards for a 21-0 New England deficit. This play was a great example of how much Brady struggled all night, locking in on Amendola the entire time and missing a wide-open Edelman, streaking across the field for an easy first down.
It also was an illustration of how television analysts can treat superstars like Brady with kid gloves. In the booth, Troy Aikman – whose work is generally strong – credited the Falcons but didn’t offer much in the way of criticism about Brady’s pass. Fox’s replay clearly showed viewers that Brady was locked on Amendola, a cardinal quarterbacking sin that wasn’t noted by Aikman, the three-time Super Bowl winner as Dallas QB.
To be fair to Aikman, who I believe had an off night, there were a couple of points in the game were he did point out Brady’s struggles. At the end of the third quarter, for example, he noted that the QB was “just a little bit off,” which I believe to be an understatement, by the way. He also opined that the Pats “weren’t in sync” at another juncture.
“Fine,” you say. “I get it. Brady played poorly in the first half – you’re right. But how about the second half? He was amazing, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime.”
Respectfully, I disagree. Let’s check the evidence.
With 14:51 to go and trailing 28-9, Brady again seemed to get into a rhythm but it turned out to be fool’s gold. A 15-yard dart to Mitchell, #19, followed shortly thereafter by passes of seven and 18 yards to the rookie. Two plays later, he tossed a 24-yard rainbow to Bennett and the Pats seemed to be in great shape with first down from the Falcons’ seven-yard line. Then the Patriots QB reverted to his Super Bowl LI form.
On first down, Brady failed to feel the pressure applied by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, #97, and actually stepped right into a sack, completely missing a wide-open Hogan, #15, at the five-yard line. Hogan would’ve walked into the end zone to cut the lead to 28-15, pending the two-point conversion try, with about 11:40 remaining in regulation. Brady never saw Jarrett – or Hogan – because he was locked onto a receiver on his left.
Second down. Brady throws to White, #28, in the flat, with two Falcons in close proximity, resulting in a two-yard gain. Open in the middle of the field was Edelman at the seven-yard line. Again, this had touchdown written all over it and would’ve cut the lead to 28-15 with about 11 minutes left.
Third down. Brady is sacked by Jarrett (again) and, to be fair to the QB, the Falcons lineman is on top of him in about two seconds. However, even this play is a missed opportunity as Brady almost immediately had Hogan, again, open for a TD in the end zone at the top of the screen if he would’ve let the ball go and trusted his wideout. The camera then cuts to a shot of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel, looking extremely concerned.
While the decision-making in the red zone series was surprising, just as uncharacteristic was the poor clock management the Patriots displayed in allowing two minutes to run off the clock in these three plays alone. Stefan Gostkowski kicked a short(ish) field goal but Atlanta defenders are celebrating as they’ve held the Patriots to a field goal and hold a commanding 28-12 leave with 9:43 to go.
(Note: on the subject of New England’s clock management, give credit to play-by-play man Joe Buck, who notes, more than once, that the Pats aren’t moving as quickly as they should be, picking up on this as early as the third quarter. Buck and Aikman didn’t talk about Atlanta’s bad clock decisions, as noted in last week’s Ball, but they were onto the Pats here.)
Fortunately for New England, they were bailed out almost immediately after the field goal by the Falcons poor decisions and execution, recovering a fumble on Atlanta’s 25 with 8:31 to go. Brady & Co., though not perfect, took advantage and cut the lead to 28-20 with a TD and two-point conversion.
Stepping away from Brady for a moment, this series was an opportunity for Atlanta’s defense to end the game, especially considering that defensive end Dwight Freeney, #93, got the Falcons off to a great start on the possession by immediately sacking Brady for a five-yard loss.
The key play of the drive occurred on 3rd down-and-11 when Brady threw a nice ball to Mitchell, #19, for 13 yards and a first down as the defender slipped. Falcons defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, #77, had a chance to put his imprint on the game as Atlanta called a well-designed stunt that gave him an open path to Brady.
But the 318-pound Hageman, clearly fatigued, moved slowly and took too wide of an arc on the way to Brady, arriving a split-second too late to get the sack. Despite being late, Hageman still could’ve made a HUGE play if he only would’ve raised his arms to disrupt Brady’s throwing lane, perhaps batting down the ball and putting the Pats in fourth-and-very-long to save their season. Instead, Hageman kept his long arms at his side, leaving Brady with a clear view of Mitchell on the left sideline.
“Forget about Atlanta and let’s put the attention back on Brady,” you say. “He just cut the lead to 28-20 and is playing well. But now I suppose you’re going to tell me that he still didn’t play well on the last two possessions when the Pats scored the tying and winning points.”
My friend, that is EXACTLY what I’m going to tell you.
Due to Atlanta’s largesse, New England got the ball with 3:30 to go, on their own nine-yard line. They had two timeouts and needed a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie. And Brady almost ended the game immediately with a poor decision.
Pressured, the QB threw the first down pass up for grabs downfield on his right – his receiver hadn’t even turned around – and Atlanta had a chance to seal the victory. But cornerback Brian Poole, #34, fell down and couldn’t make the tailor-made pick-six. By the way, streaking downfield on Brady’s left, for a near-certain 91-yard touchdown, was Edelman, who had beat his defender by about two steps. Oddly, Brady never looked the way of his favorite receiver the entire time.
The rest of the drive was a blend of misses – a long incompletion to Hogan, a tipped pass that could’ve been picked off on the carom – and good passes, including a clutch throw to Hogan on 3rd-and-10 and a dart to Mitchell for the first down. But the play that will be remembered most was perhaps the worst throw Brady made all day.
On first down from his own 36, Brady decided to throw to Edelman and the pass should’ve ended the game. The receiver was double-covered and hit #23, Alford, right in the hands for a potential game-ending interception. But, the cornerback – a strong MVP candidate if he corrals the ball – couldn’t hang on and Edelman made the amazing catch for a 23-yard gain.
(Note: credit the Pats after this play for great smarts, and great coaching, as center David Andrews hustled to the line in an effort to snap the ball before the Falcons could challenge the play. Because the Pats were ready to snap the ball so quickly, the Falcons were forced to throw the red challenge flag before they likely wanted to do so as they hadn’t yet had time to see the replays which clearly showed the ball was caught. If New England takes its sweet time getting to the line, the Falcons see the conclusive replays and don’t challenge, leaving Matt Ryan with an important timeout to use for Atlanta’s final possession.)
After the replay confirmed Edelman’s catch, Brady and the Pats moved down the field, buoyed by some nifty catches and running by White to pull within 28-26. They tied the game on a screen to Amendola, a play where two Falcons miscues jumped off the film.
First, let’s look at #93, the ubiquitous Freeney, as he nearly ended the game on the two-point try. He got a very Freeney-like jump off the line and was quickly in Brady’s face BUT he made a significant technique error, raising his right arm to try to get in the way of the pass to Amendola, #80, in the flat. If Freeney had instead raised his left arm, which would’ve been in Brady’s throwing lane, he could’ve deflected the throw or forced Brady to run or perhaps pass to White in the opposite flat. And it’s debatable whether the Patriots’ running back, #28, would’ve gotten into the end zone or not if Brady had turned to throw to him.
Second, the Patriots had three receivers on the left side but #37, Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen, didn’t cheat in that direction. If he did, there’s a chance he would’ve gotten to Amendola in time to prevent the receiver from tying the game.
Fast forward to the final drive of the night, in fact, Brady’s final pass. On 1st-and-goal from the two-yard line, he lobbed an ill-advised ball to his right to a well-covered Bennett, #88, giving #44, linebacker Vic Beasley, a perfect opportunity for an interception. This was not only a bad throw but also a bad decision as tight end Matt Lengel, #82, was open in the middle of the end zone, ready to win the game.
If Beasley picks it off, all Falcons QB Matt Ryan has to do is move the Falcons 35-40 yards to set up the nearly automatic Matt Bryant to kick the Super Bowl-winning field goal. Alas, Beasley didn’t make the play and the Patriots won the game one play later.
“Ok, Guru, you self-righteous, long-winded jomoke,” you say. “You just used hundreds of keystrokes to tell us what you could’ve said in a sentence – you don’t think Brady played well. So what, if anything, would you say he did right?”
That’s easy to answer. The best thing that Brady did was the thing that he consistently does as well as anyone: he competed for four quarters – and then some.
On a night when he looked more like Blake Bortles than his accomplished self, Brady overcame his numerous poor decisions and bad throws by continuing to play hard with the hopes that things would eventually turn his way. He kept his head – and those of his teammates – in the game and never lost his competitive edge, even breaking off a surprising 15-yard run during the third-quarter TD drive, the kind of dash the QB makes as often as THE TRE MAN thumbs his nose at a hot dog cart.
“So tell us already, GURU. Did Tom Brady deserve to be named MVP or not? I’ve got things to do, for goodness sakes.”
Did Brady deserve the MVP? C’mon folks. Of course he did.