COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots are 5-2 and currently sit alone at the top of the AFC East. Despite those positive signs, this season has been a struggle, and has been marked by the poor play of quarterback Tom Brady, who is showing increasing signs of decline.
The Patriots have somehow cobbled together their strong record despite a litany of injuries to key players and an inconsistent offense.
The team is averaging just 22 points per game, which reflects their lowest average in the past decade. Although any number of things can be pointed to as reasons, it all truly begins and ends with Brady, their long-standing superstar signal caller, who at the age of 36 is finally showing himself to be human.
Now in his 14th season, he has already firmly entrenched himself as the greatest player in franchise history. He has passed for 46,514 yards and 342 touchdowns, while playing in five Super Bowls (three victories) and participating in eight Pro Bowls.
Even though the team is doing well in the standings, it has largely been in spite of Brady, who is on pace for the worst statistical full season of his career.
Through seven games, he has passed for 1,708 yards and eight touchdowns against five interceptions. He is completing just 55.4 percent of his passes-a career worst, and his 75.3 QB rating places him 26th in the NFL among his peers.
Brady has really just had one game this year where he was dominant throughout. That came in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, when he completed 20 of 31 passes for 316 yards and two scores.
By comparison, he has completed just 54.3 percent of his passes with 1,392 yards and a 6/5 touchdown/interception ratio in his other six games.
Brady has certainly had his moments in other games, like his last-second game-winning touchdown throw to beat the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, but he has failed to consistently command games like he has so often in the past.
Brady accepted blame for the team's offensive struggles during a recent interview with the Dennis & Callahan radio show, according to WEEI's Jerry Spar. "I'm working hard to be as consistent as I can be," the quarterback said. "Certainly, things aren't perfect out there, and I've got to do better. When you're 5-2 and you struggle on offense, obviously I'm not doing a good enough job. I'm going to try to get it done. I'm going to try to go out there and play the best I can, work harder than I've worked all season to go out there and try to do that."
Some may point to Brady breaking in an inexperienced group of receivers led by three rookies as a major reason why he is not performing as usual.
While it's true he has mostly played without his top five receivers from last year (tight end Rob Gronkowski played in his first game of the season in Week 7), as NFL.com's Marc Sessler pointed out, Brady's own poor play has been getting generously excused. This has been misdirected somewhat by his visible displays of anger towards his young receivers, who had admittedly had some drops and poorly-run routes, but have overall been very solid.
NESN's Doug Kyed dissected Brady's most recent game against the Jets and determined that only five of his 24 incompletions could be attributed to drops. In addition, a full dozen of his passes were termed as bad throws (including an interception).
MassLive.com's Nick Underhill also wrote about the uncharacteristically high number of bad throws Brady has made this season that can be blamed on nobody but the quarterback.
Brady also has plenty of experience producing without a star cast of receivers. For instance, in 2005, he tossed 26 touchdowns and led the NFL with 4,110 passing yards despite having only two receivers with more than 466 receiving yards. That year, Deion Branch's 998 yards paced a group with a very decided lack of renown.
It would be ludicrous to suggest Brady is washed up and can no longer produce. However, like many athletes who get older, he may no longer be able to do the same things he did so easily when younger. If that's the case, he needs to adjust his game accordingly and play to his strengths and capabilities.
With the team in first place, things could obviously be much worse for Brady and the Patriots. Their ability to win games during the struggles is a testament to their grit and experience. Unfortunately, with each passing week, it's looking more and more like the historically great quarterback just doesn't have the same ability anymore and has begun his inevitable decline.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Soxand New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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