Tom Brady is showing signs of a decline. Is it real or another mirage?

The Patriots win with such a frequency that any rare loss becomes a cause for temporary concern, but Sunday night's 28-22 defeat to the Texans seems more ominous than most. While the defense struggled to keep Deshaun Watson from finding secondary targets like Duke Johnson and Kenny Stills for big plays, the Patriots' offense was hopeless for most of the first three quarters.

After kicking a field goal on their opening drive, the Pats had just eight first downs over their six ensuing scoreless possessions. Julian Edelman & Co. made the score more respectable with touchdowns on each of their final three drives, but New England didn't touch the ball with a chance to tie the score or take the lead after the Texans went up 14-3 with six minutes to go in the second quarter.

What made this seem different than a typical midseason Patriots loss, of course, was how their quarterback played. Tom Brady alternated between frustration and helplessness for most of the game, yelling at teammates who were either dealing with the aftereffects of a midweek flu raging through the locker room or placed into roles they weren't capable of filling at a high level. Before the three late scoring drives, Brady was 9-of-25 passing for 90 yards with an interception and at least two other picks that were either dropped or taken away by penalty.

Losing a game in the middle of the season doesn't mean much in a vacuum. The Patriots lost to the Titans and Dolphins around this time last season and still won the Super Bowl. In the lopsided battle Brady has waged with Father Time over the past decade, though, any sign of gravity starting to win has to be a cause for alarm. For most of Sunday night, he didn't look like the guy who laughed at historical precedents and aging curves while collecting rings and selling $200 cookbooks. He looked like a 42-year-old.

Of course, counting out Brady has also been a cottage industry going back to his time at Michigan. As he got into his late 30s, anyone with even a passing interest in football has been waiting to see signs that Brady had slipped. The closest we came was in 2014, when he was overrun by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in a 41-14 blowout loss. He had a passer rating of 79.1 after four weeks, and while it seemed like his future with the team could be tenuous, the Patriots righted the ship, won the Super Bowl and have added two more since.

I wrote about that Patriots-Chiefs game in 2014 and was careful to avoid pinning the blame on the quarterback. He wasn't the problem. Brady's footwork was great, and his passes were crisp and on time, but the offense around him was collapsing. The offensive line was a disaster. The receivers weren't getting open. He seemed to have little faith in anybody.

Then, the following week against the Bengals, everything righted itself. The Patriots found an offensive line combination that worked. They took the training wheels off a recovering Rob Gronkowski and unlocked the offense. Suddenly, the same Brady who had looked like he was falling apart during the first month of the season looked like his usual self. There was never any issue at quarterback whatsoever.

Again, I'm more concerned about the offense as a whole than I am about Brady individually. This time, though, it's easier to see a less impressive Brady on tape. There are reasons to be worried about both Brady and the players around him, and there aren't the sorts of obvious paths to improvement there were with Gronkowski still on the team. I'll spoil the conclusion for you now: It's absolutely too early to say that Brady is finished and that he won't hit his prior level of play, but there are more reasons to be concerned about this Pats offense than there have been at any point in recent memory.

Oh, one more thing: Even if the offense doesn't get any better than what we saw on Sunday, the Patriots are still viable Super Bowl contenders. There's a player from Brady's past who proved that to be true in his own final season, and we'll get to him in a minute.

First, let's start with evaluating some of the evidence surrounding Brady and the offense to get a sense of what's going on and why this might be different from that 2014 hiccup:

Jump to a section:
The numbers behind Brady's decline
The offense hasn't found its identity
Brady isn't getting much help
Is there any sign of hope?
Brady is worse, but is he toast?
Can the Pats still win the Super Bowl?

This is not a one-week problem

The Patriots have been struggling on offense for most of the 2019 season. They got off to a dominant start, beating the Steelers, Jets and Dolphins by a combined score of 106-17. Brady looked like his usual self, averaging just over 300 passing yards per game while throwing seven touchdown passes without an interception. Same old Brady, same old Patriots.

From Week 4 onward, though, they haven't even been a league-average offense. It has been masked by special-teams work and a defense that has scored touchdowns and created plenty of opportunities for the offense, but the Pats have averaged just 1.69 points per possession since their narrow victory over the Bills in Week 4. That's 24th in the NFL, placing them just behind the Dolphins (1.73 points per drive) over the same time frame. The Pats averaged 2.48 points per possession over that same 10-week span in 2018 and 2.66 points over it in 2017. This is out of character.

It's tempting to ascribe this to the defense being utterly dominant and suggest that New England really didn't need to score on offense, but that hasn't been the case. If we just look at drives in the first half, the offense is averaging 1.74 points per trip, which is 22nd in the NFL. It scuffled badly against the Bills, Eagles and Cowboys, games in which the defense held the opposing offense under 10 points and Josh McDaniels' offense failed to create any distance.

In the Bills game, the Pats were outscored 10-9 on offense, only to make up for it with a blocked punt return for a touchdown. Likewise, against the Cowboys, the difference was a blocked punt that gave them the ball on the Dallas 12-yard line and set up the only touchdown of the game on a throw to N'Keal Harry. The offense was otherwise outscored by the Cowboys in a battle of field goals, 9-6.

The Pats' defense has allowed an opposing offense to top 14 points just twice this season, and those happen to be New England's two losses: Sunday's 28-22 defeat and the 37-20 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore before the bye. For more than a decade, the Patriots were carried by Brady and the offense. Now, overnight, they seem dependent upon the defense to win games.

Brady has been one of the league's least productive quarterbacks for two months

Even before Sunday's dismal showing, Brady's numbers were disappointing. In fact, the late surge against a relatively disinterested Texans defense in the fourth quarter meant that Brady's statistics actually improved slightly after cratering following the Cowboys game. From Week 4 on, Brady has been unrecognizable from his usual self:

To put that in context, of the league's 33 qualifying quarterbacks since Week 4, Brady ranks 30th in completion percentage, 30th in yards per attempt, 29th in passer rating and 24th in Total QBR. His rate stats since Week 4 are roughly in line with those of Mitchell Trubisky, who has completed 63.2% of his passes, averaged 6.3 yards per attempt, thrown two touchdowns for every interception and posted a passer rating of 85.7 to go with a QBR of 40.4. Bears fans might have been excited to hear that Trubisky would be compared to Brady in 2019, but this is not a fawning comparison for either passer.

Everyone has bad games. Brady even had a rough month to start the season in 2014. This current rough patch, though, is nine games long and counting. He has gone seven games without posting a passer rating of 100, which was his average passer rating as recently as 2017. He had never gone seven games without posting a 100-plus plus passer rating at least once before in his career.

A better measure of how Brady has struggled would be to calculate his rolling baseline adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), which is a more precisely weighted version of passer rating. We use the league's adjusted yards per attempt for each week, weight them for how frequently Brady threw passes in each week, and then compare them to Brady's actual numbers.

Brady bottomed out after the Cowboys game, when he had racked up just 5.9 adjusted yards per attempt over a nine-game span. The weighted average AY/A over that time frame was at 7.1 yards, so Brady was 17.1% below league average over that time frame. Outside of one nine-week stretch in 2013, that's the worst mark he has posted over a nine-game span since 2003. He got back up to 6.5 AY/A over the past nine weeks after the Texans game, but that's still below league average. Even if you include those first three games, his AY/A+ for the full season is below average for the first time in his career as a starter.

I can't chalk up Brady's struggles to any concerns about the schedule, either. The Pats have played the easiest schedule in football per ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). The Texans defense Brady seemed overmatched against for most of the game ranked 26th in pass defense DVOA heading into the game. A week ago, the Patriots weren't able to move the ball against a Cowboys defense that ranked 18th and subsequently allowed the Bills to average nearly 12 adjusted yards per attempt in a 26-15 loss.

Watching Brady in this game, I had to wonder whether his elbow injury might be a bigger concern than what has been let on via the injury report. Take a look at him in the Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons from three years ago. (If you're a Falcons fan, maybe go do something else.) Even go back further and take a look at the Brady who sliced up the Dolphins in Week 1 of 2011.

Compare that to the highlights from Sunday's game. He seems to be struggling to get the sort of zip he typically found on throws, even as recently as a couple of years ago. Look at this 16-yard pass to Jakobi Meyers on the sideline from last night. Brady needs to put the pass in a place where the cornerback can't possibly make a play on the football, but with a big window, his pass nearly takes Meyers out of bounds and requires a spectacular catch. There were throws like that throughout the Texans game.

In the areas in which we would typically expect Brady's experience and instincts to shine, he has struggled even more notably. Brady perennially ranked among the league leaders in QBR when teams were foolish enough to try to blitz the former Michigan standout. This season, Brady ranks 27th in QBR (38.0) and passer rating (78.7) when teams send extra pressure.

Likewise, in the red zone, Brady has struggled to find open windows and forced dangerous passes into coverage. His 20.9 QBR in the red zone ranks 27th in the league, while his passer rating of 90 is 24th. Brady has two red zone interceptions in 12 games after throwing two in three seasons from 2016-18. He also has a league-leading two dropped interceptions in the red zone.

Is this Brady's new true level of play? Is he really somewhere close to the 30th-best quarterback in football? I don't think so. It is fair to say that Brady looks diminished from the passer we saw in 2018 or in the first few weeks of the 2019 season, at least right now. We've also seen him struggle at this level for long enough now to make me think that the offense around him has to improve for Brady to look better. And that's a whole other set of problems.

This offense hasn't found its post-Gronk identity

After the Randy Moss era in New England, the Patriots built the next iteration of their offense around keeping defenses off balance. The league's most famously secretive team extended that mystery to the very last second before Brady snapped the ball, in part because they had the league's most versatile weapon. Gronkowski teamed with a series of tight ends and fullback James Develin to mask the pre-snap intentions. Gronk gave the Patriots a mismatch in the passing game when teams sold out to stop the run and served as a devastating blocker when teams spread out to stop the pass.

The ultimate example of how he could break open a game schematically, of course, was his last day in an NFL uniform. In Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots struggled to move the ball all game against the Rams until one fateful series. The Pats lined up with the same offensive personnel -- wideout Julian Edelman, a running back, Develin and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Gronkowski -- and forced the Rams to match up with their base personnel.

Once they did, the Patriots ran the same pass play -- Hoss Y-Juke -- three times in a row. Brady hit Edelman matched up against linebacker Cory Littleton for 13 yards on the first play, threw to Rex Burkhead for 7 yards on the second, and then hit Gronk up the seam for 29 yards on the third iteration. Sony Michel plunged in for the game's only offensive touchdown on the next play.

That drive worked because the Patriots had running backs and fullbacks who can catch and tight ends who could both threaten teams downfield and block with equal aplomb. They just don't have the personnel to do that anymore. Gronk retired. Allen is out of the league. Develin is on injured reserve. Burkhead has played only a handful of snaps, and the Pats' halfback rotation with Michel and James White strongly hint at what type of play is coming merely by making it onto the field. (It might be telling that White had such a great game as a runner Sunday.)

Teams don't have to be afraid that the Patriots are going to scheme their way into a personnel mismatch anymore, because their weapons aren't scary enough to do that. There might be a different version of this team in another galaxy where the Patriots have healthy, productive versions of Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon. Here, the Patriots have Edelman and little else. Brady held onto the ball for an average of 3.4 seconds against the Texans, longer than he has in any other game since the start of 2016, because he just doesn't have receivers getting open.

Outside of Edelman and White, Brady might not also have much of a rapport or trust with his receivers. We saw one such example when Bradley Roby intercepted Brady in the first half. On the play, the Patriots motioned Edelman into a trips set on the right side of the field, leaving N'Keal Harry matched up one-on-one with no likely safety help. The Patriots happily did this in years past with Gronkowski, isolating him against a smaller corner while using Gronk's size to create an easy throwing lane on slants and in-breaking routes.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Harry should have a physicality advantage on the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Roby. It didn't quite work out that way. Roby rightly expected an in-breaking route was coming, and Harry broke the cardinal rule of slants and let Roby get across his body to make a play on the football. It took a Brady tackle to prevent a pick-six, and the coaching staff reacted accordingly. After playing 12 of the first 16 offensive snaps, Harry was on the field for just 10 of the ensuing 61, including exactly zero of the snaps during New England's three touchdown drives.

The attempts the Patriots made to add weapons for Brady haven't yet panned out or flamed out entirely. Brown lasted one game. Gordon was traded. Mohamed Sanu is still less than 100% while struggling through a high ankle sprain and had three catches for 14 yards in his return. Harry missed the first half of the season and already appears to be in the doghouse. Ben Watson is averaging just under 25 yards per game since returning from a suspension.

It's possible that the Brady of a couple years ago could have turned this into a high-powered offense. Whether it's the receivers bringing down Brady or vice versa, though, this just hasn't typically added up to an effective passing game over the past couple of months. As Gregg Rosenthal noted on Twitter, there seem to be a couple of plays every game in which Brady throws the ball to an unguarded patch of grass and then wildly gestures that a receiver should have been there waiting for the throw.

At this point, the Patriots have to ask themselves what they do well. They don't have the hybrid receivers to line up and shift into something the defense can't handle, with White and the occasionally healthy Burkhead as the lone holdouts. They don't have the pure weapons to win one-on-one and give Brady an option on 50-50 balls outside of Edelman's agility to win in the slot. What worked during the 2018 playoffs was a significant dose of the running game, but ...

The blocking and the running game aren't taking the heat off Brady

The Patriots just aren't a great running team. They came into Sunday's game ranked 21st in rush offense DVOA, and while they had an effective night against the Texans by running for nine first downs on 29 tries, there isn't much big-play ability in this rush offense. White's 32-yard carry was comfortably their longest run of the season. The Pats rank 15th in first-down rate at 23%, but they're averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, which is 29th in the NFL.

The decision to draft Michel, which seemed curious at the time for a Pats offense that had almost always succeeded with low-cost backs in the primary rushing role, looks downright disastrous given how poorly he has run this season. The Pats drafted Michel with the 31st pick of the first round, four selections before the Browns chose Nick Chubb. Later in the second round, weapons such as Courtland Sutton, DJ Chark and Dallas Goedert all came off of the board. This year, the Pats took little-used Damien Harris in the third round just before the Bills drafted Dawson Knox, who has made an instant impact for Buffalo. Hindsight, maybe, but why use a premium draft pick on Michel unless he's a difference-maker as both a runner and receiver?

It's possible that Michel will look better with an improved offensive line, but the unit that rolled over opposing defenses during the 2018 postseason is long gone. Left tackle Trent Brown left for the Raiders in free agency, while center David Andrews is going to miss the entire 2019 season with blood clots in his lungs.

Brown was replaced by fellow 2018 first-rounder Isaiah Wynn, who missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles, then hit injured reserve this season with a toe injury before returning two weeks ago. The Patriots were forced to turn to street free agent Marshall Newhouse to take over at left tackle, where Brady had spent virtually his entire career playing behind Matt Light or Nate Solder.

Wynn is back and looks promising, but other issues have popped up. Andrews was replaced by Ted Karras, who went down with a knee injury during the Texans game and was ruled out shortly thereafter. It's unclear how long he will be out. There's not much out there to acquire in free agency; the Pats traded a sixth-round pick for former Bengals and Bills starter Russell Bodine after Andrews hit injured reserve in August, only to cut Bodine after one week.

The biggest problem on Sunday was right tackle Marcus Cannon, who clearly wasn't 100% while battling through an illness. He could barely put his uniform on before the Cowboys game and then missed the first series of the second half against the Texans while getting an IV in the locker room. When he was on the field, Cannon made backup Texans linebacker Jacob Martin look like J.J. Watt coming around the edge. Cannon's toughness obviously deserves plenty of respect, but the line wasn't a plus for the Patriots on Sunday.

They have to hope this gets better. This time around, they at least have Dante Scarnecchia back as their offensive line coach, and if anybody is going to fix their problems, it's one of the most legendary positional coaches in the league. It might just be as simple as getting Cannon healthy, keeping Wynn on the field, and hoping to find a solution at center, but that's still a lot to ask, especially if Brady is holding the ball and waiting for somebody to get open.

Kicking has been a disaster

While the Patriots have been one of the league's best offenses for more than a decade, they were almost always fortunate to have an excellent kicker waiting for those times where they didn't cash in. Outside of a half-season in 2010, Brady has spent his entire career with either Adam Vinatieri or Stephen Gostkowski. It has been a nice luxury to have, and while it hasn't cost the Patriots in 2019, their kicking game has been uncharacteristically mediocre.

With Gostkowski missing four extra points in 15 tries before going on injured reserve, the kicking game started off poorly and hasn't gone much better since. Mike Nugent went 5-of-8 on field goals before being cut for Nick Folk, who was 7-of-9 and then underwent an appendectomy. Folk was cut for Kai Forbath, who missed an extra point in his Patriots debut Sunday.

Can Brady and the offense get better?

Yes, but there's not the sort of obvious path the Patriots were able to get behind in 2014 after the Chiefs game. Then, the Patriots had Gronkowski playing about half of the offensive snaps while recovering from the torn ACL he had suffered the previous season. When the Pats famously moved on to Cincinnati, Gronk's snap count spiked to 79%, he caught six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in a blowout win and the Pats' offense never looked back.

With the deadline for Gronkowski to return in 2019 passing on Nov. 30, the Patriots don't have a Hall of Fame-caliber difference-maker lurking on their roster to suddenly transform the offense in an expanded role. The closest thing they have is Sanu, who didn't make much of an impact even before the ankle injury. I can imagine a scenario where he grows more comfortable with the playbook and gets healthy right around the time the playoffs begin, but asking for a Gronk-like impact is just too much.

Likewise, it's reasonable to expect the offensive line to play better when both Wynn and Cannon are on the field and healthy, but there's no guarantee that's ever going to happen. Wynn has played four games over two years, while Cannon is yet to start a full 16-game season since moving into the starting lineup for good in 2015. The Pats could be down to third-stringer James Ferentz at center for the foreseeable future, which is unlikely to help matters.

The improvement has to come from a series of small upgrades across the board as opposed to one significant difference-maker. Mixing up tendencies would help; even if it's not the best use of their skill sets, using White as a runner and sending Michel out on pass routes more frequently at least creates some doubt for opposing defenses. (A heavier dose of Burkhead at Michel's expense might also make sense.)

McDaniels needs to find a way to get the ball out of Brady's hands quickly on a regular basis. Brady patting the ball over and over again and holding it for three-plus seconds while he waits for someone to get open just isn't a great use of his skills. He typically got rid of the ball way quicker than league average in recent years; in 2019, he's far closer to league average at 2.74 seconds before pass attempts. NFL quarterbacks are at 2.76 seconds in 2019.

Is Brady toast?

We can't say that. Go back through the second half of the Texans game and watch what happens when he gets a tiny bit of help. Watson broke an ankle tackle on a third-and-17 checkdown, turning what seemed to be a drive-ending play into a first down. Later on the drive, the offensive line held up against a bizarrely timed heat check of a double A-gap pressure on first-and-30 from Romeo Crennel, giving Edelman enough time to work his way through a Phillip Dorsett clearout and for Brady to hit him with a perfect pass for 44 yards.

Brady is too smart to make the sort of mistakes that really pop up when a quarterback is finished, at least from what I can tell. He's still protecting the football. The interception he threw against the Texans was a contested pass, but I'd pin more of the blame on Harry. His footwork and ability to keep his body prepared to make passes is still impeccable. Brady doesn't seem to have the zip he had in his mid-to-late 30s, and he had some accuracy issues in the Texans game, but he has been able to complete passes at all levels of the field during this rough stretch.

If you're asking me whether it's fair to say that Brady is diminished from the player who won MVP in 2017, well, that's a more realistic question. I don't know that the Brady who could carry a passing attack with Edelman, White, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan to a 25-point Super Bowl comeback is still around. The idea of him strapping the team to his back and carrying it to a Super Bowl on his own, injuries be damned, is probably in the past.

If the offensive infrastructure rights itself, Brady will be fine. If not, I think we're going to continue to see inconsistent performances on offense.

Can the Patriots win a Super Bowl if the offense doesn't get better?

Yes, and we have Peyton Manning as proof. While Brady has been disappointing by his own lofty standards, he has been significantly better than Manning was during his final season in Denver in 2015. Just one year removed from a 4,727-yard, 39-touchdown season, he struggled badly in 2015. His passer rating dropped by nearly 34 points as the future Hall of Famer threw twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (nine). After Manning went 5-of-20 for 35 yards and four interceptions in one of the worst starts in league history against the Chiefs, he was benched for Brock Osweiler.

Manning was restored to the lineup during Week 17 by Gary Kubiak, and while he showed little in the way of his old ability during the playoffs, he did well enough to get out of the way. He turned the ball over only three times in three games, threw two touchdown passes to Owen Daniels in a 20-18 win over the Patriots, and handed the ball off 86 times to C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman.

Of course, the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 because their defense caught fire. They went up against a Steelers team that had lost Brown to a concussion and had a compromised Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback after both were injured against the Bengals in the divisional round and won 23-16. DeMarcus Ware & Co. knocked Brady down an unprecedented 17 times during the AFC Championship Game, then forced four turnovers out of Carolina in a 24-10 victory to seal the Super Bowl.

The Broncos won the Super Bowl in spite of Manning. The Patriots are not at that point with Brady. He still has too much to offer, even given how disappointing his numbers have been for the past two months. Brady would need to slip even further before I would get seriously concerned that he was the one holding the Patriots back.

With that being said, the Patriots can't count on what was perennially a top-five offense to come back just because Brady is under center. The Pats are 22nd in win expectancy added on offense and first on defense. Their formula for winning games has changed. This team is going to go as far as the defense can carry it, and when the defense hasn't been able to stifle opposing offenses altogether, the Patriots haven't been able to answer back.

In a way, this is all beautifully coming full circle. The last time Brady struggled this much for any length of time was in 2003. The Patriots finished that regular season 14th in the league in offensive DVOA and second on defense, marking the best Belichick-era Pats defense before this year's unit. Those Pats held home-field advantage throughout the postseason and used it to their advantage, intercepting Manning four times in a 24-14 win in the AFC Championship Game.

When the defense allowed the Panthers to score 29 points in the Super Bowl, Brady was good enough to produce one of the best games of his career up to that point, throwing for 348 yards and three touchdowns. The defense got the Patriots most of the way there, and when they slipped up, Brady was able to push the Patriots over the line. The Patriots have a great defense, even after what happened Sunday. They can get there again, but Brady is going to need more help than what the Patriots have provided over the past two months.