Tom Brady had one of the great regular seasons in NFL history in 2007, throwing for 50 touchdown passes as the Patriots became the only 16-0 team the league has ever seen. It might seem silly to say anything Brady has done in the years since could possibly rate with that season.
And yet as Brady completed his 2016 season on Sunday, it occurred to me that I’m even more impressed with what Brady is doing this year than I was back in 2007.
Brady is 39 years old, ancient by the standards of an NFL player. He began this season by serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate, something that easily could have rattled him mentally. It would have been completely understandable if Brady had taken a huge step backward this year.
And yet Brady’s season was incredible: He threw 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history. His passer rating of 112.2 was the second-best of his career. And he led the Patriots to an NFL-best record of 14-2.
Brady did all that without anything like the receiving corps he had in 2007, when Randy Moss was the NFL’s best deep threat and Wes Welker was the NFL’s best possession receiver. The Patriots’ receivers — Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola — are fine as far as they go, but they’re mostly pedestrian players who know their role in the Patriots’ offense. Rob Gronkowski is the NFL’s best tight end when he’s healthy, but Gronk only played with Brady in six games, and got hurt in two of them, with the second injury ending his season. Brady in 2016 didn’t have even close to the weapons that Brady in 2007.
When we talk about Brady’s career, we focus so much on his four Super Bowl rings that I think we may actually underrate how great a player he’s been in the regular season. On Sunday, Brady moved ahead of Dan Marino for fourth place in NFL history for regular-season passing yards. He’s also fourth all-time in regular-season passing touchdowns. He’s also the only player ever to win the regular-season MVP award unanimously.
He may win his third regular-season MVP award this year. If he does, he’ll be the oldest MVP in league history. What he has done this season, a season that started with him sitting at home, is nothing short of remarkable.
Here are my other thoughts from Sunday’s action:
Great on-field audio. The best TV moment of Week 17 was the way CBS got the on-field audio of Steelers defensive back Mike Mitchell yelling at the officials after he was flagged for a facemasking penalty. Mitchell felt that he had been the victim, not the perpetrator, of facemasking on the play, and he begged the officials to reconsider: “He grabbed mine! He grabbed mine! Oh, my god please look at it, sir! Please look at it! He grabbed mine!” Mitchell shouted. The NFL and the networks should work together on audio improvements to bring the fans at home more moments like that. Those are the moments that make the NFL the best show on television.
An ugly injury. It was horrible to see Cardinals running back David Johnson’s knee bend awkwardly underneath him in yesterday’s game against the Rams. Johnson was having one of the all-time great running back seasons: He had gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in all 15 games heading into yesterday. It’s a terrible way for a season like that to end, with a player getting carted off the field. I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to start seeing teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention, like the Cardinals, treat Week 17 more like the preseason, and not play their most important players, like Johnson. A serious injury at the end of one season can affect a player into the next season, and for the Cardinals, there was no benefit to having Johnson on the field at all.
Frank Gore did something special. Gore, the Colts’ veteran running back, topped 1,000 yards for the 2016 season — at the age of 33. That’s unheard of in today’s NFL. The only players 33 or older who have gained 1,000 rushing yards in a season previously were John Henry Johnson with Pittsburgh in the 1960s, Franco Harris with Pittsburgh in the 1980s and John Riggins with Washington the 1980s. Nowadays, NFL running backs are usually beaten up so badly that they can’t play at all by age 33. Gore continues not just to play, but to thrive.
The Cleveland Browns are on the clock. The Browns lost to the Steelers in overtime on Sunday, clinching the first overall pick in the process. But I was very impressed with how the Browns played. For all the talk that rebuilding teams could tank at the end of the season to get a high draft pick, the Browns were playing to win, not to clinch the first overall pick. The Steelers had to fight the Browns for 60 minutes, plus overtime, before ultimately getting the win. That’s to the credit of Hue Jackson and his team.
Terrelle Pryor is incredible. My favorite player on that Browns team is Pryor, the former Ohio State quarterback who switched positions to wide receiver and managed to top 1,000 receiving yards this season. That’s a remarkable achievement for a guy who’s still learning a new position. Pryor becomes a free agent this offseason. He could play on my team any time.
Have we seen the last of Sanchez? Mark Sanchez has received a lot of credit in Dallas this year for being a good veteran mentor to Dak Prescott. But the bottom line on Sanchez is that he just isn’t a good quarterback. He didn’t play well for the Eagles last year, looked so bad in the preseason that the Broncos cut him, and yesterday for the Cowboys he looked inept, going just 9-for-17 for 85 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Realistically, I’m not sure he’s even going to make an NFL roster next season, given the way he has played when given the opportunity in his last three NFL stops. Once a promising young player, Sanchez hasn’t amounted to much, and yesterday may have been his last NFL game.
The reining MVP was a huge disappointment. Last season, Cam Newton was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. This season he was a disaster. After throwing 35 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 2015, Newton managed just 19 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in 2016. Newton’s stats also included:
— A career-low 75.8 passer rating.
— A career-low 52.9 percent completion rate.
— A career-low 6.88 yards per pass.
— A career-low 359 rushing yards
— A career-low 3.99 yards per carry.
As we saw Brady play his best football, we saw Newton play his worst.