As Tom Brady’s pass found its way into Rob Gronkowski’s hands in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship game, Tony Burton’s voice was in my head.
“I saw you beat that man like I never saw no man get beat before, and the man kept coming after you.“
That sentence, uttered by the actor while pleading with Apollo Creed to avoid a rematch with Rocky Balboa in Rocky II epitomized Tom Brady’s day against the Denver Broncos.
Hit 20 times and harassed countless others by the Broncos’ elite pass rushers, the Greatest Of All Time still managed to put together one last drive and had the Patriots within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime. It was an admirable performance and one that proves a level of grit that those outside of New England rarely give Brady credit for. It was also a scenario that can never be allowed to happen again.
Tom Brady dropped back and was hit 16 times, sacked four, hurried somewhere around 20 others. It’s an unacceptable stat line for any quarterback, but especially a 38-year-old.
Yes, injuries had a lot to do with it. A lot.
Entering the season, the Patriots figured to return the majority of its line from a year earlier that had allowed Brady to get hit just 14 times in three games on its way to winning the Super Bowl. Projected to start we (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork, Tre’ Jackson and Sebastian Vollmer. The unit that started the AFC Championship game? Vollmer, Josh Kline, Stork, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon.
This was nothing new for the Patriots, who used more starting line combinations than any other team in the league and, in fact, more than any in a couple decades. In the past, the Patriots have had some fluid situations along their line, but the depth of the unit was tested in a way maybe never seen before. Stork was on the short-term injured reserve list with a severe concussion, then Solder tore his biceps in early October and Wendell barely played at all between a mystery illness and a leg injury, putting Brady’s blindside in peril early on and Jackson suffered a significant knee injury in late October.
Eventually the “next man up” way of doing business doesn’t work when you, well, run out of men. By Week 9, Stork, fresh off of IR, had to play four different positions, including tackle. Yes, the center who started for the Super Bowl champions a year ago was playing tackle on the right side. On the left side was Cameron Fleming, a practice squad player protecting Brady’s back because on top of Solder’s injury, Vollmer left the game with a head injury and Cannon was out with a foot issue.
(When you roll it all out in such a manner, it almost seems unfair that offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo lost his job.)
Then let’s not forget about the loss of Julian Edelman in Week 10 and Danny Amendola, who sprained his knee Week 11, missed Week 12 against Denver, then also missed a critical game against the Jets in Week 15. Also, the offense lost both of its top running backs, which left a ragtag bunch that failed to take pressure off the passing game.
As the injuries mounted, so did the hits on Brady. The offensive line needed more than ever Brady’s quick release and the receivers (such as they were) more than ever needed the line to hold on just that second or two longer as they tried to get open.
It was reflective in the numbers. Brady threw for three or more touchdowns in four of his first eight games, for more than 300 yards in six and had just two interceptions. His lowest passer rating in any game was 94.3 and he was over 100 six times. From Week 10 on, he managed three touchdowns twice, the same number of one-touchdown games, passed for more than 300 yards just twice and had five interceptions, including his first multi-pick game in more than a year. He had just two plus-100 passer ratings and four sub-90 ratings.
Now, let’s keep things in perspective. This is an exercise to illustrate a clear difference in ability to execute, and for some of it, it was more probable than not to be a result of Brady’s body breaking down as he was repeatedly pummeled. Still, most of the league’s quarterbacks would have killed to have Brady’s numbers this year and comparative to last year’s, 2015 was a better season overall, at least on paper. Brady threw just one touchdown in five games last season, but four of those were early in the season.
Timing is everything.
And in 2015, by Week 17 against the Dolphins, the Patriots were trying to win a game with a prevent offense – as in prevent Brady from getting hurt. They did that, barely, but it cost them in the long run as it lost them home field advantage through the playoffs.
As good as Brady is at taking care of his body and keeping himself in prime playing condition, he needs help to keep it that way.
Up the middle, the Patriots have spent a fair bit of equity. Stork has proven to be a solid starter at the position in his short time in the league and backup David Andrews performed admirably in his stead in his rookie year. Mason and Jackson project as good young guards picked up in the 2015 draft. The roster also figures to have the benefit of healthy bookends with Solder on the left, which would allow Vollmer – a good right tackle, but iffy on the left side – the ability to move back to his natural position, assuming he isn’t a cap casualty.
It’s a solid starting lineup, but a heap of work needs to be done behind them. Tackle needs a complete overhaul. Cannon and Fleming have played themselves out of jobs most likely and LaAdrian Waddle probably lost his by not playing. The draft is deep at the tackle position, which might figure to be the most cost-effective way for the Patriots to address their need, given their cap situation and probable desire to lock up some impact players on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. On the inside Wendell doesn’t figure to be back and Kline is a reserve at best, so there is need for improvement there as well. Stork’s versatility helps, but his best position is center and it would probably behoove Bill Belichick and Co. to keep him there unless things start going wrong again the way they did this year. Guard is a position where some quality, especially a veteran looking for a shot at a ring, could be had for reasonable dollars on the free agent market.
Whatever the maneuver, while it doesn’t have to be drastic, it does have to be meaningful. Standing pat just won’t do. Too much, namely Tom Brady’s health, rides on it.