The Tom Brady we're seeing in 2016 isn't at all like the one we were expecting, but maybe we shouldn't be surprised.
Popular opinion pushed Brady projections after he missed the first four games of the season into two camps. The pessimistic camp saw a 39-year-old quarterback who would be coming off an abbreviated training camp and a four-week absence from football and reasonably expected Brady to be rusty. The optimistic side expected Brady to be a vengeful, hyperaggressive gunner, something more akin to the "screw you" Brady of 2007 -- throwing deep into the fourth quarter and racking up points against desperately overmatched competition.
In reality, the Brady of 2016 is neither of those guys. He certainly hasn't been rusty, and while he's been wildly effective, there hasn't been a real hint of venom to his performance so far. Against a series of average-or-worse defenses per DVOA, Brady has been extremely efficient. There's a reason Rex Ryan said that he has "[never] seen Brady this hot," after Sunday's 41-25 thumping of the Bills in Buffalo. Brady doesn't appear angry, but he does appear close to untouchable.
And so the questions mount. Is this as good as he has been, and is he going where no QB his age has gone before? And when all is said and done, is he an MVP?
Is this the best Tom Brady we've ever seen?
If it's not the best four-game stretch Brady has ever put together, it isn't far off. What he has done over the first four games of his 2016 season has been scary: Brady is 98-of-134 for a 73.1 completion percentage, throwing for 1,319 yards and averaging 9.84 yards per attempt. He leads all qualifying passers in both of those rate statistics. Perhaps most impressively (albeit unsurprisingly): Brady has thrown 12 touchdowns without an interception.
In all, Brady has posted a passer rating of 133.9 through four games. 133.9! That's unreal. We would say those are video game numbers, but if the game was that easy, you would raise the difficulty level because it almost wouldn't be fun if you were that good. To compare, you can split Brady's career up into 181 four-game stretches without crossing over seasons. There's some overlap because Brady put together two incredible six-game runs, but of those 181 four-game stretches, Brady posted a passer rating higher than 133.9 just seven times:
During the first four weeks of the 2007 season, when Brady's connection with Randy Moss and Wes Welker in a newly spread-happy Patriots attack took defenses by surprise.
Three different times from Weeks 5 through 11 of the 2007 season, as what was then regarded as the greatest offense in NFL history hit its peak around New England's Week 10 bye. Brady peaked with a 138.9 rating during that stretch, culminating in a 56-10 win over these same Bills. The Pats averaged 41.1 points through that Bills game and a much more reasonable 29.7 points per game afterward.
Three more times during a stretch from Weeks 10 through 15 of the 2010 season, when Brady followed up a 20-point loss in Cleveland to Eric Mangini's Browns by going 6-0 and throwing for 1,735 yards with 17 touchdowns against zero picks in a six-game span, peaking with a 138.6 passer rating.
QBR only exists through the 2006 campaign, but given how Brady's numbers took a dramatic leap during the 2007 season, it's safe to use it as a comparison here as well. It agrees with passer rating. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady posted 96.4 QBR during a four-game stretch from Weeks 7 through 11 of the 2007 season, which is just absurd; it suggests that an average team with an average defense and average luck would win 96.4 percent of the time if it had a quarterback playing like Brady under center.
Brady also had a stretch with a 92.9 QBR that season, and two consecutive 2010 four-game runs with a 92.1 QBR, all of which are adjusted for quality of competition. Through four games this year, Brady has posted a 91.6 QBR, which is the fifth-best run of his professional career. Brady has averaged 11.6 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) through these four games; he has had only three previous stretches in his career with a better AY/A -- and they were all in 2010.
No matter what broad measure of quarterback play you use, the results are roughly the same: We're looking at one of the best quarter-seasons of Brady's career, and it's almost certainly the best stretch since the 2010 season, when Rob Gronkowski was a rookie and only became the fourth option in the passing attack once the Patriots traded Moss away in midseason. Just eight Patriots from that team are on the 2016 roster. It's been awhile since Brady was this great.
How is he different from the Brady of the recent past?
The biggest difference is volume, which may very well be influencing Brady's efficiency. He may be more effective than he has been in years because Brady is throwing less frequently than he typically would. Brady has thrown 134 passes during his first four games this year, an average of 33.5 passes per contest. That's remarkably low for the future Hall of Famer: The only previous four-game stretches in which his attempt totals were that low include runs from 2014, including the Chiefs game (in which Brady was removed in the fourth quarter for his own safety behind a porous offensive line) and the final four weeks of 2014 and 2015, when Brady took limited snaps in Week 17.
2010 is really the last time the Patriots put this little stress on Brady. He has averaged 616 pass attempts per 16 games over the past five years and never posted fewer than 582 passes over that span. If Brady averaged 33.5 pass attempts per game over a full 16-game season, he would hit 536 tries. You might imagine that low total is due to the fact that the Patriots are blowing teams out and just running the ball more frequently, but they were beating other teams up and still throwing the ball a ton in years past.
The answer is more complex. First, they are definitely running the ball more frequently in passing situations. From 2013 to 2015, on first-and-10, Brady's Patriots threw the ball 53.1 percent of the time, the eighth-highest rate in the league. This year, since Brady's return to the lineup, they're throwing the ball on only 45.5 percent of first-and-10 plays, which ranks 24th.
The Patriots are also operating at a slower tempo than they did under Belichick and Josh McDaniels in years past. From 2013 to 2015, again with Brady at the helm, they used 26.6 seconds of possession per play, which was the third-highest rate in the league behind the Eagles and Jaguars. This year, since Brady's return, they've run a play once every 28.3 seconds of possession, which is right around the league average (28.4). They're slower and more methodical, but when Brady throws, he's staggeringly effective.
By emphasizing the run, the Patriots also may have opened up an avenue which seemed lost and should terrify opposing teams: Brady suddenly has been able to throw downfield again this year. He's throwing downfield about as frequently as he has in years past, but this year those throws are far more effective. From 2013 to 2015, on throws which traveled 16 or more yards in the air (the NFL's definition of a "deep" pass), Brady's 80.0 passer rating was only good for 22nd in the league, while his 76.5 QBR was a similarly middling 23rd. Brady completed just 38.3 percent of his deep throws for 17 touchdowns against 13 picks.
In 2016, Brady has been nearly flawless on those same passes. He has thrown only 21 of them so far, but his QBR on those deep throws is a nice, neat 100 (a perfect QBR score). Brady is 13-of-21 on those passes for 521 yards with four touchdowns and zero picks. He has posted a 145.3 passer rating on those attempts. Nobody in the league has been better on deep passes this season than Brady, to which Chris Hogan can attest. Most 39-year-olds don't pick up fading arm strength and return the deep pass to their repertoire. And hey, speaking of age ...
Has anybody Brady's age ever played this well?
The short answer is no. The vast majority of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks were done by their age-39 season. Peyton Manning just finished his age-39 campaign and was suddenly a sub-replacement quarterback, albeit one who was dragged by his defense to a Super Bowl title. Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Kurt Warner retired at 38. Johnny Unitas and Sonny Jurgensen were part-timers.
There are only three quarterbacks in league history who have started 10 games or more during their age-39 season, as Brady likely will if he stays healthy. One was Doug Flutie, who split time with Drew Brees and threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the 2001 Chargers. The second was Brett Favre, who was playing his lone year (2008) in New York with the Jets and threw as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns in a frustrating, injury-affected season.
The best age-39 passer was Warren Moon, who racked up numbers for the Vikings. Moon led the league in completions and threw 33 touchdowns against 14 picks while posting a 115 AY/A+ (in which league average is 100). Brady, through four weeks, has posted a 159 AY/A+. Moon played well and made the Pro Bowl, but nobody was suggesting he was the best quarterback in football. Brady's quite clearly in that discussion.
Is he the best quarterback in football right now?
Not only is Brady the best quarterback in the league, but I don't think it's particularly close. I'll get to the idea of which quarterback has accumulated the most value in a bit, but in terms of rate statistics, Brady's significantly ahead of all other qualifying passers in every major category:
I've seen arguments suggesting that Brady's performance should be taken with a grain of salt by virtue of the players around him and the success of Jimmy Garoppolo earlier this season, and that's just nuts. Garoppolo did have a similarly impressive QBR, but Brady's rate statistics are otherwise well ahead of Garoppolo's in the backup's two starts earlier this year.
In addition, it shouldn't seem like a coincidence that the offense has clicked even more with Brady at the helm. He's being pressured quite frequently -- 32.2 percent of the time, with just four passers bothered more often -- but Brady's taking an average of only 2.35 seconds to get the ball out for a safe throw, which is the sixth-quickest rate in football. Some fans suggest that Brady needs Gronkowski ambulatory to succeed, but it also should be pointed out how Gronk immediately got going once Brady returned to the lineup.
After the game, despite torching the Bills for 109 yards and a touchdown, Gronk didn't receive any praise from the Bills' defense: One player said that Gronk needed Brady to unlock the massive tight end's size for mismatches while another suggested that Martellus Bennett was the better tight end of the two. Sour grapes, perhaps, but Brady and Gronkowski do certainly make one another better without pushing either into some sort of fraud category.
Should he be in the running/a favorite for league MVP?
Let's finish with this one, because I think it's fascinating. I'll get into the other candidates in a week or two, but when I ran through MVP choices at the beginning of October for my quarter-season awards, my pick was Matt Ryan. Ryan's now second to Brady in many rate categories and, by virtue of having played eight games, leads the league in passing yards (2,636) and passing touchdowns (19). Ryan's the quarterback for an undeniably successful team with an 80.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN's Football Power Index.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective wrote about the idea of winning an award despite failing to play a full slate because of an injury or suspension. The only player to win the AP's Most Valuable Player award while missing a notable amount of time was Joe Montana in 1989, who played 13 games and still managed to get the nod. (It helped that Steve Young happened to be the backup in San Francisco at the time.)
Montana was head-and-shoulders above the pack that year: He completed 70.2 percent of his passes when nobody else was above 63 percent, averaged 9.1 yards per throw when nobody else was above 8.3, and finished 20 points ahead of everyone else in passer rating. No other competitive player emerged, as the top running backs were in a narrow battle, while the top receiver was Jerry Rice, who was overseen for his quarterback. Chris Doleman had 21 sacks but didn't receive serious MVP consideration, apparently. And, crucially, the 49ers went 11-2 in Montana's starts and finished 14-2 in a league in which only one other team won as many as 12 games. They were clearly the best team in football.
Could Brady and the Patriots fit that bill? Absolutely.
There's no obvious counter candidate at a different position. Running backs are less important than ever before, and Ezekiel Elliott is more likely to be an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. There's no otherworldly defender like J.J. Watt suiting up this season, while there are so many incredible wide receivers that it would be almost impossible to vote for, say, Julio Jones over Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.
The dominant leads in various rate statistics are already in play, as I mentioned earlier, if Brady can keep them up over the course of the season. He might also need the Patriots to stand out as the best team in football, which is hardly likely to be a problem. The Pats have the the league's best record at 7-1, and with the AFC East looking limited at best, New England has a far easier path to postseason comforts. The Football Power Index gives the Patriots a staggering 78.8 percent chance of coming away with the top seed in the AFC.
The FPI also gives the Patriots a 9.9% chance of running the table, which would likely create an irresistible case for Brady. The Patriots would finish the year at 15-1, and Brady would have gone 12-0 as the team's starter. If Brady also led the league in every meaningful quarterback rate statistic, there's no way the electorate would vote for somebody else. Even if voters are typically exhausted of giving the award to prior winners and don't want to read or write another article about Deflategate, Brady would be too valuable of a passer to ignore.
He was gone, but after one month, Brady's service has been more than restored. It has been upgraded.