A convincing argument can be made that quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension last season actually worked in the New England Patriots’ favor.
The Patriots did not suffer competitively, winning three of the four games that Brady missed to begin the 2016 regular season. They, and the rest of the league, got to see the quality of backup Jimmy Garoppolo, and Coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels even found a way to get a victory with rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
Brady returned and had virtually no rust to knock off his game, throwing 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in 12-game regular season. His season passer rating of 112.2 was his best since 2007. It all culminated with another Super Bowl triumph, thanks to the Patriots’ miraculous comeback against the Atlanta Falcons.
Things will be different for Brady and the Patriots this season. Belichick will not have to spend the upcoming training camp and preseason getting Garoppolo ready for Game 1 and Brady ready for Game 5. There will be no forced four-game vacation from football for Brady at the outset of the season.
Having the greatest quarterback in the sport’s history available all season will be a good thing for the Patriots, right? Perhaps. No one is saying that Brady should not play every game for which he is available.
But this time around, Brady must endure 16 regular season games instead of 12. He must absorb 16 games worth of hits instead of 12. It will happen in a season in which he will be 40 years old.
It helped, of course, that the Patriots’ offensive line played far better last season than it had in 2015, when Brady and the offense had their issues down the stretch and the season ended with a disappointing loss at Denver in the AFC championship game. But maybe, just maybe, the four fewer games of wear and tear for Brady during the regular season also were a contributing factor last season.
Look at Brady’s chief rival, Peyton Manning. In 2014, a season in which he was 38, Manning had 39 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a 101.5 passer rating. In 2015, at 39, Manning had nine touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and a 67.9 passer rating. He retired after Denver’s defense led the way to his second career Super Bowl win.
The situations are different. Manning, by the end of his career, was playing on borrowed time, having returned from a career-threatening neck injury. Manning’s body finally betrayed him. Brady has been remarkably durable and shows no signs of slowing down.
But Brady will not be able to play forever, as he seems so intent upon trying to do. At some point, he will lose his fastball and begin to show his age. That point very well might be a few years away. But there is simply no way of knowing for certain. It will be interesting indeed to see whether playing a 16-game season at age 40 proves to be significantly more taxing on him than playing a 12-game season at age 39 was.
… AND TEN
As NFL training camps get underway, here are the 10 most interesting quarterback situations:
1. Texans (with Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson) . . . Tony Romo chose retirement and the CBS broadcast booth over Houston’s quarterback job. So the Texans remain a team that is, in some ways, Super Bowl-ready but lacking a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Savage is likely to begin the season as the starter, but Watson is a prized rookie who was at his best in the biggest situations in college at Clemson.
2. Jets (with Josh McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg) . . . A rebuilding project begins amid accusations by some observers that the Jets are tanking the season to position themselves to draft a coveted quarterback prospect next spring. In the meantime, they must decide whether to go with a reasonably competent veteran, McCown, or find out whether Petty or Hackenberg can play even a little bit.
3. Bears (with Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky) . . . What was the plan here? The Bears began the post-Jay Cutler era by handing out a big contract to Glennon in free agency and then trading up in the NFL draft to get Trubisky. Glennon presumably is the starter until Trubisky is deemed ready to play. Either way, one of their big offseason moves at quarterback will turn out to have been unnecessary.
4. Broncos (with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch) . . . Siemian had some promising stretches last season. But Lynch is a former first-round draft choice entering his second NFL season. It seems reasonable to believe Lynch will get his chance at some point this season, even if it is not at the outset.
5. 49ers (with Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard) . . . The long-term answer for the 49ers probably won’t arrive until next offseason, whether that means bringing in Kirk Cousins or drafting a prized rookie. For now, Coach Kyle Shanahan must try to make his offense work with a temporary placeholder of a quarterback.
6. Chiefs (with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes) . . . Smith has been a solid quarterback for the Chiefs. That has not been good enough for them to become a legitimate contender for AFC supremacy. He gets another chance. But Kansas City did not maneuver into position to draft Mahomes to keep him on the bench for too long.
7. Browns (with Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer) . . . Is there an NFL starter in this group? The Browns clearly have upgraded the team that they can put around their quarterback. But at some point, they actually have to take their shot at getting a franchise quarterback in place.
8. Redskins (with Cousins) . . . The Redskins failed to sign Cousins for the long term, then released details publicly of their failed negotiations with him. Has it ever been more clear that a productive passer is entering his final season with a team?
9. Rams (with Jared Goff) . . . Goff enters his second NFL season attempting to demonstrate that he was worthy of being the top overall selection in the 2016 draft. The arrival of Sean McVay, the team’s first-year head coach, could aid Goff’s development. But it also gives the Rams a potential alternative if Goff struggles, given McVay’s connection to Cousins as a former Redskins offensive coordinator.
10. Jaguars (with Blake Bortles) . . . Bortles regressed to 23 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions and a 78.8 passer rating last season after a 35-touchdown, 18-interception 2015 campaign in which he posted an 88.2 passer rating. Some thought that the new regime of Tom Coughlin in the front office and Coach Doug Marrone would move on immediately from Bortles. That didn’t happen. But Bortles cannot have too many more chances.