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An Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady Debate: how the Patriots play to Brady’s strengths

Rodgers is a more gifted and well-rounded QB, but it’s impossible to separate Brady and his offensive system.

New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This is a post about Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Before we begin, I’d like to make it clear that I believe Brady to be a top 5 all-time quarterback and would not argue with anyone who considers him to the the best. I want to make this clear because I’m going to be criticizing Brady...well, not exactly criticizing, but adding a lot of context, and I want everyone to keep in mind that regardless of the facts, caveats, etc., that I am about to provide, I believe that Brady is essentially the best at what he does.

Here’s the thing -- in terms of playing quarterback, he’s not better than Aaron Rodgers, at least not anymore. He’s great, he frequently creates more production than Rodgers, but he’s not a better quarterback. In terms of winning and losing I’m not sure that it actually matters very much, but I think it’s important to understand why this is the case in order to better understand why people win, and to understand just how much smarter the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady are than everyone else.

The Packers Aren’t Stupid

It’s actually kind of weird that it’s so hard to copy the Patriots and so hard to beat the Patriots. Beating them generally requires that you be both smart and fearless. One of the reasons the Pats are as efficient as they are is that a lot of teams are scared to give up bombs, because bad highlight reels get coaches fired. However, daring Brady to throw deep is what teams need to do, and Dom Capers and the Packers did just that in their last meeting, a 26-21 Packer victory in 2014.

Brady threw 7 deep balls on the day. The two he completed were back to back to start the 2nd half; a modest 29 yard strike to Gronkowski down the middle followed by a 23-yard trick play to blocking TE Michael Hoomanawanui. Neither “deep” ball was particularly deep and all true Brady bombs were off target on the day. Green Bay played an excellent defensive game, and daring Brady to throw deep by filling the short-to-medium zone with defenders was a big part of that. Roughly since Randy Moss left town, Brady’s deep ball has deserted him. The Packers, at least, know this.

Brady’s Big Weakness, Brady’s Great Strength

I believe that Brady is the greatest short-to-medium passer in the history of the league, and that he is essentially not a threat throwing deep. It’s not that he won’t hit the occasional bomb, because there is a lot of luck involved in completing a bomb, but his bombs are mostly there to keep defenses honest. I think the Patriot front office, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady all know this to be true, and both statistics and front office “tells” bear it out.

This recent post from Football Outsiders compares a quarterback’s efficiency in targeting the slot (via DVOA) vs. targeting outside receivers. In 2016, Aaron Rodgers was 2nd only to Drew Brees in targeting outside receivers, but he was also excellent with the slot stuff, ranking 8th.

Tom Brady is a different story entirely. Throwing to the slot, where he excels year after year, he ranked 4th, behind Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Marcus Mariota. However, out wide he took a nosedive, ranking 26th. You can tell that the Patriots know and understand this based on how they construct an offense. You will sometimes hear the Mike and Mike types of the world ponder just how dangerous Tom Brady would be with a true deep threat. In reality, Tom Brady probably wouldn’t benefit much at all, and the Pats instead equip Brady with his preferred weapons: pass-catching running backs (such as Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk, Dion Lewis, or James White), athletic tight ends (Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Aaron Hernandez), and elite slot receivers (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, soon-to-be Brandin Cooks).

Don’t mistake this as criticism of Brady’s ability to make big plays. He is among the most accurate passers ever, and his ability to hit receivers in stride and on time allows for plenty of big plays and plenty of YAC. The hard thing about discussing Brady is that there is a huge flaw in his game, but it simply doesn’t matter because of how well he does everything else, and how most teams choose to defend him.

Only the Pats

In 2013, the Buffalo Bills had an excellent defense, especially against the pass, where they ranked 2nd overall per DVOA.

However, they struggled mightily against the run, ranking only 19th. The Pats face the Bills twice a year, and know them very well, and the Pats, unlike almost any other team in the NFL, are willing to go to extremes to exploit weaknesses. They first faced the Bills in week 1 and nearly lost the game, as the Bill secondary smothered Brady and company, holding him to a 76.4 passer rating and sacking him 3 times. The Pats threw 52 passes, which was exactly the wrong thing to do against this particular Bills team, but as it was week 1, the scouting report wasn’t out there yet. They played them again in the last week of the season, and with full knowledge of their defensive tendencies, they put on a clinic of power running. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley carried the ball 36 times for 263 yards and 2 TDs, and those carries were not in service of protecting a lead. The Pats ran on a majority of first half plays, and even though Brady struggled, they still blew out the Bills.

In 2014 they did essentially the same thing against the Bengals’ 7th ranked pass defense/28th ranked run defense, giving Ridley and Shane Vereen 36 carries for over 200 yards. The Colts (10th v. pass, 19th v. run) suffered a similar fate. The opposite is also true. In the 2014 playoffs the Pats ran into a stout Baltimore run defense that was only average at best against the pass. They ran the ball just 7 times against 50 passes for Brady (367 yards, 3 TDs, 1 pick). Julian Edelman also completed a 51 yard TD pass in the game).

This is in stark contrast to most teams, including the Packers. It’s not like teams ignore opponent weaknesses, but the Packers focus on executing their plays to perfection, and rarely go extremely run or pass-heavy as a fundamental strategy.

And while Aaron Rodgers is better than anyone at making any throw at any time, Tom Brady is almost always in the enviable position of simply having to make an easy throw against an overmatched defense by virtue of the Pat’s use of strategic tendencies. Brady is a part of this. He may have a great coach dictating strategy at the top, but he is self-aware enough to understand his own limitations and to maximize his strengths.

Rodgers is better, but it doesn’t really matter

If this seems like I am dismissing Brady as a “system quarterback”, that is not my intention. Every quarterback plays within a system of some kind, and Brady is both a creator and practitioner of that system. I think the difference between Brady and Rodgers at this stage of their careers is that Rodgers can play in any system and make any throw, whereas Brady really can’t. If you put Aaron Rodgers on the Pats and let them build a team around his skills, I think they would probably be even better than they are. If you put Brady on the Packers, a team that only recently realized the benefits of a good tight end and receiving back, I’m not sure things go very well.

But Brady isn’t on the Packers, and Rodgers will likely always run an offense that demands his level of execution to remain elite. Putting one above the other is really more of a matter of personal preference than stats or tape. If someone wants to knock Brady for his nearly perfect supporting cast, his superior defenses, his all world coach, or his physical limitations, I think that is perfectly legitimate. Conversely, I think it’s fair game to knock Rodgers (and company) for not outperforming Brady despite the physical advantages Rodgers enjoys.

Brady will always be overrated due to his rings, which is unfortunate. His play alone should be enough to have him somewhere among the all-time greats, and I personally view his success despite his limitations as a huge plus. A lot of players don’t react to diminished skills properly and continue to force things. Brady’s production, if anything, has gotten better of late, and his continued adjustment is nothing short of amazing.

Rodgers is the best currently playing the game, but he’s still a cog, like Brady, and no matter how good you are, the machine you are a part of is going to affect your production. The Packers are not a bad organization by any stretch, but the great equalizer between Brady and Rodgers is the Patriot organization.