I recall tweeting out a statistic after Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos back in March.
“Tom Brady has never thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a single season without Wes Welker. Tom Brady has never thrown fewer than 28 touchdowns with Wes Welker.”
At the time, I was fully aware that the inferred logic of the tweet was dumb. Not only was Brady more inexperienced pre-Welker, but the NFL has transformed into a pass-friendly league over the course of the Welker era in Patriot land.
But today, a now Welker-less Tom Brady has nine passing touchdowns through his first eight games of 2013. Welker’s new passer, Peyton Manning, totaled 78 percent of that in his first game alone.
Brady’s statistical downfall can be partially attributed to the loss of Wes Welker. I’ll even get into why that’s the case here in a second. But there are plenty of other factors, like the lack of pass-catching running backs and tight ends, that have built up to produce this single-digit touchdown monster.
Wes Welker is Even Better Than You Thought He Was
As many of you know by now, we use an advanced metric at numberFire called net expected points (NEP). Every drive has an expected points value – that is, how many points an offense would be expected to score given their current game situation. If a player helps move the chains or picks up a big play, he, in essence, is contributing a positive NEP value for himself and his team. If he gets three yards on, say, a 3rd-and-five, then his NEP is surely going to drop.
With receivers, we can measure this NEP score in terms of reception NEP and target NEP. The difference being the amount of points a player is contributing on each reception versus on every target. Clearly, if you’re understanding the logic so far, the reception NEP will be a greater number, as it doesn’t include incomplete passes.
Below is a table displaying Wes Welker’s NEP ranks during his six years with the Pats:
|Year||Reception NEP Rank||Target NEP Rank|
|2007||8th of 81||2nd of 81|
|2008||16th of 80||6th of 80|
|2009||10th of 85||4th of 85|
|2010||30th of 80||18th of 80|
|2011||1st of 84||1st of 84|
|2012||7th of 80||6th of 80|
If you’re not impressed by that consistency, then you must be a Jets fan. Among receivers with 30 or more catches, Welker ranked in the top 10 in terms of reception NEP in four of his six seasons with New England, and never finished outside of the top 30. In terms of target NEP, a metric that favors receivers with higher catch rates, Welker finished in the top six in five of his six seasons, while never finishing worse than 20th.
The numbers are incredible, but much of it has to do with volume. Welker always saw some of the highest number of targets in the league, and with volume comes solid cumulative metrics, as long as that receiver is above average.
People will argue that Welker wasn’t as big of a part of the Patriots offense as many believe because of this volume. Replace him with someone else, and you’d get similar production. But my retort to that is the volume shows dependability and reliability. It shows that Brady used Welker consistently as a security blanket, while other offensive weapons benefited from Welker being on the field.
To prove that point even more, look no further than the 2013 Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning’s having a historic season with Welker as his main slot guy, and even with less volume (on pace for 141 targets, which he reached in all but one of his seasons with the Patriots), Welker was still the second-best receiver in terms of reception NEP entering Week 8.
Do you think it’s a simple coincidence that Welker joined Manning, and Peyton’s passing NEP through the first seven weeks of the NFL season is only 18 points off of his 164.88 total a season ago? In other words, do you think Welker has played zero role in Peyton’s historically great season? Of course not. And although there are plenty of other factors to weigh, it just goes to show how much utility Welker can add for an offense.
Brady’s missing a huge piece of his offense this season. Argue all you want about volume, but Wes Welker helped contribute more to the Patriots than any other receiver in the league during his time with the team.
Brady’s working with rookie receivers, a new and always-hurt Danny Amendola, and a once seventh-round selection in Julian Edelman. His favorite partying tight end, Rob Gronkowski, was missing up until two weeks ago, and his other tight end is in jail for killing a man.
Needless to say, Tommy Boy hasn’t had the most to work with this year. Let’s dig into the numbers and see what they say.
Brady’s wide receivers this season are on pace to accumulate a total reception NEP of 241.28. Last year, Brady’s receivers totaled 241.10 within the metric, a nearly identical number.
However, his receivers last year were much more efficient at adding points for the offense. Brady’s targeted his receivers 29.29 times per game this year, as opposed to just 23.06 times per contest a season ago. In other words, Brady’s receivers are only doing just as well in the reception NEP department because they’re seeing a higher volume of targets, similar to the anti-Welker stance above. The difference is that Wes Welker produced, whereas these receivers are doing more or less the same.
It appears though that this is because the team hasn’t found a Welker replacement. In 2012, Welker was producing a reception NEP per target total of 0.66. This season, his two replacements, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, have put up a score of 0.56 and 0.48 respectively. This 0.10 – 0.18 disparity is fairly significant when you consider it’s on a per target basis.
Also, you may be wondering why there’s an uptick in wide receiver targets even though they’ve been less efficient. That answer is pretty obvious: there hasn’t been a reasonable tight end on the field for the Patriots until last week.
Gronk and company totaled a reception NEP of 134.16 a year ago, whereas that total is a measly 9.58 this year. Brady was targeting tight ends 11.38 times per game in 2012, but in 2013? Barely at all before Gronk came back in Week 7.
That leads me to believe that there are two clear – and probably obvious – pass-catching reasons for Brady’s stat line troubles. First, Welker hasn’t been replaced. At all. As I showed previously, he’s helped the Patriots tremendously through the years, and we’re not getting that at all from Amendola and Edelman.
The second reason is Gronk. Actually, it’s more than Gronk – it’s the entire tight end position. Brady’s relied heavily on this inside role over the course of his successful seasons, even before Gronk hit the NFL stage. Remember Benjamin Watson? Daniel Graham? Throughout his career, Brady’s thrown towards a tight end at least 60 times over the course of a season, usually reaching the 100 target mark. This year, prior to Gronkowski’s return, Brady was set to target them fewer than 40 times.
All in all, Brady’s outside receivers haven’t been much worse than what he was working with a season ago. It’s the inside that’s missing. There’s no Welker, and because of injury and incarceration, Brady hasn’t been able to look for his tight end downfield or in the red zone.
Patriot Running Backs
Over the last five years, the Patriots have had the 2nd, 10th, 2nd, 5th and 5th-best rushing offense in the league when adjusted for strength of opponent. This year they rank 29th.
It’s tough to be efficient offensively when you can’t keep a defense honest, especially if you have moving parts in the passing game. And it’s also difficult on a quarterback when he doesn’t have his best receiving running back from a season ago.
I’m talking about Danny Woodhead. Like Welker, the loss of Woodhead left a void in the backfield’s passing game. Entering Week 8, Patriot running backs had 31 combined receptions, giving way to a 10.91 reception NEP. At this pace, New England running backs will catch about 71 passes for a reception NEP total of 24.99.
Remember, this reception NEP shows us how many points a player (in this case, a group of players) is adding for his team on receptions only. Clearly this will be a positive number, as receptions usually don’t yield negative NEP values – they help extend a drive due to their yardage depth.
Last season, Patriot running backs caught just 56 passes out of the backfield, 15 fewer than the team’s current pace. However, the reception NEP on those 56 passes totaled 55.44. In other words, Patriot running backs this year are producing just 45 percent of what they did a season ago, and they’re doing this with more opportunity.
Perhaps the loss of Danny Woodhead was significant, as we’re seeing his great success this season with the Chargers. But the injury to Shane Vereen – Woodhead’s clear replacement – is also taking its toll. Brady’s had to lean more heavily on his running backs through the air because, as I mentioned previously, the tight end position and middle of the field hasn’t been there for him. In return, he’s gotten less than half of what he did last season.
Brady’s Second Half
Problems in football can often times be the result of a sort of trickle-down effect. That’s what I see with the Patriots’ passing game so far this year.
Tom Brady has historically relied on tight ends, a lot of times targeting them over 100 times over the course of a season. With Gronkowski’s injury, that tight end dependency hasn’t been there.
As a result, Brady’s had to look more to his receivers. They’re seeing over six more targets per game than they did a season ago, but are doing less with each one. It’s not really due the inexperience on the outside though - the inefficiency mostly has to do with Wes Welker’s replacements. Edelman and Amendola have yet to step up and take on a role that comes close to Welker’s production.
To make matters worse, the running game hasn’t been nearly as good as it has in the past. Not only are the Patriots one of the worst teams running the football, but the lack of receiving threat in the backfield has proven to be a problem for Brady. Because the tight end targets had been eliminated most of the season, the backs were seeing more looks their way. And that’s not a good thing – they’ve been far less efficient than the team was with Danny Woodhead just last year.
Injuries and position turnover has been a recipe for disaster for the Patriots on offense this season. It’s forced Tom Brady to play at a Ryan Tannehill-type level metrics-wise. But with Gronk back and healthy and Shane Vereen returning Week 11, two of the three big issues within this pass offense will hopefully be turning around.
Wes Welker won’t be replaced, which is why Brady is no longer considered an elite quarterback option in fantasy football. That, and there's the obvious notion that Brady isn't performing at his normal level of play. But to write Brady off now could be a mistake. He may have had a poor fantasy performance against the Dolphins in Week 8, but there’s plenty of upside with Brady and company as the team heals.
The unfortunate part is that Week 8 is already over, and there isn’t enough time for quarterback fliers. Because of that, Brady’s upward trending situation may be one that we see come to fruition too late in the season, which is why he’s numberFire’s 12th-best quarterback from here on out.
It’s a sad day when Tom Brady is no longer a plug-and-play option. But that’s the reality of a constantly evolving Patriots passing game. At least for Patriot fans, the team is 6-2.