“He’s falling away,” said Troy Brown.
The Patriots Hall of Famer turned his tablet toward me and pointed. The replay came as we counted down to the start of our Sunday Postgame Live show on NBC Sports Boston.
Sure enough, he was. Tom Brady was definitely falling away to his left as he released his final throw Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The fourth-and-15 desperation dart against the Steelers sailed high and – after getting tipped – fell harmlessly to the turf. Center David Andrews’ helmet hit the turf too courtesy of Steelers’ defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt … no flag …
This is what @tomecurran was asking Bill Belichick about regarding Brady falling off to the side and not stepping into the final throw. Brady sensed Heyward coming on stunt. Note what Tuitt gets away with on Andrews helmet. pic.twitter.com/I3sn6jxn3q— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) December 17, 2018
T.J. Watt was engaged to Brady’s right and pressing in while Cam Heyward was making progress up the middle but neither Steeler was on top of Brady.
Let’s be honest, Brady could have had a moat around him and that was still going to be a desperation play. But the bailout seemed premature, especially on such a crucial play.
When asked about it on his Monday conference call, Bill Belichick said I should ask Brady about that specific play. Belichick had nothing to offer on whether it impacted Brady’s accuracy or whether it was something he’d seen more often this season.
“I haven’t had a chance to go talk to every single player about every single play that happened in the game,” Belichick said. “I hope you can understand that.”
Many people besides Troy Brown and myself noticed it. ESPN analyst Charles Woodson theorized on Monday that “the hits are catching up” to Brady.
“I felt like the last play he threw, I thought he had a chance to hit Cordarrelle Patterson in the back of the end zone if he just stepped into the pocket,” said Woodson. “But like I said, I think the hits are getting to him, and you see him trying to get the ball get out of his hand to avoid taking those hits.”
I saw Brady in the locker room Monday and asked him about that play and whether he was protecting himself.
“I’ve been getting hit for 25 years,” he said. “I’m not concerned about getting hit.”
What Brady wanted to avoid on that play was a sack. He didn’t want the game to end with the ball still in his hands.
Brady’s withstood plenty of head-on punishment this season without flinching. His toughness, if it even needs to be said, is beyond question.
But self-preservation instincts in the face of the pass-rush are also part of the position. A quarterback can’t hold the ball until the last instant and expect to be able to make a decent throw with someone draped on him.
Brady wasn’t able to get enough on the ball earlier in the fourth quarter because of pressure and that throw wound up in the hands of Steelers corner Joe Haden. Did that impact his instinct to move away quickly before the heat came down?
Between now and the end of his career, there will never be a time when Brady’s decision-making and performance isn’t scrutinized for signs that he is playing like a mere mortal.
As a result, plays like the final one on Sunday or the one before halftime against Miami aren’t seen as singular instances but as part of a “body of evidence.”
Evidence of decline. Evidence the Patriots’ affinity for Jimmy Garoppolo and consternation about having to trade him was well-founded. Evidence that maybe Brady’s aspiration of playing until 45 is not realistic.
And of course, that evidence then leads to a discussion of the future of the NFL’s greatest dynasty, Brady’s role in it, Belichick’s opinion on Brady’s role in it, what’s next, who’s here, who’s gone and what it all means.
For those of us on the outside, the final Patriots play wasn’t just an off-balance, end-of-game, desperation throw to the end zone. It was a play chockful of implications.
For Brady, it was sensing pressure from Watt on his front-side and moving away from it to give his team a chance to tie the game. Simple as that.
The scrutiny won’t stop. The evidence collecting will keep on going between now and the end of the season. We can guess at what it all means, but it’s better to ask Brady himself.
And his answer to this bit of evidence was that it wasn’t evidence of anything. Except trying to make a throw to tie the game.
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